The most painful stage of enlightenment—or, less pretentiously, overdosing on the red pill—is the moment when that which was lovely in ignorance is stripped down and exposed as a grotesquerie in knowing. Within the veiling fog, a kitten; in the cold and cutting light, a tarantula. The heartbreak of clarity is usually most destructive, at least momentarily, when we look upon our friends and our family and see enemies only, obstacles to our convalescence and growth—obstacles because they are part of the problem. Then again, if you grew up loving only art, then your heartbreak of clarity may be, through the revaluation of aesthetics, your disavowing that which you once loved. Such has been the anguish of my own awakening, my own way of choking on the red pill; still today, I tend to sit in the dark, watching the favorite films of my youth, and asking myself, “What the hell did I see in this junk?”
For the record, I still enjoy most of my childhood films, probably because most of them are actually pretty good. It’s the films of my adolescence that really puzzle me, because they are all so simple and shallow: where once I was absorbed and fascinated truly, today I’m repelled, even chilled, by a uniform emphasis on style and surface. And boy, are they violent. I wasn’t interested in violence when I was a kid, so why, as a teenager, did I become enraptured by blood-soaked orgies, like Sin City and Grindhouse and Saw, all of which lulled me to sleep when I watched them last? Something tells they offered a maladaptive release from my own misery, although I suppose one doesn’t have to be suicidal to enjoy the sight of Jessica Alba strutting around in a leather bikini.
With this revaluation of cinematic violence vibrant on the brain, the release of 3 from Hell couldn’t be any timelier. 3 from Hell is the sequel to The Devil’s Rejects, which, in turn, was the sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses, all of which were written and directed by Rob Zombie. Being only eleven years old when House of 1,000 Corpses was released, I was ineluctably enthralled by its depiction of occult savagery, even if I was still too young to understand any of its several homages to classic horror films. I was a bit more experienced at the age of thirteen, when I told my mom I was going to see Batman Begins before sneaking past an incredibly clueless usher to see The Devil’s Rejects. I’ll never forget the seventy-year-old woman sitting in the front row, filling out a crossword puzzle during the preview reel. She sat through the entire closing credits, too, and then she left the theater, disappearing from my life forever.
If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have told you that I expected to encounter that woman again almost as slightly as I expected Zombie to prepare a third installment in his gory and oddly ticklish series. What would be the point of bringing these characters back from the dead, literally as well as metaphorically, for an American audience that has forgotten how to enjoy this kind of thing? People don’t want to watch a middle-aged woman beg for mercy as a shaggy-haired psychotic shoves the barrel of his pistol in her panties . . . well, actually, a lot of people do, but they are no longer willing to sit in a theater among so many strangers and witness the shattering of their moral boundaries. Nowadays, they’ll feast their eyes on such creepily compelling carnality only in the privacy of their own home, where their off-beat indulgence is concealed from dignified society.
Have you ever noticed that, as our social crudity becomes increasingly obvious, we place an ever-greater premium on the appearance of urbanity and respectability? “Of course I’m not going to the movies and watching 3 from Hell! What kind of shameless pig do you take me for? Now, excuse me, please: I’m going to sneak into the back room to watch that new BDSM video that my daughter told me about.”
