Ah, January is here. All the award-hopeful movies have already opened (except for the usual few that haven’t made it to Sacramento yet), and the summer blockbuster season is a long way off. This is that fallow time of year during which Hollywood dumps the movies they have no special hopes for, either award- or box-office-wise. And the first movie I get to review in 2013 is A Haunted House.
Movies like A Haunted House are a reviewer’s nightmare: not good, but not bad enough to be fun to write about. Go too hard on it and you feel like a neighborhood bully beating up on the kid down the street with muscular dystrophy; go too easy and you sound like you’ve given up hope of getting anything better out of a trip to the movies.
A Haunted House is largely the work of Marlon Wayans, who serves as star, co-writer (with Rick Alvarez) and co-producer (with Alvarez, director Michael Tiddes and six other individuals). Why a parody of found-video horror movies like Paranormal Activity requires nine producers is anybody’s guess, but it underlines the inflation—and devaluing—of producer credits in Hollywood. Who all these producers are and what they contributed to A Haunted House is unclear, but we can pretty well guess what they didn’t. There are four words that were probably never heard anywhere in production meetings or on the set during shooting, but which sorely needed to be said: “Marlon, that’s not funny.”
Wayans plays Malcolm Johnson, and as the movie begins he’s chattering excitedly into his new camcorder about his girlfriend Kisha (the charmingly named Essence Atkins) moving into his upscale suburban Los Angeles home. His buddies warned him he’d only be “puttin’ his dick in jail,” he says, but he’s still stoked.
Things get off to a bad start when Kisha pulls into the driveway and—oops!—runs over and kills Malcolm’s dog. Malcolm wails over the canine corpse, desperately trying CPR (including mouth-to-mouth); then when that fails he grovels sobbing at the dog’s grave for what seems like five minutes. Marlon, that’s not funny.
That night, as Malcolm waits for Kisha to come to bed, he demonstrates his plans for her on a succession of stuffed animals. This time it seems like 20 minutes. Marlon, that’s not funny.
When Kisha finds her keys on the floor, she immediately leaps to the only possible conclusion: The house has a ghost. So Malcolm brings in security consultant Dan (David Koechner) to install surveillance cameras. Malcolm himself rigs a camera on the base of an oscillating fan, where the cam pans back and forth, showing us the activities Malcolm’s housekeeper Rosa (Marlene Forte) gets up to when Malcolm and Kisha are away. OK, Marlon, you win; this part’s pretty funny.
Malcolm and Kisha bring in a psychic, Chip (Nick Swardson), a simpering gay stereotype more interested in Malcolm than the negative energy in the house. Then they bring in Father Williams (Cedric the Entertainer), an ex-con fake-quoting scripture that turns out to be cribbed from Samuel L. Jackson’s dialogue in Pulp Fiction. (OK, Marlon, you win another round: Cedric is pretty funny. But not Nick Swardson; Chip’s scenes are borderline creepy, and frankly, if somebody wants to call him homophobic, I won’t be leaping to his defense.)
In the last third of the movie, things come to a head as Malcolm, the security guy, Chip and Father Williams all try to exorcise the demon out of Kisha after she confesses to selling her soul to the devil for some Louis Vuitton shoes. And it all winds up with a final twist that, so help me, is not half bad—and would have been even better with sharper, clearer writing, or if Michael Tiddes had been even a mediocre director.
The truth is that my expectations going in to see A Haunted House were as low as they could get, and lo and behold, the movie turned out to be not quite as bad as I expected. Cedric is funny, Essence Atkins has a nice comic edge and Marlon Wayans’ talent will show up better when he finds people he can trust to say no to him when he’s got it coming.
Not utter garbage; how’s that for a ringing endorsement?