Hell Baby is comprised of a loose series of parodic horror sketches that center around the notion that the beleaguered heroes of most American haunted-house movies, almost all of whom are white, are displaying a sense of possessive ego that their spiritual tormentors are justifiably punishing. This idea isn’t new to the horror genre, of course, as most films of this sort are explicit tales of the avenging repressed (think of the uprooted Native American burial ground in Poltergeist), but contemporary comedies have yet to really exploit the new narcissism, disguised as empathy, that prevails in a comfortable middle-class that reads enough to know that it’s supposed to feign a sense of concern toward its less fortunate theoretical brothers in this so-called post-racial American society.
Writer-directors Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon satirize the often obscenely meaningless ways in which people of a certain socioeconomic strata attempt to launder their white guilt—and you don’t have to be white to feel white guilt. Jack (Rob Corddry) and Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) buy a shithole in a black neighborhood with the aims of flipping it in order to capitalize on a presumed future wave of gentrification, which invites the devil into their new home to prey on their unborn child. Garant and Lennon occasionally spoof the impressively specific formalities of the satanic-possession film (the often absurdly off-putting appearance of the contaminated homes, the foreboding tracking shots up and down corridors), but they spend most of their time affectionately skewering their yuppie heroes.
Garant and Lennon have a gift for sharp, curt one-liners that roll off the actors’ tongues with a disconcerting casualness. Lottery tickets come up at one point, and Jack reminds himself that, of course, they don’t buy those (they’re snobs after all). A squatter introduces himself as F’resnel (a brilliant Keegan Michael Key) and tells the couple that his name is spelled just as it sounds, prompting Vanessa to respond right off with the correct spelling, amusingly shocked that she’d actually comprehend a black man’s name. F’resnel never really leaves in fact, as he constantly pops in to leer at Vanessa’s sister or grab some food or porn from his neighbors, correctly assuming that his hosts are too petrified by notions of political correctness to throw his ass out.
The cops and priests who eventually figure into the narrative are written off as piggish exploiters who’re no better than Jack or Vanessa; they’ve just found a different racket. There’s a long scene, clearly inspired by Blazing Saddles, that shows the film’s law enforcers belching and farting as they furiously gobble down Po’ Boys with the local padres, right after examining a butchered corpse, in a prolonged display of gastronomy that might put you off chips and subs for a few days.
Hell Baby, in fact, will be a refreshing gasp of common sense for those who found The Conjuring’s unquestioning embrace of powerful white Catholic manipulations disgusting and reprehensible. Garant and Lennon don’t quite stick the landing, sadly, as they eventually run out of ideas, but these guys display a freewheelin’ sense of invention that should be watched closely, because they have the raw stuff of major comic filmmakers.