Saturday, September 14, 2013
The Cinema File #248: "Hell Baby" Review
When I first saw that Hell Baby, the new horror comedy by the writers of Reno 9-1-1 had come up in my queue of new movies on VOD, I was really excited. Apparently I was mistaking it for a completely different movie I'd been waiting to see called Bad Milo, another horror comedy about supernatural birth pains starring fellow State alum Ken Marino. After getting over the initial disappointment, I was curious to see how Thomas Lennon and Richard Ben Garant would fair going back to the more adult subject matter that made them famous, after so many years mired in successful mainstream pablum. After Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Pacifier, and two Night At The Museum Movies, Hell Baby feels like a lot of pent up subversive energy being released, the kind of movie where a priest punching a baby in the face feels like the most natural thing in the world, and while I wanted more, I can't say my sick mind wasn't thoroughly entertained.
Hell Baby follows a newly expecting couple moving into a new house only to find that its possessed by the Devil, who soon goes after their unborn child, turning the mother into a murderous demonic surrogate. It’s basically a hodge podge of 70’s era Devil movie cliches with Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen thrown into a blender with the comic sensibilities of something like A Wet Hot American Summer. WHAS is my go to reference for satirical genre comedy done right, and while it isn’t quite as absurd or memorably hilarious, thankfully Hell Baby follows suit. Its referential without being self-referential, never treating the audience like idiots by winking at the camera or constantly beating them over the head with the fact that something happening might be a direct parody of something else. In short, it’s the polar opposite of the Friedberg Seltzer style, and given how rarely you tend to see it nowadays, it’s extremely refreshing.
A couple of months ago, we got another movie about a large group of comic actors tackling demonic forces with This Is The End, and I found myself in the minority of critics who couldn’t get into it. At the time I cited the self-indulgence of all these famous actors playing themselves and relying on their celebrity to establish character, and I still stand by that, but I wonder if my instinctual aversion to the film was ultimately motivated by something simpler. Unlike many people in my generation, the Apatow crowd just isn’t my ideal troupe for any big crossover comedy. By contrast, with Hell Baby you get the creative minds behind Reno 9-1-1, two thirds of Human Giant, one third of Stella, one half of Garfunkle and Oates, and the increasingly adorable Rob Cordary. It would be hard not to get something great out of all these funny people together in one room, and for the most part the movie doesn’t disappoint.
I could nitpick of course, but with so many terrible excuses for comedy littering the 2013 landscape, many of them with much bigger budgets and wider releases, I would feel almost hypocritical taking Hell Baby's few minor flaws to task when on the whole, its still so much better than a good 80-90% of supposedly funny movies this year. Yeah, it starts a little slow, but at least it eventually gets to telling jokes, which is more than I can say for iSteve. And yes, some of the jokes run a bit too long (uncomfortable Rikki Lindhome nude scene, I'm talking to you!), but nothing is as egregious as Zach Galifinakis' feature length insult to Autism sufferers in The Hangover III. Hell, the aforementioned baby punching priest is still more likable than anyone in Identity Thief. For every joke that doesn't land or overstays its welcome, there are three or four that work immensely well, and for a movie that could have been simply a loosely connected assortment of gags and random silliness, it actually ends up with just a bit more heart than you might expect even amid all the over the top bloody carnage.
If you're a fan of any of the people involved with Hell Baby, its a no brainer, and if not, you really should be, so you should still give it a chance. Its a showcase of some of the best comedic minds working today completely in their element, given the rare opportunity to cut loose and be ridiculous and vulgar completely free of the often creatively stifling studio system. It occasionally feels like they're throwing everything up against the wall to see what sticks, but enough of it does that it can be forgiven its few brief excesses. I could have done without the creepy old naked lady and about half of the non-creepy but overly long naked lady stuff, but overall, I'm glad I took the time to see what Lennon and Garant were willing to put out when not swimming in their vat of fat Ben Stiller cash like Scrooge McDuck. Turns out they still know how to do it right when they really want to.