I’m so torn by A Haunted House. On one hand, it’s another installment in the broad pop culture parody genre that’s slowly turned our minds to mush over the last decade and, unlike most other genres, hasn’t even gotten any better at it as time has passed. On the other hand, unlike most other entries in that genre, A Haunted House bothers to have a coherent storyline, likable protagonists, and comedy that naturally spirals out of a relatable character dynamic and familiar relationship anxieties. And on the other, weird, mutated third hand I apparently have now, it uses that dynamic as the foundation for a film with very unsettling attitudes towards women and, almost as an afterthought, homosexuals. And then, on my foot I suppose, I have to admit that some parts are actually very funny. But in my heart, I can’t recommend any light comedy that espouses attitudes this ugly without once providing a reasonable counterpoint.
I’m going to get accused of over-thinking this movie. I don't care.
A Haunted House is a parody of the oversaturated found footage genre and, like you’d expect, it resorts to fart jokes, weed jokes and some occasionally random send-ups of other movies besides. But A Haunted House deserves at least a little credit for actually understanding the emotional core of the found footage genre, in particular the Paranormal Activity movies. Those films put a magnifying lens up to intimate personal interactions, taking audiences deep inside the private worlds of the protagonists as they are invaded by an outside force, usually a supernatural metaphor for familiar types of angst. In A Haunted House, Marlon Wayans plays Malcolm, who is excited to take his relationship to the next level with Kisha (Essence Atkins), who is moving into his house today. His friends warned him that it’s a bad idea, but he believes in romance and that cohabitating will only make their relationship stronger.
But then Kisha actually shows up and, before she even gets into the house, she runs over Malcolm’s dog, and the metaphor is made clear. The unwelcome force entering Malcolm’s life isn’t a ghost, it’s Kisha, and the actual supernatural events that occur throughout the film get exponentially larger as their relationship woes deepen. The sexual malaise that comes from seeing each other every day, combined with the sexual advances from literally every other character towards Kisha and/or Malcolm, leads to “funny” scenes of ghost rape that inspire jealousy and passive-aggression, for example.
If you’re willing to allow that supernatural sexual assaults can be amusing (and they might be ridiculous enough here to qualify), you may also be willing to admit that some of the comedy mined from this metaphor is actually really funny. By the time Malcolm and Kisha’s problems reach a breaking point, they decide there’s too much “negative energy” in their house (and by extension their relationship), so they decide to try to ignore their latent hostility, or rather their “ghost,” and just go about their business. The resulting scene of Malcolm and Kisha trying to have a quiet cup of coffee at the dinner table while the ghost slowly starts tearing the kitchen apart around them, daring them to have an emotional reaction, is both an excellent metaphor and an impressive single-take comedic set-up that made me laugh very, very loudly.
When A Haunted House breaks away from Kisha and Malcolm, who sometimes demonstrate a believable and funny chemistry together (particularly in an unexpected Halle Berry role-playing sequence), it’s more hit or miss. Again, every other character in the film either plays into their relationship woes or actively tries to come between them. David Koechner plays a security camera salesman who highlights the temptation to invade each other’s privacy and then rue the results, Alanna Ubach and Andrew Daly play a swinger couple who test the protagonists’ devotion to traditional romantic values, and Nick Swardson does his usual gay stereotype thing, making Malcolm extremely uncomfortable with unwanted sexual advances that, yes, play into the theme but more importantly perpetuate a casual homophobic mindset that elicits exactly the wrong kind of discomfort.
Though surprisingly reasoned, A Haunted House takes its themes into troubling directions by the end, and that makes it hard to properly defend the film on an intellectual level. On a base level, it’s hard to defend because the ratio of good jokes to bad jokes simply skews in the wrong direction. But intellectually, the whole metaphor of supernatural humor springing from understandable fears that stem from a lover moving in with you completely falls apart when the conclusion seems to be that, well, women are simply evil. Kisha literally sold her soul, we discover, for shoes. Without realizing it, she’s sexually assaulted by the ghost, but instead of being traumatized, she invites further sexual contact, upsetting Malcolm. By the time she’s outright possessed, and every single man in the movie starts beating her with chairs, it’s hard not to wince at A Haunted House’s ugly conclusions about what the real problem was. It was nothing human, nothing relatable, nothing to learn a valuable lesson about; instead, women are apparently “bad,” and moving in with them is a bad idea to begin with, just as Malcolm’s friends warned him at the beginning of the film.
In a way, that makes A Haunted House more of a horror film than a comedy, because really, that’s a very dark and uncomfortable place to take any narrative. It can’t be condoned, and unfortunately all the satire was wasted setting up this disquieting and monstrous message rather than creating a counterpoint that would allow it to play as an inaccurate portrayal of reality, heightened for comedic effect.
Look, I said I was going to be accused of over-thinking this, and I said I don't care. A Haunted House is just clever enough to treat as more than a by the numbers pop culture parody a la Epic Movie and Vampires Suck. Unfortunately, it’s not clever enough to actually go anywhere meaningful with its ideas. It’s a fascinating example of how to almost do the parody genre right, and then screw up just enough that it taints everything that could have made it noteworthy. It’s bad, but at least it’s beguilingly bad.