It makes sense that Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant would want to create a film like Hell Baby. After all, their work in mainstream Hollywood — on films like Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Pacifier, and the Night at the Museum franchise — betrays their origins as part of the subversive MTV sketch comedy troupe The State. It also flies directly in the face of follow-up projects such as Viva Variety and Reno 911! So with enough F-you money in hand to more or less do what they want, a small little indie satire riffing on religion and horror films ala The Last Exorcism seems right up their alley. The good news is that Hell Baby is brash, irreverent, and consistently very clever. The bad news is that it often overstays its welcome and frequently falls into editorial incoherence.
Here’s a perfect example of the latter. Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) are an expectant couple who buy a dilapidated manor in a rough section of New Orleans. Within moments of them moving in, without explanation or backstory, our pregnant lead is scouring her fingers until they bleed and licking the blood from her wounds. In the next scene, she’s back to normal. One moment, a crawlspace stowaway (Keegan-Michael Key) is explaining the house’s notorious past and a recent string of murders, the next, he’s moved in like a roommate from Three’s Company. Perhaps the worst example of this nonsensical narrative approach is a haggard old woman who constantly shows up, completely naked, to scare Jack while he is doing mundane things. Turns out she’s not a demon or a ghoul, just a crazy old coot from down the street whose lack of clothing is never mentioned by anyone.
Maybe that’s the joke here. Maybe Hell Baby is setting us up for a bifurcated, back and forth style of scare-silliness. One moment, we meet a pair of priests (writers/directors Lennon and Garant) training hard as part of the Vatican’s devil-fighting brigade. The next, they are standing around, chain-smoking cigarettes and acting like rejects from a slice of ’60s Italian cinema. That’s it. They are supposed to be investigating Vanessa and Jack, but actually spend most of their time hanging out with a pair of cops (Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel) who love their po’ boy sandwiches. In the end, a string of unusual events leads everyone to the broken down house and a confrontation with the spawn of Satan himself. Until that time, however, Hell Baby is a hit or miss affair where great set-ups await potent payoffs which, unfortunately, never arrive.
This is a movie that feels disjointed and uneven, like it was edited by a blind man carrying a rusty razor blade. It jumps around, leaving interesting elements to sit and stew while co-star Riki Lindhome (as Vanessa’s New Age-obsessed sister) stands around buck naked rubbing oil on herself. Keegan-Michael Key is also a problem, though a very funny one most of the time. His appearances are random, meant to throw the viewer and the players on screen for a loop, usually at the same time. But his presence is also never really justified beyond having him show up to crack wise when something sinister is afoot. Unlike your typical spoofs which see themselves lifting directly from known quantities, Hell Baby misses chances to lampoon classics such as The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby for its own warped approaches.
Still, the main motivation of a comedy is to make people laugh, and Hell Baby does that, albeit it sparingly. In the end, when the entire group is taking on what appears to be a child’s toy painted bright red and festooned with horns, the level of delirium is addictive. Getting there, however, is a challenge which may or may not be worth your time.