(by Dustin Putman
In his career, Marlon Wayans has found success spoofing socially conscious black dramas (1996's "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood"), "Scream"-style horror films (2000's "Scary Movie"), haunted house pics (2001's "Scary Movie 2"), and dance flicks (2009's, uh, "Dance Flick"). Not one to let a lucrative business rest, Wayans, along with co-writer Rick Alvarez and director Michael Tiddes, tackle the latest current hot fad—supernatural found-footage thrillers a 'la 2009's "Paranormal Activity"—for raunch-laden yuks with "A Haunted House." It could be the worst thing any of them have, or will, ever do. With the exception of maybe five funny moments in total, its ceaselessly debasing, queasily mean-spirited tone-deaf ways make it an endurance test that comes too close for comfort to the sub-humanoid levels of a Friedberg/Seltzer catastrophe of the "Epic Movie"/"Disaster Movie" sort. Article continues below
With a camera in hand to document all areas of his life, Malcolm Johnson (Marlon Wayans) is excited for girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins) to move into his suburban bachelor pad. Things get off to a rough start when she runs over his beloved dog while pulling into the driveway, and they only go downhill from there when Kisha finds her car keys on the kitchen floor and becomes convinced the house is haunted. Whatever the presence is, it fast turns increasingly malevolent and horny, having its way with both of them in all senses of the term. Unable to sell the house in such a strained market, they call in overtly gay psychic Chip (Nick Swardson) and a Samuel L. Jackson-quoting priest, Father Williams (Cedric the Entertainer), in the hopes of cleansing the place of spirits. They'd better hurry, too, as Kisha's body is possessed by a demonic force.
It only took two weeks into 2013 for a film to reserve a surefire place on my end-of-the-year bottom ten, and one supposes it's apropos that said movie is a partial parody of 2012's first worst-list entry, "The Devil Inside." Awkwardly titled "A Haunted House"—why not "The Haunted House," or just "Haunted House," or how about the far more appropriate "Paranormal Indecency?"—this would-be comedy clangs like brass balls every time a joke or gag fails to ignite, dragging each one out beyond the point of no return. Racial humor is uncomfortable rather than amusing—the grossly out-of-place use of the "N" word should shut up "Django Unchained" naysayers but good—while the rest of the usual suspects—homophobia, scatological material, sexual and drug humor, even sodomy, lord forbid—are just as tired and unwelcome. Watching a drunk man desecrate a person's ashes by defecating on them isn't funny, it's malicious. The same goes for the child abuse glimpsed in 1988 video footage of Kisha's dysfunctional eighth birthday party, her mom worried that the belt the little girl is getting whipped with might break. There's a four-way sex scene with Malcolm and three stuffed animals that goes on for what feels like hours, all to the sound of silence. Later, for all intents and purposes, Malcolm and Kisha are separately raped by the invisible entity. Kisha, naturally, likes it, because apparently all straight women don't care about who they're sleeping with as long as their partner has a big package. Wait a minute or two, and sure enough along comes Chip, a psychic portrayed as creepy and predatory solely because he's gay.
In addition to co-writing this heap of bad skits strung together, Marlon Wayans stars in the lead role of Malcolm. He can be very good and very funny with the right material, but he is neither in this film, overacting monotonously and committing the cardinal sin of comedy acting: letting on over and over that he knows he's in a comedy. As girlfriend Kisha, Essence Atkins (2003's "Deliver Us from Eva") is uneven; with a better screenplay, her solid comic timing might actually lead to an emotional response from the viewer equating to laughter. As is, her natural charisma is often snuffed out by the ineptness of Michael Tiddes' direction and the embarrassing things she's asked to do. Nick Swardson (2011's "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star") and Cedric the Entertainer (2011's "Larry Crowne") are in and out relatively quickly, but the damage is long since done by the time they exit the proceedings. A little more inspired is the work of Marlene Forte (2009's "Star Trek") as Spanish housekeeper Rosa, up to no good at all whenever Malcolm and Kisha leave the house, and the usually underutilized Alanna Ubach (2011's "Bad Teacher") as one-half of a swinging couple out to swap with their haunted friends.
"A Haunted House" runs a scant 86 minutes, but it's a painful 86 minutes, seeming twice as long and more punishing by the second. Truthfully, it would be lying to claim that there are no funny moments at all; a bit involving a camera mounted to an oscillating fan—a take-off of 2011's "Paranormal Activity 3"—is suitably wacky. Also worth a titter is Malcolm's disheartening discovery of what Kisha wears to bed (hint: it's not sexy lingerie). "What's wrong with what I have on?" she asks him defensively. "Nothing," he replies, "if you're living in a cardboard box under the freeway." For the most part, though, the film is desperate in a way that breeds audience discomfort; there is no more wearisome and dismaying moviegoing experience than a comedy that is met by the deafening sound of audience members who collectively, yet silently, know what they're watching is junk. Such is the case with "A Haunted House," which additionally references 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," 2010's "The Last Exorcism," and, oddly, 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" without knowing the first thing about subverting expectations or bringing clever or savvy twists to their shout-outs. Then again, when it comes to the act of filmmaking, no one behind the scenes of "A Haunted House" apparently knows the first thing about anything at all.