J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sundance ’13: Hell Baby


To this day, French is still more widely spoken in New Orleans than people realize.  Unfortunately, an expecting married couple is not fluent.  If they were, they might have picked up on the neighborhood’s macabre names for the fixer-upper they just purchased.  They soon learn just how grossly they overpaid in Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon’s Hell Baby, which was a Park City at Midnight selection during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Vanessa is pregnant, so we know what that means.  As soon as she and Jack move into the House of Blood, she starts to act like Signourney Weaver in Ghostbusters.  Not yet panicking, Jack takes her to see her psychiatrist, who is brutally murdered and crucified shortly thereafter.  This is certainly a suspicious turn of events, but Jack is preoccupied by the house’s supernatural box stacking, a desiccated old lady who will not stay dead, and F’Resnel, the friendly derelict crashing in their crawlspace.  Help, dubious as it might be, is on the way.  Vanessa’s Wiccan sister Marjorie is determined to perform a cleansing ritual and the Vatican has dispatched two investigators.

Veterans of MTV’s The State, Garant & Lennon recently exposed a bit of the Hollywood system’s sausage-making in their bestseller How to Write Movies for Fun & Profit, so they might be doing some short-term indie-genre penance.  While Hell Baby primarily goes for dumb gory laughs and is hardly shy about returning to the gag-well over and over again, it is safe to assume it is funnier, smarter, and more aesthetically rewarding than the latest Wayans’ horror “spoof,” sight unseen.

Indeed, Hell Baby’s comedy scatter gun is loaded with blood, vomit, nudity (both the hot and gross varieties) and the violent deaths of a fair number of major characters.  Still, Garant & Lennon find clever ways to poke fun at genre conventions, such as the practice of compulsively startling the protagonists.

As hapless Jack, Rob Corddry is very funny venting and whining.  He was also a joy to work with, according to Hell Baby’s impish Sundance junket send-up.  Garant & Lennon are strictly shticky as the Italian priests, but Keegan Michael Key has some amusing moments as the ever present F’Resnel.  However, Riki Lindhome probably deserves the most credit for being a good sport during her scenes as Marjorie, which must have been chilly, even in New Orleans.

Almost entirely shot in NOLA, Hell Baby’s demonic story might not sound like the best advertisement for the city, but Garant & Lennon compensate with some big time Po’ Boy love.  Hearing a bit more from the local music scene would have been even better, but so be it.  Its broad comedy hits the target more often than it falls flat and the wild exorcism scene should satisfy horror fans.  Sure to find a theatrical afterlife given the names attached, Hell Baby delivered what midnight patrons expect at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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