Monday, October 28, 2019

Great Horror Performances: Sheri Moon Zombie in 3 FROM HELL

by Patrick Bromley
A great performance from an actor too often dismissed.

Sheri Moon Zombie doesn't get a lot of credit as an actor. She's regularly used as a case study in nepotism, getting parts in movies because her husband, director Rob Zombie, casts her in all of his films. Aside from the fact that Zombie should be allowed to cast whomever he wants, I find most of the criticisms of Sheri Moon Zombie's work to be, in a word, bullshit. Yes, there was a learning curve early on, but by Zombie's remake of Halloween in 2007, she was already delivering an accomplished performance as a woman destroyed by grief and pain. She's even better in 2013's The Lords of Salem, playing a woman slowly unraveling and losing herself to a supernatural force, witchcraft as a metaphor for addiction. Both performances still have rough edges for sure, but so do Rob Zombie's movies. The rough edges are what make both interesting and exciting.
Sheri Moon's best performance to date, though, is in this year's 3 From Hell, Zombie's long-awaited follow-up to 2005's The Devil's Rejects. Reprising her role as Baby Firefly (the character she played in both Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses), Sheri Moon manages to be both the scariest part of the film and its unexpected soul. She's the only returning character to take her role in a new direction, and unquestionably the most entertaining and unpredictable aspect of the entire film. She's so good, in fact, that 3 From Hell winds up being Baby's movie. She has a character arc when no one else does. She's simultaneously horrifying and sympathetic when no one else is. The movie is uneven and pretty deeply flawed, but Sheri Moon Zombie's performance is something special.

Minor spoilers for 3 from Hell to follow.

After a few minutes of documentary-style catch up to fill us in on what happened post-Rejects, we catch up to Baby proper 10 years later. In one of my favorite moments in a movie all year, she is more or less reintroduced into the film via a slow motion prison walk scored by Suzi Quatro's "Wild One." From the reveal forward, it's obvious that this isn't the same Baby Firefly that Sheri Moon has played twice before. Years have passed. She's now covered in tattoos. She has become even more unhinged, as if such a thing was even possible. That's made worse after a long stint in solitary, during which she begins to hallucinate (in one of the movie's more striking images, reminiscent of Zombie's Halloween II) a ballerina with a cat head for which she develops great affection. Baby, already a psychotic, appears to have snapped. It makes her even more unpredictable than she already was, which is really saying something.
The movie never capitalizes on this the way I wish it would. There are moments in which her brother Otis (Bill Moseley) seems to suspect that there's something even more "off" about Baby now -- a scene in which she's asking to drive their van but he won't let her comes to mind -- but it never amounts to a new dynamic between the characters. It kind of leaves Sheri Moon stranded in her own little movie, one I like better than the rest of 3 From Hell specifically because of her performance. First she's in a power struggle with a prison guard (played by Dee Wallace, also terrific). It would be easy to have Baby hate the guard, but Sheri Moon instead imbues her with begrudging respect and even affection. She looks forward to being able to kill her, sure, but she digs just how nasty the lady is.

Baby has always been textbook crazy, her trademark laugh used as a way of mocking her victims and letting us know just how much she enjoys her "work." In 3 From Hell, she's more wild animal, particularly when she's under attack and has to fight back. Baby manages to be the most dangerous of the Three thanks to Sheri Moon's physicality and ferocity -- an attack dog that's been cornered and intends to fuck you up, a warrior queen in full headdress poised and ready to strike. She does all this while still displaying a previously unseen softer side, too. Her later scenes opposite Pancho Moler have a sweetness unlike anything in Zombie's previous films, and Sheri Moon reveals a sadness and humanity to Baby that makes her more interesting than she's ever been.
I've been a fan of Sheri Moon since House of 1,000 Corpses (and, as a fan of love, a fan of her marriage to Rob Zombie for just as long), but her work in 3 From Hell is on a whole other level. She makes the movie for me. Her take on where this character is 10 years after Rejects and her unpredictable approach to every line delivery make the film come alive each moment Baby is on screen, building a better film around her than 3 From Hell is sometimes able to support. I wish she got more respect as an actor -- that what is too often identified as inexperience would be more accurately seen as a rawness many actors aren't able to achieve. Her work in 3 From Hell isn't just "good for Sheri Moon." It's a genuinely great performance. This is my favorite Baby Firefly. This is my favorite Sheri Moon Zombie.

1 comment:

  1. I'm one of those early critics (jerks) who felt she was shoehorned into his films at the detriment of them, rather than seeing what she actually brought to the table. It's like a baseball player with a punchable face who just consistently gets better over the years. Except instead of punchable she's a drop dead stone cold killer.

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