If most horror movies stay faithful to the necessary theatricality of supernatural phenomena, Hell Baby is the rare exception that allows its character to react more believably.
The story of husband who discovers that his pregnant wife may be possessed by an evil spirit lurking in their New Orleans home, the film follows in the footsteps of “hell spawn” standard-bearers like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, but it never hesitates to acknowledge the weirdness of what’s going on, or even that, in the movie version of these characters’ lives, they would have gotten out a long time ago. Bursting with the same sort of idiosyncratic humor that writers/directors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant brought to their cult TV series The State and Reno 911!, Hell Baby offers a welcome alternative to the overwrought seriousness of modern horror movies with its frequently hilarious take on familiar genre tropes.
Rob Corddry (In a World …) plays Jack, a new homeowner whose wife Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) is just weeks away from giving birth to their first child. As they’re getting settled in their New Orleans fixer-upper, Jack quickly discovers why they got such a good deal: Notwithstanding its shaky foundations, the house has a history of mystery and murder. But even after coming to terms with F’resnel (Keegan-Michael Key), the transient who frequently appears out of nowhere to startle Jack, he begins to notice strange occurrences, primarily in Vanessa’s increasingly erratic behavior. Before long, her mood swings veer out of control, forcing Jack to call in a pair of Vatican priests (played by Lennon and Garant) to provide some spiritual guidance, even as local cops Mickey (Rob Huebel) and Ron (Paul Scheer) grow increasingly suspicious of the number of dead bodies that appear around their home.
If you’ve grown tired of watching characters simply stay put or ignore warning signs in their home without acknowledging how weird, scary or dangerous they are, then Hell Baby is the movie for you. From the first “scare” to the last, Jack and the rest of the characters spare no effort commenting on how strange and creepy all of the things occurring around them are. One of the priests’ first lines of dialogue involves pointing out “how super gross” one of their recent exorcisms was, and Jack continues to question why things are happening, admitting there’s not a particularly good reason for them to stay in their obviously haunted house. Suffice it to say the haunting itself is largely supposed to be silly, but there’s something refreshing about a film that’s aware enough of horror conventions to not pretend this is the first time the audience, much less the characters, have seen them employed.
As Jack, Corddry exudes an everyman charm that makes his increasing exasperation believable, and he delivers a performance that offers some real comic gems without making them seem like calculated payoffs. (His eventual admission “I’m so sick of being startled” is sort of the epic punch line to decades of jump scares.) Bibb, meanwhile, has to do more of the heavy lifting as she transforms herself repeatedly into a jumble of personalities, but she manages to do it in a way that at once is unnerving to her husband and yet still essentially true to the character to whom we’re initially introduced. As their would-be tenant, meanwhile, Key steals one scene after another with his creepy, knowing folksiness while offering a sort of bracing honesty that manages to be consistently funnier than if he and the writers had tried to be more deliberately weird with his characterization.
Lennon and Garant have spent the better part of the past decade churning out studio comedies like The Pacifier and the Night at the Museum series, and this practically defines the kind of project that qualifies as “one for me.” Its odd, sketchy digressions – including two extended po’ boy-eating sequences that will have you in stitches – are precisely the kinds of things that studios would never allow, but what’s interesting is that the film never feels overly indulgent. Certainly it’s closer in structure to the shambling, off-the-cuff comedies Judd Apatow made over the past decade, but at just more than 90 minutes, there isn’t a lot of fat on it, and even those compete non sequitur scenes are unique enough to earn their screen time.
At the same time, the climactic scenes don’t quite work in the same efficient way the others do, and as the film is advancing toward its finale, that lackadaisical pacing undermines the comfortably unhurried momentum of what came before. But as a whole, Lennon and Garant’s film feels like a gentle punch in the arm to a genre that, quite frankly, needs to lighten up, and it works more often than it doesn’t. Ultimately neither a comedy with horror elements nor a horror movie with comedic ones, Hell Baby works best as an entertaining hybrid, a fun romp that adds and subtracts from the genres it loves to create something – cinematically speaking -- a little bit unholy.
Hell Baby arrives today in theaters and on VOD.