SUNDANCE ’13: Hell Baby

A low-budget horror-comedy with a strong cast and a particularly silly tone, this feature directed by Reno 911! vets Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant has a married couple moving into a haunted house just as the wife is about to have a baby. They move into the run down New Orleans estate looking for a cheap family home that they can sell for a profit, but they are immediately notified that the house is known by locals as “The House of Blood”. Quickly, some weird stuff starts to happen: objects move around uncontrollably, the wife is starting to act funky (even for a pregnant chick), and there are occasional appearances by the figure of a naked old lady. Despite his wife’s protests, the husband begins to wonder whether the house is actually haunted by specters, and takes various measures to rid the house of evil spirits. Meanwhile, two Vatican priests who specialize in this sort of thing (as well as chain-smoking) travel to the Big Easy to investigate and, perhaps, kick some unholy ass.

While Garant and Lennon have cut their teeth writing big-budget fare like the Night at the Museum movies, as well as Reno 911!: Miami, but this would seem to have the smallest scale of the films they’ve been involved in. As they revealed in the post-film Q&A, most of the film was shot in an 8-block radius in New Orleans, and it shows. Most of the film takes place in the haunted house, and there are points where you realize that the couple hasn’t left the house in a few scenes. These are intercut with a parallel plotline involving the Vatican priests, and it is bizarre (in terms of narrative) to see whole chunks of the movie devoted to these side characters. But, thankfully, Garant and Lennon’s comic instincts are such that the film never stops being funny, so you never get the chance to get bored at the repetitive production design or general low-scale of the film. Here, they embrace the horror genre with a very adept satirical sense, hilariously going after tropes and conventions of the whole “haunted house” schtick that you may not have even noticed before. The necessities of the plot, such as the husband refusing to believe the house is haunted and the length of the priests’ search for the demonic entity, are rendered hilarious by the absurdist tone of the film. One long diversion involving a chow-down on some po-boys is totally irrelevant to the plot, but may be the funniest scene in the entire film, and it shot and edited in such a way that it is undeniable that, as directors, Lennon and Garant can indeed inject their anarchic humor into a film’s aesthetic. The third-act hijinks are decidedly low-fi to the film’s favor, using puppetry and slapstick where CGI and reaction shots might’ve been the more obvious route. The last scene (which, they admitted, was entirely improvised) is a little too slight to send you out on a high note, but the movie is filled with enough belly laughs, funny cameos, and satirical jabs to make the film, as a whole, a really successful, consistently funny comedy.

Another reason for the success of the film is the cast that Lennon and Garant pulled together from their near-limitless list of comedy players that they’re friends with. Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb play the main couple, and they’re both more than capable in their leading roles. Corddry strikes a hilarious rhythm with his lackadaisical, befuddled modern man, and Bibb shows a surprising sense of physical comedy as the increasingly-possessed wife. Keegan-Michael Key plays “Frinelle” (I am butchering the spelling), a squatter who lives in the crawlspace under the haunted house, and although his character is far too over-the-top to have any relevance to the plot, even as the third lead, Key’s energy and comic timing make his role in the film invaluable. Riki Lindhome shows up in the second half as Bibb’s free-spirit sister, and she makes an impression (both with and without her clothes) in her limited screen time. Perhaps funniest of all is Garant and Lennon, themselves, as the thick-accented, take-no-shit priests. Their characters don’t encounter the main couple until the climax, but they are so funny as these unique, absurd characters that almost every scene with them is a gem. Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel are pretty awesome as a pair of moronic local cops, and there are welcome cameos from Michael Ian Black, Dave Holmes, and, most hilariously, Kumail Nanjiani. While not quite as star-studded as the Reno 911! movie or Balls of Fury (no cameos by The Rock or Christopher Walken here), it is an above-average array of comedy stars, and, unlike the even more stacked Wanderlust, they are all used optimally and with a consistent energy and tone.

Recommended to fans of horror-comedies with a satirical edge, such as Shaun of the Dead and Scary Movie. While the film is too slight and ramshackle to become a classic of the genre, it is a very strong, consistently entertaining first feature from the team of Lennon/Garant, and I am definitely intrigued to see what they do next, especially if it’s the prequel that they were discussing involving Scheer and Huebel’s characters.

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