A creature-feature comedy whose premise brings to mind the '80s work of Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and Joe Dante (Gremlins), Bad Milo! unfortunately lacks a bit of those filmmakers' gonzo convictions to take their stories to the most imaginative extremes. That's not to say that the movie is a bust, because there's a lot for genre and comedy fans to like in Bad Milo!. However, a good chunk of it feels a little undercooked, like maybe the script was a draft or two away from perfectly nailing the right blend of horror, humor, and pathos.
The newly ubiquitous Ken Marino (Children's Hospital, Eastbound & Down) stars as Duncan Hayslip, a man with a lot of stress. His Machiavellian boss Phil (Patrick Warburton) has decided to move Duncan out of the accounting department and into human resources, just so he can add the job of laying off co-workers to Duncan's workload. His beautiful, patient wife Sarah (Community's Gillian Jacobs) wants a child that he has no desire to give her, considering his own dad walked out. Not helping matters either is the fact that his mother Beatrice (Mary Kay Place) has just remarried with a much younger dude Bobbi (comic sharpshooter Kumail Nanjiani), who suggests Duncan call him "Papa" and has no qualms about discussing details about his sex life with Beatrice at all times.
On top of all this, Duncan has a weak stomach and some sort of polyp in his anus. Except that it's not really a polyp; it's Duncan's angst-ridden id made flesh. That is to say that there is a demon which explodes from Duncan's butt, murders people who are giving Duncan trouble, and then goes back up inside him. At first, Duncan is unaware that this is happening, but when the demon bursts out while he is having a session with hypnotherapist Highsmith (a perfectly hammy Peter Stormare), it becomes quickly apparent that this is a serious problem. Highsmith immediately deduces that this creature is not some sort of parasite, but that he is in fact an integral part of Duncan. So rather than try to eliminate the creature, Highsmith suggests that Duncan bond with him. When it returns from its murderous errand, Duncan does what the therapist suggested and names the creature Milo.
Milo, despite his misshapen body, is kind of a perfect mixture of a mogwai and a gremlin from Joe Dante's Gremlins films. He is able to be cute and lovable, with big black eyes and a baby's coo, or turn on a dime and become frightening, revealing three rows of nasty little teeth while slashing with his gnarly fingernails. On the commentary track, director Jacob Vaughan mentions that one of the films from which he and his co-writer Benjamin Hayes took inspiration was David Cronenberg's The Brood, and as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Milo is not just a manifestation of Duncan's repressed anger but also the worst baby imaginable. Like the baby from Larry Cohen's It's Alive on crack.
It comes as little surprise then the movie ends up being about Duncan accepting his role as a parent, both allegorically and in the reality of the story. He confronts his father Roger (Stephen Root), who is now a pot-addled burnout who refuses to think about the past at all, let alone reflect on what he did to his son. Root does a brilliant job of taking a role that easily could have been a wacky hippie caricature and turning it into something far more believable and grounded in the character's psychology. The somewhat telegraphed irony of this situation is that Roger left his family because he was certain he would be a bad dad, which is the exact reason that Duncan disconnects from Sarah's desire to have a family. This relationship is pretty meaty dramatic stuff, but it unfortunately comes across feeling a little forced and obvious.
What Vaughan and Hayes are trying to pull off with their story is a tricky balancing act, and they don't quite nail it. The kill scenes are bloody but restrained, without the visceral shock and/or humor of a good offbeat gore scene (one pretty good moment of emasculation being the exception). Similarly, Vaughan's dedication to the emotional aspects of Duncan's story often comes at the expense of the laughs. He has stocked his cast with a lot of comedic ringers, like the incredibly likable Jacobs as Duncan's wife and Toby Huss in a small role as Duncan's proctologist, but then limits their screen time to merely perfunctory scenes that push the plot along.
Bad Milo might be at its best during a stretch around three-quarters into the movie, where Duncan has decided to move out to prevent Milo from killing Sarah and ends up sharing a motel room with his little monster buddy. These hangout scenes are both touching and hilarious and feel sort of like a direction the movie should have gone in. As much as I enjoy Peter Stormare, the movie might have been stronger if Duncan's journey came out of continued bonding with Milo instead of him working his issues out step by step with a hypnotherapist.
Still, you have to hand it to these filmmakers for trying something this odd. With its unusual subject matter and all-around solid performances, Bad Milo! has a good shot at cult classic status down the road.