There’s nothing worse than a comedy that’s not funny. Well, there is, and it’s a horror-comedy that’s not scary or funny. Luckily, we get to see that with “Hellbenders”, a film I expect you’ll all be rushing out to rent after this glowing review.
The opening credits, framed in the form of a documentary about exorcism, tells us about the Hellbound Saints, a secret offshoot of the Catholic Church. Its members commit sins and break commandments left, right and centre in order to be as ready for Hell as possible. The idea is, if they find a demon they can’t cast out in the normal way, they can invite the demon into their bodies, die, and then be sure of the demon going back to hell inside them. It’s sort of an interesting gimmick, even if it’s a slightly convoluted way to off the occasional demon. So, you get churches run by the Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints, under the Catholic umbrella.
Clancy Brown, the voice who made “Highlander” awesome, is the main man, Angus, and there’s also Clifton Collins Jr, Andre Royo (forever Bubble from The Wire) and Dan Fogler, the man who inexplicably got comedy leading roles for a few years there before everyone twigged he was terrible. Robyn Rikoon rounds out the main cast as Elizabeth, the one time love interest of Collins’ Lawrence.
The story of this film, is to be fair, pretty interesting. An ancient God-killing Demon called Surtr, far older than Jesus, is trapped in the body of a kid in a basement, and when he’s freed after 30 years (by the Hellbound Saints) he builds an army and goes on a sin-spree, ready to perform a ritual that will kill God and exterminate Heaven. The Saints have to figure out a way to stop someone for whom their old tricks just don’t work. A large chunk of “Hellbenders” is a pretty straight horror-thriller, as the Saints try and fail to contain Surtr, then have to contend with a Catholic Church representative who’s no believer in their cause and wants the order shut down.
To be constantly prepared for Hell, the Saints have to keep sinning, and this takes the form of them drinking alcohol first thing in the morning, looking at porn, stealing newspapers, adultery (for the only member of the crew who’s married) and smoking marijuana. Their attitude towards all this stuff has become boredom, which is an interesting way to play it, but the presence of Fogler and his comic overacting seems to indicate we’re supposed to find this funny. Look, a Priest smoking a bong! It’s as if the very presence of those scenes ought to be enough to make us laugh, and if they’re not supposed to make us laugh then way too much time is spent on them. There’s also the idea that God is basically an accountant, and merely keeps lists of the things you’ve done, never mind why. Surely sacrificing yourself to save humanity from a powerful demon, giving up your life in preparation for it even, would be enough to get you “upstairs”?
The documentary part, bleeds into the beginning of the film proper, with a few scenes of the characters talking to camera, then this conceit is dropped and not mentioned again til after the end credits (in a scene which is desperately angling for a sequel). It’s all odd, as is the mix of tones – it goes from horror to comedy but never all the way in either direction, so the funny bits aren’t all that funny and the scary bits aren’t all that scary. Am I making sense here? A case could be made for playing it way straighter improving both sides of the equation. Also, I’m not quite sure the amazing sacrifice these people are willing to make really gels with broad comedy.
I wanted to like this film a lot. The trailer had me looking forward to it, the cast all looked decent (and do about as well as the material allows) and I’m a sucker for a good horror-comedy. But it’s just not good enough, and mediocrity is a way worse sin (so to speak) than being terrible. I get the impression the director and cast expected this to be a cult hit, and you can almost feel their pre-emptive disappointment at how it actually turned out in the film itself.
Rating: thumbs down