When I returned home after a screening of Michael Tiddes’ A Haunted House 2 – a sequel to the little-remembered A Haunted House from last January – I had only one place of psychological solace to which I could retreat: I took comfort in the fact that of the numerous gags in the film; gags which included swipes at black people, Latinos, and mostly females, there were – at the very, very least – no gay panic jokes or offensive gay stereotypes. In the first A Haunted House, you see, Nick Swardson played a mincing, chubby homosexual stereotype so broad and offensive, I was surprised anyone thought it was a good idea to include him. Those who have seen the first will probably remember this character. There is, mercifully, no such character in A Haunted House 2. But then I was dismayed to recall that there is a gag about a man being raped by other men in prison. So I guess A Haunted House 2 hit all its bases.
Let me clarify: I have nothing against shock humor. I have nothing against gross humor. I don’t even have anything against offensive jokes. I love John Waters’ films. Indeed, I don’t even mind certain kinds of jokes that address and send up racist attitudes by using shocking racist language. You may recall that addressing racial stereotypes, playing them up – and by extension exploding them – was one of the central revolutionary conceits behind the 1990s sketch comedy show In Living Color, a show that A Haunted House 2‘s co-writer and producer Marlon Wayans participated in. But it seems that Wayans, (also the brother of the show’s creator), seems to have forgotten about a vital In Living Color finesse. There is a basic function of making racial jokes to a general audience: If one acknowledges the cultural stereotypes, one may be able to exorcize them. But A Haunted House 2 somehow crosses a line. It makes the racist jokes, but lacks enough wit or self-awareness to shake off the cultural bugaboos. Here is a question Wayans should have asked himself: Even if you merely acknowledge that the joke is racist before you make it, can it still be racist? I say yes. A Haunted House 2 is not graceful enough to be cleverly skewering racial stereotypes. It is merely presenting them, and then trying to cover them up with a wink to the camera – sometimes literally.
As it stands, there are only two (2) gags in A Haunted House 2 that are not based on sexuality, race, or misogyny. One involves a crushed pet dog that is flattened under a falling safe and then re-inflated with a bike pump. The other is a spoof of the scene in The Possession wherein moths attack a family. In this version of things, they solve the problem with a bunch of bug zappers. But that’s it in terms of traditional slapstick. The rest of the gags are a split between offensive observations about black people, Mexican people, and female people, and long, long, loooong scenes of broad shrieking and insufferable mugging. I now have an intimate working knowledge of the pores on Marlon Wayans’ face, because the camera spends a lot of time looking far too closely at it.
A Haunted House 2 is the latest slapstick film in a recent wave of modern American spoof movies that recreate, and sometimes riff on, recent releases in a certain genre; it’s the approach of the modern spoof movie to recall only the last 18 months of American film. A Haunted House 2 takes the found footage style of the Paranormal Activity movies, but also includes elements from The Conjuring, the creepy videos from Sinister, and the possessed Dybbuk-in-a-Box from The Possession. Oh, and there are a few nods to the first Insidious film, although not the second, oddly. The creepy doll from The Conjuring is now an embittered ex-girlfriend who plays mind games with Wayans. Missi Pyle appears as a psychic. Jaime Pressly, ordinarily hilarious, is utterly wasted as a henpecking wife. Cedric the Entertainer reprises his role as a trash-talking, gun-toting priest.
What happened to the spoof movie? There have been so few good ones in recent years. There was a time in America when spoof movies were the height of comedy. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we were treated to films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun. All of these are considered classics of the form, and are essentially musts for any and all aspiring wiseacres. Then something happened in the ’00s (and not to point fingers, but I personally blame Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Although the Wayans clan also had a hand in things with the ever-diminishing Scary Movie franchise) that indicated we forgot how to make a decent spoof. All of a sudden the shock of recognition was enough to carry a film, and references to recent movies replaced jokes. Actually spoofing the movie in question was of secondary concern. A Haunted House 2 is not funny. The gags are dumb, the spoof, toothless. The constant screaming is shrill and obnoxious. And, just to add insult to injury, it’s offensive to boot.
I’m going to go watch Duck Soup, drink a cup of tea, and remember a time when spoofs could work.