Editor’s Note: Our review of Hell Baby originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Fest, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens today in limited release.
No genre mash-up is more difficult to get right than the horror-comedy. It’s the balance between the two that’s tricky as very few find the sweet spot of being both funny and scary. Most attempts end up lopsided, and more often than not it’s the horror that gets shafted.
That broken record gets played again in the new film from writer-directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!), but to be fair the focus on laughs is entirely intentional and evident in everything from the cast list to the effects work to the gag-filled script to the intense and time-consuming focus on delicious, lip-smackin’ po’ boys. It’s meant to be a comedy through and through, but unfortunately they treat it like a 15-minute sketch instead of a 90-minute movie. I’m no math wiz, but that 75-minute deficit isn’t going to laugh at itself.
Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) are a new couple with a baby on the way who move into a house in one of New Orleans’s less opulent neighborhoods. They got quite the deal thanks to its unfortunate history of bloody murders, a fact they were unaware of course, but they’re not there long before things take a turn for the terrifying. Or, at least a turn for the gross and repetitive.
The first, and most frequent, scare the couple gets is from the consistently sudden appearances of a black man in their house (if you’re thinking, “I guess it is a horror movie after all,” please stop reading and go find a nice Tea Party-endorsed movie review site to enjoy instead). He introduces himself as Fre’nel (Keegan Michael Key), a “neighbor” who makes his home in their crawlspace, and while he’s constantly upbeat and smiling he’s also a never-ending bearer of bad news. (For the record, Fre’nel could actually be spelled F’resnel, Fre’nelle or Frenal. I have no clue.)
The remaining players are a mix of familiar faces including Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer as incompetent police officers, Riki Lindhome as Vanessa’s clothes-averse sister, Garant and Lennon as priests dispatched from the Vatican to fight the devil and Dave Holmes as a car rental clerk. There’s a good chance Holmes also plays the naked old lady who pops up periodically for showers and blowjobs.
It would be impossible for a cast like this to create something devoid of laughs, but the difference between none and how many are earned here isn’t nearly as wide as it should be. The big winners here are Key and Huebel who pull off some truly funny bits thanks largely to their masterful deliveries. Key in particular stands out, as even when his character’s appearances becomes repetitive he still manages to make good with the funny.
Like the film itself, the others are far more inconsistent with their chuckle responsibilities. Time and again gags run on for too long only to repeat the same process later in the movie. It’s extremely clear that the players here are more comfortable with sketch comedy, where bits only run a few minutes at a time, than they are with feature-length storytelling. What works on episodes of Children’s Hospital or Reno 911! leaves empty space in a feature, and Garant and Lennon’s response of simply stretching out the supposed laughs actually squeezes them dry of giggles. And dry squeezes can be painful.
Laughs (or lack thereof) aside, the movie just feels amateurish in far too many ways. The script could have used another few runs through the rewrite process, the editing could be a lot tighter and the effects department could maybe stand to do a slightly better job on the naked old lady skin that poor Dave Holmes (or whoever) prances around in. No one’s going to mistake it for being real, but we shouldn’t “see” it as a poorly sized rubber suit each time she appears.
Hell Baby will be unfairly lumped in with dreck like the Scary Movie series or the recent Wayans flick, A Haunted House, but its pedigree and handful of legitimate laughs mean it’s actually far and above those seemingly similar films. For its many, many faults the movie never resorts to simply spoofing others in the horror genre and instead aims to be its own beast. Had they taken more time and taken that time more seriously, though, this could have been a far better movie. Better yet, it could have been a good movie.
The Upside: Huebel and Key; some gags work.
The Downside: Poorly made; gags and jokes feel like sketches that land inconsistently; lack of real effort.
On the Side: Garant and Lennon also wrote the scripts for The Pacifier, Herbie Fully Loaded and both Night at the Museum films.