Marlon Wayans had a hand in writing Scary Movie, the entertaining surprise hit from 2000 that rekindled America’s taste for spoof movies — following the Airplane! series of the ’80s and the Naked Gun flicks of the ’90s — but if his latest genre sendup A Haunted House is any indication, Wayans wasn’t responsible for the lion’s share of good material in Scary Movie. In fact, coming a few months before Scary Movie 5, it feels like he rushed this unrefined, half-baked film into production to beat it to the punch, scrawling the script — quite fittingly — on a roll of toilet paper.
Wayans plays bachelor Malcolm, who — against the advice of his friends — invites his girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins) to live with him in his posh suburban Los Angeles home. He soon comes to regret the decision, however, not only because the mystique immediately dissipates from their sex life, but also because Kisha brings with her a supernatural entity that has haunted her since childhood. The couple calls in a surveillance company, a psychic, a priest and even their hoodlum cousins to help them with the ghostly being as they try to make due the best they can with their newly “haunted house.”
Unlike the glut of mostly awful post-Scary Movie spoof films, A Haunted House focuses its parody almost exclusively on one target: Paranormal Activity and its sequels — granted, with a touch of The Devil Inside and fleeting nods to similarly formatted found footage movies The Last Exorcism and The Blair Witch Project. As such, the jokes become repetitive and the script hews too closely to that plot, recreating plot point by plot point in predictable fashion.
The writing from Wayans and his collaborators is lazy, derivative and never fails to go for the easiest — and usually most base — punchline. Sure, spoof movies are generally low-brow, hardly cutting-edge affairs, but Scary Movie and the classics from David Zucker stayed on the right side of that fine line between playfully crude and numbingly crass. A Haunted House, on the other hand, stomps all over the line like a drunk failing a sobriety test. The fact that it’s filled with sexual and potty humor isn’t nearly as troubling as how poorly written that humor is. And when it’s not well-written, the ugliness of the subject matter is magnified, from racism to misogyny, homophobia, child and spousal abuse and rape — all are fair game here.
The crude racial stereotypes that were mined for some comedic gold in Wayans’ 1996 urban drama spoof Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood are now stale, but that doesn’t stop him from mining that same tired vein. You’d think the 40-year-old would have something new or more refined to say by now, but apparently not. Wayans can be an effective comedic actor when reined in by a script that shows some level of subtlety or restraint, but that isn’t A Haunted House.
Instead, he attacks every punchline with a sledgehammer, mugging for the camera and beating dead horse gags even deader. If you’re someone who finds him hilarious in anything he does, 1) this movie is for you, and 2) you need higher standards. It’s no coincidence that the funniest (though still not particularly funny) moments in the film come from the supporting cast of comic veterans — namely, Cedric the Entertainer, Essence Atkins, J.B. Smoove and Affion Crockett.