The idea of “camp”—performances exaggerated theatrically, for comic effect—has been around since the early 1900s, but it didn’t really take off until the ‘60s, when the definition expanded to include anything that was so bad that it was funny . . . and therefore good.

Roger Corman understood the concept, and so did Vincent Price, who hammed it up for a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he did with the King of B Movies. Fast-forward to the 2000s and New-B films like “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” (2010) took the idea of an average man going up against monsters and exaggerated it by having the hapless hero be so much LESS than average. Now he’s an ambitionless loser, a slacker, a stoner, or someone so clueless that maybe he’s not even as afraid as the average guy would be. That’s what we get in the little indie flick “The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue.”

It seems as if just about everyone is making a comedy-horror film these days, but you know the filmmakers are serious about it when they ask a horror-thriller icon to be a part of the project. These guys got Robert Englund—best known for playing Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” films—to join the cast, and that says something about their sense of humor and the cleverness that underlies some of it. They didn’t get the guy from “Friday the 13th” because their own film is about a street, not a day.

Filmed in Chicago on a budget estimated at just $350,000, “Mole Man” doesn’t LOOK low budget. The production values are surprisingly decent, and that’s partly because directors Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy (who also star in the film) shot scenes using a Sony HDW-F900 hi-def camcorder with Dolby SR sound. But it’s also because the guys avoid the jittery camera that neophytes often use as a crutch in this genre, and they have a darned good sense of how to decorate a set, block a scene, and shoot using angles and cuts that support what they’re trying to highlight on-camera.

The premise is so off-the-wall you’d think they might have figuratively set this on Wacker Drive instead of Belmont Avenue. Two slacker brothers (Bradecich and LaFlamboy) try to run a run-down apartment building their mother used to own. One just returned after an unsuccessful stab at the alpaca business, and the other has been stealing electricity from the church next door and hasn’t paid the gas bill. They’re losing tenants, but of more concern, the remaining tenants are losing their pets. All their cats and dogs are disappearing from the building, and the guys witness some of the grabs first-hand. The fact is, there’s a monster who appears to live in the basement of the building. How it got there is beyond anyone’s comprehension—not that these guys try very hard to think anything through. Their go-to strategy is “have a drink” or, if they can mooch from their tenants, smoke a joint.

Call the cops? Naw. They’re in violation of too many city codes, including the bar that they run in the building—one that used to be a speakeasy during Prohibition. In the tradition of indie films the minor characters are quirky. There’s a young woman who works as a prostitute in the building, a stoner who seems to have no visible means of support (only a bunch of pothead roommates who don’t pay any rent), a crotchety old cat woman, a caustic/sarcastic man old man who has a secret sex life (Englund), and a renter they hardly ever see.

“The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue” is not really scary and not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a comedy of character and how those characters react. Don’t look for a standard slasher-thriller-monster structure, with tension built around Is it here? No. Is it here? No. Is it . . . . AHHHHHHHH! There isn’t really that much tension, because a slacker vibe permeates this horror comedy. It’s meant to be a laid back excursion into the genre, with clever allusions to other films embedded here and there. But of course, that doesn’t mean that fans wouldn’t prefer to have a few more laughs thrown in, or a few more scares as these guys try to stop the bleeding and get the monster.

“The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue” is not rated, but would be rated R for language, persistent drug and alcohol use, and brief nudity.

“Mole Man” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and the digital camera makes the level of detail, the colors, the edge delineation all stronger than you normally get in a low-budget DVD.

The audio is an English Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 with no subtitles. Dialogue is clear, and street scenes aren’t cluttered with white noise. It’s a pretty solid presentation for a DVD.

Aside from a behind-the-scenes still gallery there’s just the director’s commentary, and these guys just feel their way through it, sharing their discomfort at not really knowing what bases to cover. So they begin by asking viewers to join them in a drinking game. Pick a character, and every time your character says “fuck” you take a drink. Eventually they get around to pointing out stores that were annoyed with them filming there, horror conventions that they were deliberately trying to spoof, and some of the tricks of the indie trade (the most frequently cited is the use of friends and family for bit parts and body doubles of the other actors). It’s on okay commentary, but wannabe indie filmmakers will have wanted more how-we-did-this remarks.

Bottom line:
For me, “The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue” wasn’t as funny as “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” nor was it as bloody or frightening. But the premise was clever, the performances were decent, the direction was superb, and the production values were terrific. All it needed was a rewrite from a Second City cast member to punch it up a bit.