'A Haunted House' is unfunny and inept
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
After ostensibly spoofing the "Scream" franchise and their ilk in the appallingly unamusing "Scary Movie" franchise, Marlon Wayans has sensed a turning of the cultural tide and now gives us "A Haunted House," a riff on the "Paranormal Activity" films. It's not merely that "A Haunted House" is jammed to bursting with sexism, homophobia, casual racism and enough uses of the N-word to make Quentin Tarantino feel awkward. It's also not merely that it's incompetently and indifferently made. What kills the film dead is how the amateur-hour filmmaking and so-called plot around those wheezy unfunny jokes isn't even smart enough to know which specific kind of haunting Wayans and Essence Atkins have to face. Mean-spirited, badly made and unfunny is one set of disasters; adding in storytelling incompetence and throw-it-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks desperation merely adds to the catastrophe.
Unfolding in exactly the type of bland McMansion the "Paranormal" films feature, "A Haunted House" begins with Malcolm (Wayans) videotaping the big day when his girlfriend, Kisha (Atkins), moves in, starting with her accidentally killing his dog and ending with a sexless night interrupted by all kinds of noises and strange activity. Malcolm and Kisha then try to understand -- and end -- the curse on their house, or on her, or whatever. This requires calling a mincing, lisping psychic (Nick Swardson, as unfunny here as he is in Adam Sandler's films, with a heaping helping of homophobia) and a profane preacher-man exorcist (Cedric the Entertainer, whose name has never before seemed so much like false advertising) to try to solve their problem. Their unwanted guest may be a ghost, or a possessing demon, or the spirit of Malcolm's dead dog -- the film itself flips between all three at will, possibly to allow for the maximum number of failed jokes. Or possibly because no one involved in the typing -- excuse me, "writing" -- of the script, credited to Wayans and director Rick Alvarez, could be bothered to keep track.
It should be said in one passing note of good faith that Wayans and Atkins are sporadically charismatic and watchable. In between watching them get a ghost high and him calling their "bitch," they have the kind of easy camaraderie and skills that make you wish you were watching them in any other film. Director Alvarez seems to also have all the technical chops one would expect of a director, just not the judgment and taste to know precisely how bad the end result of his script would be. And the production design does make for a well-crafted pastiche of all the "Paranormal" houses.
But when Malcolm freaks out, loads up a truck and heads for the hills -- noting "This is for white people. We don't investigate; we run" -- it's hard to not think of Eddie Murphy covering the same genre-mocking material more swiftly, and more comedically, in an aside during his 1983 stand-up concert "Delirious." When an 80-minute theatrical film in 2012 is just an extended, less funny and less clever rip-off of a four-minute stand-up routine that's nearly 30 years old, that's as clear a sign to get out of the theater as a fountain of blood from the pipes is a clear sign to vacate the premises in a horror film.
The list of things "A Haunted House" considers funny includes back fat, buttocks, shankings, flatulence, nudity, non-consensual sodomy, marijuana, the idea that a Latin-American housekeeper might speak English, the word "bitch," confusion between the Spanish word "negra" and a similar-sounding slur, almost every bodily fluid and more. It isn't that those things aren't funny in the hands of funny people -- indeed, about 80 percent of the elements listed above are hilarious in "Blazing Saddles" -- but Alvarez and Wayans aren't Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, and Wayans and Atkins aren't Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder. Aiming a weak and scattershot shotgun blast at tired, too-small fish in a leaky, badly made barrel, the only scary thing about "A Haunted House" is how many screens it's opening on, and the only funny thing in it is the bittersweet bad joke represented by the fact it even exists.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.