It’s been hard to wrap my head around the audience reaction to Hell Baby, which had a bunch of Salt Lake City locals braying with laughter at a recent Sundance screening as I sat there in stoic silence. Intermittently raunchy and repetitive, the horror-comedy boasts a hip cast of talented comedians from a handful of edgy TV shows –– Children’s Hospital, The League, STSF:ST:SUV, Reno 911! Hell, they even managed to land half of Key and Peele. But hip edginess doesn’t come easy to Hell Baby, and at times the cast strains so hard for comedy it’s like watching a woman going through a breech birth. Willing to push the envelope only so far before backing down, it’s a movie that always seems to be trying harder than it actually is. If an entry in the Scary Movie franchise had well-timed intercourse with your average Sundance film, Hell Baby would be the result.
Although its “sketch show” plot can be defined as “loose” at best, Hell Baby’s central storyline belongs to Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb, a pair of soon-to-be parents who have moved into a busted-down house with a questionable history. Corddry attempts to quell his wife’s concerns by comparing their gang-tagged home with the works of street artist Banksy, but it doesn’t take long before the pregnant Bibb is possessed by an unseen force.
Meanwhile, a pair of Spanish priests (writers/directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, both from Reno 911!) are dispatched to investigate the household, as are a pair of sarcastic cops (Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel). Keegan Michael Key (Key and Peele) shows up as a local squatter who frightens random characters by suddenly appearing in frame, an endlessly repeated gag that stops being funny inside of about eight minutes. Michael Ian Black drops by for a one-joke scene as a therapist wearing too-snug, dong-defining bicycle shorts. And Riki Lindhome, of Last House on the Left and “Garfunkel and Oates” fame, spends about a half hour oiling up her naked body in a dialogue exchange with Corddry that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.
And frankly, the vast majority of Hell Baby goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. Which wouldn’t be an issue if every member of the expansive cast wasn’t straining so hard for laughs. And perhaps that’s the problem. In trying so desperately to shoehorn this eclectic herd of comedians into one production, filmmakers Garant and Lennon forgot they were making an actual movie and not a special Halloween episode of Mad TV. Readers of B-D may feel the movie is partially redeemed by its titular birth scene, a gore-drenched affair with its roots firmly planted in The Evil Dead. But even with all the funny face-splattering, Hell Baby never fully recovers. It simply tries too hard to accomplish so little.