2.5 / 5 stars
As foolish and off-the-mark as the horror-comedy Hell Baby gets, you can at least say this for its creators: They’re smart about how to be dumb. No one will ever accuse Reno 911! leads Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon of high-brow humor, but their demon-possession/haunted house spoof is best when it’s just flat-out stupid. It screams — sometimes literally — “midnight movie” which is the role it played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and the slot in which it may find an audience in the coming months. The late hour helps. Getting stoned at the late hour should really help. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Garant and Lennon’s effort (they also created 2007’s Balls of Fury) tends to stumble along, but promise abounds thanks to the experienced comedic players. Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb play married academics who move in to a horrific New Orleans home while awaiting the birth of twins. What they don’t know is that Bibb’s Vanessa is carrying the demon seed, a kindly young gentleman (Keegan Michael Key) is living in the couple’s crawl space, and a pair of perfectly deadpan Roman priests (Garant and Lennon, with the film’s best performances) is on their way to the Crescent City to set stuff straight.
Everyone’s ready and able, infusing even the deadest scenes with an attitude that stokes a small laugh, at least. Corddry, who can play the trusted pal or twisted psycho with equal aplomb, holds down the reality fort while the rest of the cast tries to create chaos around him, working to overcome the film’s all-too-persistent unevenness. A low-budget comedy doesn’t need the editing chops of an epic drama, but a fine sense of timing is required. The actors have it. The movie doesn’t.
When Hell Baby grabs a potentially good joke, Garant and Lennon decide to stretch the laugh and then stretch it some more. It’s a consistent gamble, and the more offbeat the gag, the more it works. But when a particular bit comes up lame, the extended riff feels like another lost routine in the Scary Movie series.
After Vanessa eviscerates her shrink (fun to see the oft-smug Michael Ian Black get his early), two incompetent cops (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer, yes, you’ve seen them) and our chain-smoking priests set the silliness into motion. Garant and Lennon hit the mark when arguing with a rental car agent about their reservation and a belch-filled bout of po’ boy overeating pays homage to Mel Brooks’ classic campfire sequence in Blazing Saddles. The laughs can hit. But they miss plenty, too.
The final sequence, a misguided mishmash of The Exorcist and a dozen cheap 1970s devil-baby movies is not sure how to get started and simply doesn’t know when to stop. Any sign of momentum comes to a lazy halt, as if the cast and crew had their heart set on a bloodied devil baby showdown before the big finish, entertainment be damned. By far, it’s the clumsiest that Hell Baby gets, a real letdown after a series of scenes that indicate this shaky blood-soaked comedy was just about to get going. Oh well, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.