Published on September 20th, 2013 | by Brendan Flaherty
October is almost upon us, the month of all things horrifying: family gatherings (gasp!), harvest (shudder!), pumpkin spice everything (cringe!). Fall is truly a bone-chilling time and it can be difficult to face this season without turning to horror films as an escape. Just when the transformed foliage reminds us of the cycle of birth and death and the inevitability of our own demise, driving us to contemplate thoughts of mass carnage, Jason and Chucky and Pinhead and all the rest become our saving grace. We need characters to vilify, to live vicariously through. It’s terrifyingly empowering. It’s also completely ridiculous.
It’s really a shame that the horror/comedy genre doesn’t have nearly as many classics as either of it’s co-dependent parents: Cabin in the Woods and Army of Darkness notwithstanding, the constant barrage of horror parody dreck is enough to make anyone go all Michael Myers (OK, So I Married An Axe Murderer was pretty great, too). Despite relatively sophomoric gags, Hell Baby may soon be counted among the best of the gory-goofy, and that can be simply attributed to its terrific cast.
It can be hard to hope for horror to be accurately lambasted in a flick that bills itself as coming from “The guys who brought you Reno 911!” (Namely, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon), but the true stars of Hell Baby are entirely different guys: Rob Corddry (the guy who brought you Children’s Hospital) and Keegan Michael Key (the Key who brought you the Key part of Key & Peele). Together with Leslie Bibb, Michael Ian Black, Dave Holmes, Paul Scheer, and the writing/directing duo of Garant and Lennon, this particular slice of multi-genre layer cake is full of delicious performances.
Hell Baby follows a pretty straightforward demonic possession plot somewhere at the nexus of The Exorcism and Rosemary’s Baby. Corddry and Bibb play an expectant couple on the forefront of the gentrification of a poor neighbourhood of New Orleans, a city that has seen an awful lot of property condemnation and foreclosure in the last eight years, moving into the forebodingly named ‘Maison de Sangue.’ A setting that starts out channeling haunted-mansion classics like The Amityville Horror or The Shining (replete with its own version of the latter’s Scatman Crothers with Key’s nosy neighbour character F’resnel), quickly detours into the accidental-murder clichés of I Know What You Did Last Summer and takes a left somewhere past The Omen. It’s a lot like Scary Movie, but with better jokes. It’s also a lot more sophisticated than that kicked-around franchise because all of the gags actually follow a certain logic; for a movie that probably had a lot of improvisation from its actors, there are no throwaway lines.
Interestingly enough, the highlights of Hell Baby come when the jokes have absolutely nothing to do with horror movies: F’resnel’s ‘pizza salad,’ Scheer’s ill-conceived attempts to give condescending nicknames, the montages of people eating Po’ Boy sandwiches, and a typically understated cameo from comedian Kumail Nanjiani. It’s a pretty obvious trick for Garant and Lennon to pull, one that they used for years on Reno: start as an obvious genre parody and use the genre’s tropes as a setting for disparate sketches. It worked in Reno 911! and it works pretty well in Hell Baby. The scary thing is, it’ll likely work again.