Movie Review: "Hell Baby"
Rating: R (graphic nudity, sexual content, bloody violence, language, and some drug use)
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2013
Directed by: Robert Ben Garant/Thomas Lennon
Stars: 2 out of 5
The laugh factories that created "Reno 911!" and "The State" tried their hand at horror spoofing with "Hell Baby," and while they offered up a unique story and some talented acting, the movie wasn't as funny as either of the TV shows they've used to prove their metal. The plot meandered, and the acts got stale. The comedic devices in use didn't have the stamina to last ninety-eight minutes, although they would have been hilarious if it were only thirty minutes to an hour long.
The story centers on soon-to-be parents Jack (Rob Coddry, "Children's Hospital") and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb, "Zookeeper") as they move to the lower Garden district in New Orleans. The area is still battered and brimming with crime, but the rich, white couple barely notices their black neighbors as they select the house of their dreams. Some comedy duos use these opportunities to make statements about race or social separations. That doesn't quite materialize in "Hell Baby," although the point is familiar enough to be made on its own.
Jack and Vanessa are stereotypically oblivious, rich white folk, and not surprisingly they don't realize they're about to birth the spawn of Satan. They don't realize their friends and neighbors are stereotypes either. Unfortunately, the jokes that are funny in the first part of the movie have lost their flavor near the end, although each encounter on its own is fairly amusing.
Horror spoof is a difficult genre to master. The initial movies in the "Scream" franchise did it well enough, as did the 1981 blockbuster "Student Bodies." It's clear that Garant and Lennon were going for an over-the-top appeal that tapped into the same market. Unfortunately, they eclipsed both movies' funny-bone facets and headed into the territory reserved, respectfully, for Mr. Mel Brooks.
Unfortunately, only one person really does Mel Brooks right, and if he's not involved in the production, things can take a turn for the worse. Garant and Lennon didn't quite meet the target they were shooting for, but they still turned up the laughs. The outstanding actors they got for their cast helped a lot.
Coddry has a long-standing relationship with the duo through his work on "Reno 911!" He can be the straight man in the craziest circumstances, and that is certainly true for his role as Jack. No one could look more serious reacting to such a ridiculous set of circumstances, but Coddry has something else going for him. He looks like a happy, expectant dad with his wide goofy grin and the physique that clearly says he's given up finding new women.
Then there's Vanessa, who is—as is true of most movie wives—way too hot for her husband. Their pairing is almost as unbelievable as the plot. At least, for once, audiences get a new view of Bibb. They're spared seeing her fill the role of an evil ex-girlfriend yet again. The mother of Satan reborn isn't much better, however. She's a stellar actor and can pull off these roles with ease, but it's a shame that with her talents, she's been typecast, especially so negatively.
The movie boasts an impressive cast and delights the audience with cameos from some friendly, familiar faces. Many of the actors involved have ties to previous projects from Garant and Lennon. This is unfortunate in a way because, again, that trend has led to typecasting. You won't see Michael Ian Black in a wide range of projects, for instance. On the other hand, "Hell Baby" sees a quick appearance by rocker-director, Rob Zombie. They aren't all worn-out faces.
They aren't all worn-out jokes either. While critics have been especially hard on "Hell Baby," half of that may come from the stalled punch lines that apply to serious topics like race and wealth. So often, critics judge a movie on what it could have been instead of what it is, and in the past, the comedy and horror genres both have made a farce of prejudice. The potential was within the movie's grasp, but whether they were trying to stay focused or be deliberately frustrating, the writing and directing pair decided to go easy on satire and stick with lighthearted spoofing.
There's nothing wrong with that on its own. Jim Carrey, for instance, has been wildly popular with his effective big-screen slapstick routines. Unfortunately, Garant and Lennon both hail from TV. It's a similar audience but different enough to need fresher material faster than it was delivered in this movie. An earlier collaboration on "Balls of Fury" nailed the balance between feature films and TV, but "Hell Baby" (watch trailer) was a different kind of comedy. This one is a good choice for viewers who enjoy truly outrageous variety shows.