Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant live double lives. Originally members of The State, the two have gone on to write some of the worst and most successful big budget family comedies of the last few decades. The Night at the Museum movies, The Pacifier, Herbie Fully Loaded - all of these come from these two men. But by night they continue making smartly stupid comedy, like the great Reno 911! Add Hell Baby to that list of things Night at the Museum 2 allowed them to make, and for which we should be happy.
Hell Baby is a horror comedy, although it errs largely on the side of comedy. It’s loose and silly and often hilariously funny; the jokes that hit hard make up for the ones that don’t quite connect. It could be argued that Hell Baby is nothing more than a sketch dragged out to feature length, but I’d say that’s unfair. It’s probably three or four sketches dragged out to feature length, and it totally works.
Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb are a pregnant couple who move into an enormous, dilapidated house in a bad New Orleans neighborhood. They got it for a steal, but not just because the surroundings are bad. They got it for a steal because it’s colloquially known as the House of Blood, a place where murders keep happening. Something’s very wrong with the house, and soon something is very wrong with Bibb, who gets possessed by an entity that is looking to birth a titular Hell Baby. Meanwhile the Vatican has dispatched its two toughest, most smokingest, two-fistedest exorcists (Lennon and Garant, using ridiculous accents) to take care of the problem.
There are a ton of other great comedic actors in the film, ranging from Paul Scheer to Rob Heubel to Michael Ian Black to Kumail Nanjiani, but one actor walks into Hell Baby, picks it up and walks directly out of the theater with it. Keegan Michael Key, of the sublime Key and Peele, plays the omnipresent next door neighbor, and he is simply the best thing in the movie (and I say that acknowledging Hell Baby has a lengthy full frontal nude scene featuring Riki Lindholme). Key is absolutely incredible, his every moment in the movie eliciting enormous laughs. Even when he’s taking part in a running gag that ends up being a little shaky he’s legendary. I’m not sure why this guy isn’t one of the biggest comedy stars in the universe, but we still have time to correct this oversight, and Hell Baby will help.
Hell Baby sags a bit in the middle, and not every comic conceit works, but writers/directors Lennon and Garant throw so much at the wall that you mostly only notice what sticks. They’ve wisely avoided making a “Not Another Haunted House Movie” movie, and while there are nods and winks to classic horror tropes, Hell Baby could stand as a movie with the comedy removed (more or less. The journey of the exorcists is so absurd you’d really have to change that up). I don’t know that it would be a good movie without the jokes, but it would certainly be a movie.
Hell Baby goes all the way, ranging from the aforementioned lengthy nude scene to a chain-reaction barf sequence to someone nailed to a wall with their guts hanging out to a scene where characters consume ‘pizza salad.’ I like the way Lennon, Garant and their cast just jump in, committing to dumb ideas and making them work.
A caveat, I guess, right here at the end: this is a movie almost made for me. It’s aggressively silly, not afraid to be fairly lowbrow and gives good comedic actors a little bit of room to do their thing. Another movie might not give Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer’s bumbling cops so many scenes, but watching those two work is a joy. Hell Baby is a movie for people who roll their eyes at the big budget Lennon/Garant scripted films, a movie for people who like something actually alt in their alt comedy.