“Some people believe the Devil is fake, like Santa Claus. I assure you, the Devil is real. And he is a dick.”
Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon do it all: they’re performers, having appeared in the sketch comedy group The State and Comedy Central’s Reno 911; they’re writers, for projects big (Night at the Museum, The Pacifier) and small (Let’s Go to Prison); and now, they can add directors to the list, as they debuted their first feature film, Hell Baby, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Hell Baby treads familiar territory while taking the windiest road to hit its beats. If Scary Movie was the horror comedy for the mainstream, Hell Baby is the version for the alternative crowd, aligned more with Garant and Lennon’s time on The State than their Hollywood scripts. Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb star as a couple expecting their first child and moving into a new home — the ominously named “House of Blood,” located in a dilapidated district of Louisiana. As they settle into the residential nightmare, the two are startled with their first jump scare of the movie: an unexpected greeting by a neighbor (or housemate?), played by Keegan Michael Key. He informs them that their new home might be haunted — a fact that becomes apparent when Bibb, pregnant and possessed, starts serving Corddry glasses of paint thinner and washing her hands to the point of bloodshed.
Garant and Lennon pack every horror trope into their script — an old, scraggly woman who lurks in the house’s shadows, a terrifying dog who may or may not be a demon, and gore galore — but Hell Baby rises above spoof thanks to its off-kilter ensemble, similar to another State-born project, Wet Hot American Summer. Alongside Corddry and Bibb, the directorial duo appear in the film as a pair of chain-smoking Vatican priests who arrive to the scene in hopes of wiping out the Devil, while Human Giant stars Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer pop in as two aggressive cops with a deep love for Po’ boys.
The real standout is Key, who elevates the material and carries Hell Baby across the finish line. Often, Garant and Lennon’s bits feel padded — there’s a stretch of the film where Corddry, a very funny physical performer, attempts to cover up his murder of a “ghost” who was attempting to perform oral sex on him, and it fails to elicit laughs. But when Key, of the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, appears out of nowhere to give Corddry a scare, he jump starts the movie. Words roll off his tongue like comedic beat poetry — hear Key utter the phrase “pizza salad” and you will find new meaning in life. Whether he’s casually diving into the bloody backstory of Corddry and Bibb’s home or discussing the finer points of dog poop, Key hits a rhythm that the rest of the film only sporadically slips into.
Even in its down moments, Hell Baby is a hundred times funnier than most of Hollywood’s run-of-the-mill comedies. There’s a risk to crafting comedy — what makes one person laugh won’t necessarily play for others. Garant and Lennon have written broad comedies in the past, but with their directorial debut, they let their weird side come out. In one scene, a stoned cable repair man trudges back to his van before sloooooowly driving away. The scene is provoking — when will it end?! — but Garant and Lennon take their time and stick to their guns. That independence is the backbone of Hell Baby, and it works like magic for Keegan Michael Key, who should be leading his own movies in no time.
[Photo Credit: Darko Entertainment]
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