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‘A Haunted House’ takes aim at an easy target, shoots itself in the foot

‘A Haunted House’ takes aim at an easy target, shoots itself in the foot

A Haunted House poster

A Haunted House

Directed by Michael Tides

Written by Marlon Wayans and Rick Alvarez

USA, 2013

Opens Jan. 25 in Toronto

Have you ever opened up a history textbook and found that every single image of Josef Stalin was defaced with some sort of phallic or scatological graffiti? Or that his pictures were accompanied by speech-bubbles that slyly questioned his sexuality? And have you ever thought to yourself, “the person that drew this has their heart in the right place, but is probably a bit of a knob for being so juvenile in their approach”?

Well, if you have, then you’ve just imagined what it’s like to watch the latest Marlon Wayans “comedy horror spoof”, a term used as loosely as one can possibly use it. A self-identified satire of the found-footage horror genre, among others, A Haunted House is exactly like that aforementioned textbook vandal; it takes aim at an easy target, but thanks to extreme incompetence, ends up shooting itself in the foot.

The film stars Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins as Malcolm and Kisha, a young couple who’ve just moved in together for the first time. While Malcolm records the transition with his handy hand-held camera, the proverbial poop starts to hit the fan when they discover that their newly purchased dream house is harbouring paranormal activity (the proverbial poop in this instance is less of a metaphor and more of a tedious reality).

Needless to say, the substance of A Haunted House is dangerously thin and stretched well past breaking point. When a film aspires to be Meta for the sake of satire, there should at least be several points in the film where we examine or confront well-worn trappings of the genre. There are maybe two or three instances throughout the movie that actually address these tropes (such as why they choose to stay in the house), but the rest of A Haunted House consists of desperate sight gags that use exaggerated stereotypes for cheap, non-committal ‘laughs’.

A Haunted House

Essence Atkins and Marlon Wayans in the “comedy horror spoof” A Haunted House

The movie is supposed to skewer the likes of the [Rec] franchise, Grave Encounters, the Paranormal Activity series, The Exorcist rip-offs (i.e. The Possession), and The Devil Inside, so what’s with all the needless waffle peppered throughout? Why is there an offensively overzealous gay psychic played by Nick Swardson, a hard-nut group of black thugs, a Spanish-speaking maid who gets the Mickey taken out of, a pervy security man played by David Koechner and his mentally-challenged brother, a pair of wife-swapping neighbours, and Cedric the Entertainer as a coke-sniffing priest? (And if you thought the Mandingo sequence was hard to take in Django Unchained, what until you get a load of this movie).

Nobody is impervious to the odd poop/fart/dick/stupid joke, but, at the very least, they have to be varied enough to sustain a modest 86-minute running time. There needs to be creativity, imagination, or even a hint at being less broad than the side of a barn. And, for a spoof, there must be a semblance of critical thought that gives you the smallest bit of satirical heft. Otherwise, the audience will take you less seriously than the subject you’re attempting to send up.

A Haunted House is essentially like the Halloween episode of a Disney Channel programme, if the crass was multiplied but the artistic effort remained the same. The humour and performances in the movie consists largely of loud noises, mugging violently towards the camera, and strained physical comedy. There might be one or two jokes that land here and there, but the movie keeps flogging the dead horse until the unavailing act becomes funny in and of itself.

– Justin Li