'Hell Baby' has nothing to say about the horror genre it aimlessly spoofs
Hell Baby Millennium Entertainment
Director: Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
Starring: Rob Corddry, Leslie Bibb, Keegan Michael Key, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Alex Berg
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
I'm not sure it's entirely accurate to label Hell Baby as a horror "spoof." Satire? Absolutely not. It lifts its ideas from well-established horror-movie tropes, but rarely does it find anything to do with them. It simply has nothing to say about horror. Which is a problem when your entire film is built around exploiting the genre.
Maybe Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon were just victims of their own target. Given how many horror-comedies have already been made - covering just about every sub-sub-subgenre horror has to offer - and the fact that horror is already a form that straddles the line between serious and absurd, finding a new angle on it isn't an especially easy task. Whatever the reason, Garant and Lennon - veteran comedy writers and performers taking on feature-film directing duties for the first time - can't seem to find their way into the material. It almost seems like they know of horror movies, but never actually got around to watching any. Otherwise they might have had more reference points to build around, or more horror-movie mechanics and stereotypes to satirize.
Tellingly, the comedy that does work in Hell Baby is largely independent of the genre specifics. The gags that pay off have little (if anything) to do with horror; they're one-off jokes and sight gags that could have been used in any number of contexts. It's clear the filmmakers still know how to establish a good random comedy bit; but it's almost as if operating within an established genre framework hampers their comedic ingenuity.
The film revolves around a likeable couple moving into a new house and getting ready to start a family. Jack (Rob Corddry) and his very pregnant wife Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) have just found a great deal on a home in what turns out to be a terribly dangerous New Orleans neighborhood. They naïvely marvel at the bargain they got - assuming they can quickly fix the place up and flip it for a hefty profit - without realizing that, of course, the house has a terrible and violent history. Perhaps the neighbors' nickname for the place - "House of Blood" - should have been a tip-off.
From the moment they move in, strange things begin happening. A mysterious dog (not unlike the one from The Omen) keeps showing up. Strange figures appear around the house. Household items are innocuously moved by seemingly supernatural forces. And Vanessa's behavior changes almost instantaneously, from gentle expectant mother to slothful lout. She starts smoking and drinking, and encouraging her husband to commit (and cover up) heinous crimes. It becomes clear after not too long that she's carrying the spawn of Satan inside her. (Bummer for Jack.)
After a series of mysterious deaths, the Vatican gets tipped off to a possible disturbance, and a cleric commissions a pair of priests - played by Garant and Lennon themselves - to check things out.
But despite all the different moving parts in the plot - the couple's deteriorating relationship, Vanessa's strange behavior, the local cops nosing around, the insane, naked old woman who keeps showing up uninvited, the priests' investigation, and Vanessa's new-agey sister popping in for a visit - almost none of the material lands. The best thing Hell Baby has going for it - by far - is Keegan Michael Key as F'resnel, a neighbor who makes himself at home whether Jack and Vanessa like it or not. His appearances are a running joke, because they're always structured like a classical horror-movie jump-scare - he's randomly standing outside the window, or behind the door, or in the basement. F'resnel is unreasonably friendly, unreasonable intrusive and passive-aggressively threatening, as he always seems to be around for the things that the lovely young couple would rather keep secret.
F'resnel knows all about the house and its reputation - he assures them there hasn't been a murder here since, like, last week - and there's a hilariously conspicuous (but self-aware) nonchalance about the way he discusses the house's grim history. He serves both as the movie's exposition and as its only truly successful comic creation. But the rest of the movie plods along without any sense of pace or direction, looking for comedic inspiration and finding little.