“HELL BABY” (Movie Review)News Shawn Macomber
What if a dilapidated investment property purchased in a quote-unquote “neighborhood on the upswing” turned out to be not only financially cursed, but also, you know, like, actually cursed?
Such is the premise of HELL BABY, the tale of Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) and Jack (Rob Corrdry), a ripe-for-comeuppance married couple who get more than they bargain for during an ill-fated foray into yuppie house flipping.
“Here’s to low-balling the seller and still getting $50,000 off after the home inspection,” Vanessa says, giving her swollen belly heavy with child a satisfied stroke.
“We could paint this place today, sell it tomorrow, and still make money,” Jack marvels in reply.
Cut fist-bump, pan up to hissing demonic presence peering down from an upstairs window, and, less than two minutes in, it’s game on.
And, really, why waste time? The title hands viewers a map detailing precisely where the film is headed…though whether the titular monster—think a red ghoulie plus horns—is truly from Hell or simply the result of a demonically possessed Vanessa chasing raw meat with goblets of paint thinner in the third trimester remains an open question.
Despite the hokey trailer vibe and some overt, played-for-laughs ROSEMARY’S BABY allusions—mysterious Rottweiler; condescending male shrink; Satan spawn—HELL BABY is (mercifully!) not the umpteenth entry in that once proud, now sadly degenerated modern day sub-subgenre cesspool of bad puns and bathroom humor known as “spoof.” (Forget ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN; the current horror parody state of affairs is enough to make one wistful for the halcyon days of…SATURDAY THE 14TH.)
Yet if the working definition of “horror-comedy” is a film that tweaks and amps otherworldly or extreme elements until the narrative teeters along the surprisingly thin borderline separating camp and terror—servicing both while abandoning neither—then HELL BABY doesn’t quite fall beneath that rubric, either.
Rather, what we have here is absurdist, sketch-y farce performed within a genre shell—perhaps not altogether surprising considering Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, former stars of the Comedy Central series RENO 911!, not only wrote and directed, but also star as crack (cracked?) Vatican exorcists sent to investigate the haunting.
Subject matter aside, it is not a huge departure tonally, especially once Rob Huebel (UP ALL NIGHT, THE OFFICE) and Paul Scheer (PIRANHA 3DD, BURNING LOVE) show up as blustery, clueless cops. (Scheer discussed HELL BABY and his love of horror with FANGO back in March HERE).
Indeed, if an alternate reality existed wherein the creative teams behind RENO 911! and, say, PORTLANDIA collaborated on a wacked out, one-off Halloween special, it might very well resemble HELL BABY.
Which is to say, lines like “I’m going to wash this old lady vagina off me” and “The devil is real…and he is a dick” notwithstanding, there is a degree of sly slacker chic smarts at work amidst the slapstick goofiness. Bourgeoisie pretense is relentlessly skewered—itself a mark of bourgeoisie pretense, perhaps, but it is nevertheless amusing to hear the bar-setting demonic bon mots of Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell”; “The sow is mine”) re-imagined by the entity inhabiting Vanessa (You should have your NPR tote bag taken away”) or to see her DWELL magazine-citing husband fret over community ordinances while burying a vanquished succubus in the backyard.
Are there moments in HELL BABY when pacing meanders or a not-quite-fully-actualized gag drags on a bit too long? Sure. Would the movie benefit from a larger helping of the kinetic, gory excess on display during the excellent, over the top exorcism/hell baby birth climax? Absolutely. Still, a few dead zones are probably to be expected in any cross-discipline experiment and even in those instances the film is (mostly) buoyed by inspired casting that weaves a parade of eminently likeable, effortlessly funny actors in and out of the proceedings. This includes all the aforementioned as well as the great Michael Ian Black, comedian Kumail Nanjiani (PORTLANDIA, MICHAEL & MICHAEL HAVE ISSUES), Keegan Michael Key (KEY AND PEELE), and Riki Lindhome (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, FUN SIZE), whose deft, pert turn as Vanessa’s Wiccan sister Marjorie features an extended bathroom nude scene so ridiculously extravagant it would have plastered an impish smile on the face of circa BIG BIRD CAGE Roger Corman.
HELL BABY is sure to appeal to virtually all RENO 911! fans. The reaction among horror aficionados will likely be more mixed, depending on individual appetites for the manner of gore-festooned romp n’ frolic and genre ribbing described above.
To its credit, the film exudes what seems to be a genuine affection for horror cinema. It will be interesting to see whether this is a drive-by blast or if Lennon and Garant plan to stick around and expand the palette employed here.
HELL CHILD, anyone?
HELL BABY is available on VOD now. Limited theatrical run begins September 6.