Sundance 2013: HELL BABY Review

     January 24, 2013

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If writer-directors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant had put more effort into their new film Hell Baby, they could have had one of the best parodies of recent horror movies.  The film has some huge laughs as well as some insight into the genre’s weaknesses, but Lennon and Garant’s sketch comedy roots wreck the picture in the worst way.  They’re content to let their scenes run on way too long, they have no idea how to tie their scenes together, and the result feels like we’re in the middle of something that’s being workshopped rather than a finished feature.  Despite a memorable performance from Keegan Michael Key, Hell Baby feels like a gigantic waste of potential that keeps us interested because we’re waiting for the next great joke.

Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) have just moved into a crappy new house in a bad neighborhood in New Orleans, but they’re upbeat about their new life and the twins they have on the way.  The house quickly beings revealing its paranormal activity (without crappy found footage) as well as other quirks like their neighbor (Key) who keeps randomly showing up in their apartment.  Their problems eventually pop up on the Vatican’s radar and two hard-edged priests (Lennon and Garant) are dispatched to Louisiana handle the problem, although after they arrive they makes sure to gorge themselves on po’ boys with a couple of local cops (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer).

Hell Baby kicks off with a ton of potential.  Lennon and Garant don’t want to create a spoof, but they clearly lay out the targets they want to hit: yuppie couple in a haunted house, decomposing corpse wandering the premises, and exorcisms.  Setting up the couple in an urban neighbor is a clever way to lampoon how haunted house movies always happen to white, suburban couples who would also probably be just as terrified of black people (“You’re going to have to give back your NPR tote bag,” Vanessa tells Jack at one point).  The preachers also seem like a rich vein of comedy, especially in their opening scene where they talk about an exorcism that went horribly wrong due to an umbrella.

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Unfortunately, Lennon and Garant quickly squander their premise.  Unlike Reno 911!, which can handle a loose connection of sketches since its always a matter of different crimes, Hell Baby ostensibly has a plot.  Whenever the film takes a chance on running an extended scene where the actors try to draw out the comedy for as long as possible, the scene usually runs out of steam.  The film starts to feel like its drowning and struggling to come up for air with one more good joke.

For a cast filled with great comic actors, the only one who is consistently terrific is Key.  I’ve heard his TV show Key & Peele is great, and I feel like an even bigger idiot for not watching it after seeing him in Hell Baby.  His upbeat performance goes well with how he constantly delivers disturbing news to Jack and Vanessa (he happily tells them that no one has been murdered there in a few months), and casually mentions how he lives in their crawlspace.  The rest of the cast is solid, but everyone is at the mercy of Lennon and Garant’s refusal to end the scenes.

I’m not exactly sure what was left on the cutting room floor for Hell Baby, but it could use some company.  The amount of quality material in the film would make for a really good hour-long TV show, but their 90 minute movie feels like a slog because the writer-directors don’t know to build on what they have or quit when they’re ahead.

Rating: C-

Click here for all our Sundance 2013 coverage.  Click on the corresponding links for my previous reviews:

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