I have a confession: Until recently, I thought A Haunted House and the upcoming Scary Movie 5 were the same film. But no. Somewhere along the way, Scary Movie star Marlon Wayans and his cowriter, Rick Alvarez, parted ways with the horror spoof franchise. So this year, audiences get two parodies of Paranormal Activity: one with Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and what appears to be a subplot belatedly mocking Black Swan; the other with Wayans and Essence Atkins mugging their way through the suburban haunting conceit.
Unlike the celebrity-cameo-studded Scary Movie 5, A Haunted House sticks to the found-footage, single-setting format and looks almost as low budget and low tech as the original Paranormal Activity. (First-timer Michael Tiddes directed.) The movie is not much different, one would guess, from watching Wayans and his buddies goof off on a Sunday afternoon, doing improvised riffs on the PA movies. But those buddies include David Koechner, Nick Swardson, Andrew Daly and Cedric the Entertainer. And, from time to time, they wring actual laughs from this sorry material.
Granted, to appreciate those laughs, you must (a) have seen most of the PA films and (b) actively enjoy the comedy of bad taste. When Kisha (Atkins) moves in with her boyfriend, Malcolm (Wayans), the first night terrors her presence occasions are ungodly farts.
Sexual jealousy and relationship issues were an undercurrent in the first Paranormal Activity, with the demonic entity acting increasingly like the heroine’s spurned ex-lover as her boyfriend tried to prove it didn’t exist. (Plus, three-quarters of the film took place in a dark bedroom.) In Wayans’ version, the subtext is on the surface. Everyone who enters the haunted house, from Koechner’s racist security expert to Swardson’s gay psychic, makes crude passes at one or both of its inhabitants (a running joke that gets old very fast). As for the entity, well, he isn’t picky. This is the first film I’ve seen that depicts rape perpetrated by a bisexual, weed-smoking ghost, and probably the last.
Eddie Murphy made the joke about horror movies and race best back in 1983, talking about Poltergeist: “Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house? … Very simple: There’s a ghost in the house, get the fuck out.”
In the 30 years since, white people in movies have consistently failed to heed this advice. Wayans gives the joke a little contemporary twist: Once the ghost declares itself, Malcolm does attempt to get the fuck out, but the housing market is scarier than the supernatural realm.
It’s one of several good ideas adrift in a sea of throwaway gags. Horror movies still rely on conventional images of the “perfect” (white, middle-class) suburban lifestyle to generate scares, and those conventions are ripe for satire. There’s potential in characters such as the Spanish-speaking housekeeper (Marlene Forte) who looms into the frame for jump scares, just like “creepy” rednecks and foreigners often do in real horror movies. (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil satirized that scary-redneck trope pretty well, as did The Cabin in the Woods.) But hers stays a one-joke character. So does Cedric the Entertainer’s ghetto priest, who arrives as part of a misguided detour into The Exorcist spoof territory.
Wayans and Atkins are game for any silly gag, and certainly more likable than the stars of your average found-footage film. The fact that I didn’t look away for more than a few seconds at a time during a two-minute bit in which Wayans feigns having a threesome with his girlfriend’s stuffed animals is surely testament to his talent, or something. And it’s altogether possible that, next to the overblown, shooting-fish-in-a-barrel spoofery of Scary Movie 5, A Haunted House will look like classic comedy. That’s probably the scariest thing about it.