3 From Hell Review: Third Time's the Harm for a Previously Compelling Franchise

Before his debut film ever hit theaters, Rob Zombie was infamous in the horror community, as his long-delayed House of 1000 Corpses was reportedly so intense and graphic that he couldn't find a distributor who was willing to release it. When it finally debuted in 2003, fans were given a blend of Zombie's signature style that we had seen in his music videos, as well as the film serving as an homage to various horror influences, resulting in a moderately successful outing. The Devil's Rejects, on the other hand, cut the fat of his first feature to deliver a mean, streamlined road trip of terror. Nearly 15 years later, Zombie has delivered 3 From Hell, which ends up delivering audiences a redundant revival of his greatest hits while failing to push the envelope as much as he did earlier in his career.

Having survived their seemingly fatal shootout at the end of The Devil's Rejects, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) find themselves in jail, facing various charges for the horrible crimes they have committed. As you can imagine, they're not too keen on dying in prison, and neither is the Firefly family's half-brother, the "Midnight Wolfman" (Richard Brake), as the sadistic characters all hatch a plan to take their chaos and carnage back on the road.

Devout fans of this franchise might be delighted to see the characters back on the big screen in any capacity, as the first two films delivered some of the most undeniably memorable villains of the '00s. If you're hoping to get their signature sadism, macabre wisecracks, and inventive insults, Zombie and the rest of the crew make good on those hopes. If you're hoping that, in the 15 years since we last saw these characters that we would get to see something fresh brought to the table that might be as inventive as the evolution from the first film to the second, you'll be sorely disappointed.

The first film in the franchise was essentially an homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as it focused on a group of weary travelers who fell victim to a demented and disturbed family. The tonal and narrative influences were evident, resulting in a conflicting experience, as it was engaging but felt liked a watered-down grindhouse film from the '70s. Devil's Rejects, however, took the elements that worked best, largely the dynamic between Spaulding, Otis, and Baby, and unleashed them in a new scenario, making for an endlessly watchable experience. Not only does 3 From Hell merely attempt to replicate the violence and humor of its predecessor, but the plot structure is also nearly identical. Both films feature our protagonists' killing spree possibly coming to an end, an extended sequence of victims being tortured in a short-term safe house, the main characters to finding a potential permanent sanctuary, leading to potential saviors having their own motivations that could cause the killers' demise. It's almost hard to believe that, after all the time that has passed, we are given a new film that is said to be a sequel that feels more like a reboot.

One of the ways in which 3 From Hell falls short of its predecessors is that, based on the narrative, Spaulding, Otis, and Baby don't spend nearly as much time together in the film, denying us that compelling dynamic. This narrative opportunity does allow Brake to deliver us the Midnight Wolfman, which is the film's highlight. This addition to the team feels authentic and exciting, likely due to Brake knowing he had to pull out all the stops to deliver a character that could rival Baby or Otis, a task which he manages to pull off. Sadly, his addition isn't entirely a success, as Midnight Wolfman largely feels like Otis 2, occupying the same demented headspace as the character we've already seen in two films.

Despite the film largely delivering audiences exactly what we expected to see from these characters, there is an attempt being made to turn Baby into a more complex character, which never really works. Moon Zombie's performance as the completely unhinged Baby in the first two films was what made her so frightening, which we catch multiple glimpses of, though the narrative journey tries to humanize her, feeling more like it was an afterthought to give the actress more to do than Baby having actually earned a character arc. Instead of planting the seeds of this evolution early on, those bits of humanity don't appear until later in the second act, with her arc never coming to a fulfilling place.

What makes the experience especially frustrating is that it feels more like Zombie is playing towards what his fans want to see than exploring his own creative instincts. After Devil's Rejects, the filmmaker delivered audiences two Halloween films, which were relative financial successes but failed to resonate with either the franchise's fans or his own audience. In 2013, Zombie delivered audiences his strongest horror accomplishment with The Lords of Salem, an homage to genre-bending filmmakers like Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick, and Dario Argento. The ambitious nature of the film once again failed to connect with his passionate fans or general audiences, resulting in a return to the abysmal grindhouse well of 31. Sadly, 3 From Hell feels more like an attempt to win back whatever fans he might have lost over the years, hoping that the mere appearance of once-beloved characters could win him some adoration.

If you've been longing to spend more time with Spaulding, Otis, and Baby, 3 From Hell might satiate that desire, or it might possibly remind you that it's best to end on a high note than attempt to revive a magical alchemy, with this outing feeling far more like a home video release of The Devil's Rejects 2.5 that featured the deleted scenes from that film more than a story worth devoting two hours of your time to.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

3 From Hell lands in theaters for a three-night event on September 16th, 17th, and 18th.