The hit-to-miss ratio is less than impressive throughout “A Haunted House,” a frenetic and freewheeling satirical comedy that only sporadically scores a bull’s-eye while aiming at easy targets: found-footage thrillers in the vein of “Paranormal Activity,” “The Devil Inside” and the granddaddy of them all, “The Blair Witch Project.” Clearly aimed at urban ticketbuyers, and heavily reliant on humor involving African-American slang and stereotypes, this Open Road release nonetheless appears capable of attracting enough of a crossover aud for a respectable opening-weekend gross. But don’t expect it to haunt megaplexes very long.
To a large degree, “A Haunted House” plays like a feature-length riff on a classic Eddie Murphy stand-up routine inspired by “Poltergeist” (“Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house?”). Here, it’s a black couple, Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) and live-in girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins), who stubbornly remain under the same roof with a demonic (and sexually rambunctious) spirit. But at least Malcolm makes a token effort to sell his suburban Los Angeles home after he discovers that the things going bump in the night are trying to get frisky with his lady.
In keeping with the not-so-grand tradition of found-footage scenarios, Malcolm attempts to monitor the goings-on with strategically located surveillance cameras. This leads to a few genuinely funny sight gags that cleverly reference specific dead-serious scenes and situations in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
Working from a patchwork screenplay co-written by Wayans and Rick Alvarez, helmer Mike Tiddes structures the pic as less a seamless narrative than a serious of blackout sketches. It’s difficult to tell whether certain clusters of funny business were unscripted or not, but it does seem that at least one piece of extraneous zaniness, a fleeting discussion of Samuel L. Jackson’s greatest hits, was improvised on the day of filming by co-stars David Koechner (as a security-camera expert determined to host his own reality shows) and Cedric the Entertainer (as an exorcist prone to sins of the flesh).
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to describe this juvenile farce as shameless; after all, the filmmakers wait nearly 10 minutes before springing their first of their many fart jokes. But there are extended stretches when everyone on screen obviously is trying entirely too hard, some more than others. Arguably the worst offender: Nick Swardson as a swishy psychic who’s called in to scope out the house for spirits, but spends most of his time coming on to Malcolm.
Production values are such that “A Haunted House” certainly looks and sounds like many of the movies it is mocking.