A Haunted House marks the first time, in recent memory, where actor Marlon Wayans has branched independently from his ever-growing-forever-acting family. I suppose he saw a glimmer of spoof-able light in these “found footage” horrors – namely the Paranormal Activity franchise – and decided to strike while the iron was still somewhat warm.
It makes sense for Wayans to tackle the spooky, low budget franchise because it screams for the Wayans spoof treatment. The Wayans have hung on to physical and visual comedy and have made a living off of that comedic structure. Whether it excels (the early Scary Movies, Don’t Be a Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood) or bombs (White Chicks, Little Man), you can’t help but see they have a knack for it.
Oren Peli’s ghost story saga provides plenty of material for Wayans, his screenwriting cohort Rick Alvaraz, and director Michael Tiddes. The comedy team is able to playfully – and amusingly – take shots at the franchise’s anti-climactic frights, the shooting techniques we’ve seen in those films, as well as the sudden conclusion jumps characters make when things mysteriously appear elsewhere. In this case, the first assumption that a spirit is possessing Malcolm (played by Wayans) and Kisha’s (played by Essence Atkins) house is when Kisha’s keys are found on the floor.
It’s silly, but that’s ok. It’s ok because everyone has great delivery of their lines and knows how to land their punchlines more times than not. A Haunted House also gets away with the silliness because it’s in tune to all the concepts that could be taken to ridiculous heights in these scary movies.
However, it’s still possible to go overboard on the wackiness. A Haunted House does so occasionally. Part of the reason is because a joke overstays its welcome with another part of the blame pointed towards an audience’s logical thinking.
Take the scene where Malcolm and Kisha are getting ready for bed and Kisha leaves the room to slip into something “more comfortable”. Malcolm is instantly horny and begins demonstrating some of his slick bedroom moves on stuffed animals for the camera.
After laughing, there comes a point during a scene where a man vigorously grinds his stuffed animals and moans and yells when the audience eventually asks themselves, “has he forgotten his girlfriend, who has just moved in, is footsteps away in the next room? And since the camera keeps cutting to different positions, how long has Malcolm been straddling animals for and how long has she been out of the room?”
The film also depends on stereotypes for laughs, which is expected but could’ve definitely been reeled in. We’re introduced to a couple of swinger friends (played broadly by Andrew Daly and Alanna Ubach), a blowhard camera installer/ghost hunter (played by David Koechner) and his “simple” brother (played by an underused Dave Sheridan), a psychic (played by Nick Swardson channeling a flamboyant homosexual. Surprise, surprise…), and a priest who is rough around the edges and incessantly drops the n-bomb (played by Cedric the Entertainer).
These actors are funny and their roles in A Haunted House are funny in spurts. The movie, however, insists on giving these characters too much screen time; which ends up with these exaggerated characters hammering mannerisms and jokes into the ground. It’s questionable as to how much of the film is improvised banter, but if most of the exchanges between these bit players were the actors riffing, the film’s off-the-cuff qualities could’ve been trimmed.
The movie also takes a drastic turn as it shifts it’s focus from Paranormal Activity to exorcism films. We’ve seen comedies lift from The Exorcist before, ergo, this is familiar territory to an audience.
The most unfortunate part of the focus shift though is that for recognition purposes, the film references one of the most recent possession-based horrors – last year’s horrendous laughing stock The Devil Inside. It’s a good thing the payoff is humorous – if long-winded – and Atkins does a hilarious impression of Suzan Crowley’s dementedly hammy performance.
There are many laughs in A Haunted House. Some are clever and some are juvenile (ok, a lot of them are juvenile). But, there are plenty of faults in the comedy as well. I do believe, however, that Wayans and company can learn from these setbacks.
As for this departure for Wayans from his family tree, this gets a passing grade from me. He’s set a reasonable bar for himself and there’s no where to go but up. Until his next film, I’ll have my fingers crossed and my back bent backwards.