THE BLOG

Marlon Wayans' A Haunted House Shows Found Footage Flaws

01/09/2013 04:49 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

The bottom right hand corner of the screen reads a time like 2:52 a.m.

The audience is looking at a bedroom under surveillance. A couple occupies a night vision-encased bed, which takes up most of the frame.

As the numbers in the bottom right race to 4:00 a.m., the door to the bedroom creaks open. There are footsteps but they don't belong to a person.

The sleeping woman is wrenched from her bed and dragged out the door and down the hallway as she screams.

It's a familiar scene, a recognizable staple of Paranormal Activity -- a film that has spawned three sequels (with a fourth on the way). And it shows up once again in Marlon Wayans' A Haunted House, a comedic take on the found footage genre.

Malcolm Johnson (Wayans) and Kisha Johnson (Essence Atkins from Dance Flick) move into a ritzy new house, the first time the couple has lived together.

In the early months, Malcolm starts toying with a new video camera -- attempting to create home movies of all sorts. The camera ends up perched on a shelf in -- the bedroom, so as to keep Malcolm from turning Kisha into Kim Kardashian.

Each morning, Malcolm reviews the footage from the previous night and the couple realizes that their fancy, spacious new digs are in fact haunted. The rest pretty much goes according to Paranormal plan.

Mr. Wayans lives and breathes comedy. He has collaborated on films with his brothers since the '80s and spent time on In Living Color in the early '90s. Wayans has had a fairly prolific career for a man of 40, juggling acting, writing and directing often at the same time.

But 2000 was arguably his biggest year. With an acclaimed dramatic role in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (a less acclaimed one in Dungeons & Dragons) and the release of Scary Movie (which he co-wrote and starred in), Wayans ushered in the new millennium the right way.

For better or worse, Scary Movie defined a new comedy genre. It came out four years after its primary source material Scream, striking a nerve in audiences craving R-rated comedy (American Pie led the way just the year before). Scary Movie felt fresh and invigorating, filled to the brim with referential jokes and gross-out moments.

A Haunted House doesn't feel like that.

The first Paranormal Activity was released in 2009, four years before A Haunted House, which comes out Friday. Maybe a lot more has changed in these past four years though.

Found footage is one of those fads in films that has lingered around longer than need be. It can be done well of course; Chronicle, a hybrid teen-superhero-found footage fiesta, was one of the better movies of 2012.

But it's mostly tired nonetheless. And this obviously can be blamed on YouTube and our collective ease of access to technology. As Mr. Wayans told me in our recent conversation, everyone has a camera:

But I doubt found footage comedies will have longevity. Project X, which beat Wayans to the punch in this particular subgenre, might be watched by teens years down the line mostly because it's a party film. Some of its appeal is the voyeuristic perspective it gives audiences on the best night in a suburban kid's life. But it's what we see, as opposed to how we see it that makes it fun to watch.

Longevity is not the only barometer of a comedy's success; I doubt people will be talking about Role Models for years to come but holy Christ it was funny.

Parody, whether it's Blazing Saddles or Scary Movie, will never fade. A Haunted House is in many ways a parody (albeit uninspired) of Paranormal Activity and the slew of horror films that piggybacked off of it. The movie riffs mercilessly on a recognizable scenario, trudging through the muck of exorcisms and ghostly apparitions, replacing scares with fart jokes.

Found footage relies so heavily on such few shots, which becomes highly restrictive in comedy. Wayans was conscious of this challenge as he was filming:

It would be easy to blame the film's shortcomings on its found footage aesthetic. The choice to shoot A Haunted House like this really didn't help Mr. Wayans' cause.

But in the context of parody, the movie falls flat because it doesn't play off of the same archetypes of horror that Scary Movie did. Instead it imagines a universe in which a young black couple experiences what the young white couple experiences in Paranormal Activity, with a few variations on the theme:

Combining these genres can have clunky results, especially when there are no surprises and no subversion of audience's expectations.

There is an audience, perhaps larger than ever, for Wayans' R-rated vision of comedy though; Seth MacFarlane's crude, stuffed animal-starring Ted was the ninth-highest grossing film of 2012.

So a movie like A Haunted House doesn't wield the same shock value as R-rated comedies in the '90s and at the beginning of the millennium. Everyone that will see this film has seen far more depraved and despicable things online:

The Internet consistently softens the blows of comedic sodomy, feces and violence in movies like this. Maybe that's why I yearned for Scary Movie-era Wayans while watching A Haunted House. Maybe I wished for a simpler time before "Two Girls One Cup" wrenched away my innocence like a carpet ripped from underneath my feet.

And of course, I pray for the day when I forget that Meet the Spartans exists:

Imitation is supposedly flattery. But sometimes it'd be most flattering if the imitation didn't exist.