3 from Hell has only one authentically provocative scene, a scene in which Baby Firefly, wielding a knife, chases a naked middle-aged woman down the street, the entire slow-motion sequence set to one of Slim Whitman’s prettiest songs. Unfortunately, the only thing I could think about during this scene was how another song of Whitman’s had been used so much more memorably in House of 1,000 Corpses. This is hardly the only example of Zombie repeating himself, presumably in lieu of organic inspiration, but it may be the one time that he steals from House of 1,000 Corpses. Most of the rest of this film is lifted from The Devil’s Rejects: the Firefly family creates gruesome chaos in a cruddy motel, one of the Firefly’s enemies attempts to avenge his brother’s death, a seemingly well-intentioned man sells out the Firefly clan to the aforementioned avenger, and a woman’s face is sliced off her skull. Actually, that last little activity occurred in House of 1,000 Corpses, too, but doesn’t that just reinforce my point? Before The Devil’s Rejects went into production, Zombie mocked filmmakers who say, “Let’s do the same exact thing as the first one, but this time, let’s put a ‘2’ after it!” He seems to have lost his way at some point in the last sixteen years. His failing is not that he surrendered to the same cultural virus that has claimed so many other artists; it’s that he never learned such a virus exists.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t bring those extratextual elements into a film such as this. In his review of the film for Forbes, Luke Y. Thompson, a self-described critic and toy collector, accuses Zombie of cultural appropriation because, well, a Caucasian murder victim wears a sombrero, and Baby Firefly, a character who is obviously suffering from hallucinations and delusions, wears a Native American headdress. Mr. Thompson also takes issue with the fact that the appearance of Otis Firefly was obviously modeled after Charles Manson, who, Thompson wrongly claims, was a white supremacist. Aye-ee-aye-eh . . . listen, there is a time and a place for expatiation upon this kind of theme, but in the context of this film, such pseudointellectual speculation actually proves whatever point the film is making in contempt of humorless milquetoasts, such as Thompson. After all, how pretentious would I be, if I were to complain of the sullying of conspiracy theorists in the opening sequence?
If your mission is to spare any sacred cows, then you’ve lost your battle against Zombie from the moment you buy your ticket to the film. The only reason that a film like this even exists is because people still believe in the taboos—aesthetic, cultural, sexual, and moral—that this film demolishes, and that the genre has been demolishing for fifty years, at least. Were you offended by the nudity, profanity, or violence? Zombie hopes you were: your sensitivity ensures that his next film will still be relevant, as long as it is sexual, profane, and, above all else, gory.
But where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those of us who have attempted to move on from our adolescent years and are wholly unimpressed by Zombie’s imagery? Should we write a commentary on the film’s failure to explain why people become serial killers, why they have been abandoned by their involuntary society, and how they . . . No, the last thing we should do is open our maws and cough up our unsolicited opinion. If we have any kind of strong reaction to the film—meaning, if we have any kind of real reaction to it—then clearly we do not belong in the theater, nor do we belong among the people protesting it, though their protests will be held on the Internet, mostly.
So, where do we belong? We belong with Jonny Lieberman—no relation to Joe—a forgotten film critic who, in the same year that House of 1,000 Corpses was released, reviewed a film titled Once Upon a Time in Mexico. This latter film was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who would go on to direct Sin City—one of the most treasured entertainments of my youth, but a film that, today, I struggle to sit through. In his review of Mexico, Lieberman explains how, as a child, his father refused to watch violent movies with him because . . . well, why don’t we quote Lieberman in full?
“Invariably, my father would refuse, explaining to me that he couldn’t
stand movies with guns in them. I never understood. Now, don’t get me
wrong, my dad was not some pinko-commie-treacherous-liberal-democrat
who wanted to go door-to-door and round up the white man’s weapons. Far
from it. In fact, my father damaged his hearing by firing a rifle at a
bullet casing, which he happened to be holding in his other hand with a
pair of pliers. No, the older I get the more I realize that my dad
hated movies with guns in them because by and large, they are fucking boring.”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself. In my teenage years, I was terribly sheltered, artificially juvenile through a pitiful lack of interaction with the real world. Accordingly, I lost myself in any number of ridiculous fantasies, including violent movies. I have yet to rid myself of all of my adolescent folderol and baggage, but at the very least, I have reached a point of maturity whereat I am not possessed by the juxtaposition of nudity and violence, and I haven’t been for quite some time. The associate with whom I watched 3 from Hell is the same associate with whom, four years ago, I traveled to the same theater to watch The Green Inferno, an equally needlessly bloody work of pornography that may have titillated me when I was seventeen years old, but which failed sadly to resonate with me when I was in my twenties. I can’t even imagine how boring Once Upon a Time in Mexico would be, if I were desperate enough to watch it tonight.
It would probably be even more tedious than 3 from Hell, which is nothing but a lazy substitute for The Devil’s Rejects. Let the record show that Rob Zombie didn’t do the same thing as the last film and put a “2” next to it; instead, he put a “3” next to it.
For those who want to read Luke Y. Thompson’s review, which actually makes a few decent points before he gets into the Social Justice Warrior claptrap, check it out:
. . . but you should really just skip ahead to Jonny Lieberman’s review of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, found here: