Spoofs are hard. Correction: Spoofs are easy; good spoofs are hard.
Savvy enough to realize this, perhaps, The Selling -- a new "supernatural comedy" by director Emily Lou and writer Gabriel Diani -- wisely avoids trying to be a straight-out spoof. Instead, the film treads a fine line between original and homage.
This is, at its essence, a haunted house movie. Starring screenwriter Diani as Richard Scarry, the nicest real estate agent to never sell a house, the film finds its own quirky rhythm even as it's caroming wildly through a chain of sensibilities that run the gamut from The Ghost And Mr. Chicken and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein to Scary Movie and Shaun Of The Dead.
The haunted house itself is like The Money Pit meets Poltergeist.
Many of the lines of dialog feel as if they were yanked from one horror movie script or another, turned sideways, translated into banter and then dunked in funny. Even the action has a feeling of being familiar but never exactly copied from something else. As a result, even the discerning suspense or horror moviegoer might feel as if they're on familiar ground only to have it shift suddenly beneath them and dump them into equally familiar but different territory as the movie unspools.
Like any fine homage, the devil (or the demon) is in the details. Lou's direction and the cinematography by Matthias Schubert plays right along with the script -- shots and moods that hint at places we've been before, except seen now in a funhouse mirror where we're not sure if it's going to be a trick or a treat.
That's what it is! This movie is like Halloween. Not Halloween the movie franchise but Halloween the holiday put on film. Starting with a delightful animated title sequence by Ryan W. Kimball, some of the film is light and airy (verging on a little too deep a helping of cheese from time to time), only to snap back to deliver some genuine "jump" moments.
One thing that helps that is that the ghosts that appear (I did say this was a haunted house movie ...) are frightening visages of lost souls, done with a pretty cool "watery" effect which belies the shoestring that this little movie (shot on video in just 14 days) had to have had. And, with the exception of the major spirit entity that appears in the last fifth of the movie, never really plays for laughs but, instead, seeks to cause some real fright in bite-sized doses.
The laughs are kept for the living (for the most part), supplied in ample part by Diani. His gangly form is reminiscent of Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful, Pinocchio), while his angular face shifts ably from comic smirk to horrific visage, depending on the moment-to-moment demands of his own script. His character ends up, along with his doofus real estate broker partner, Dave Ross (Jonathan Klein), with the house on their hands through the shifty dealings of real estate nemesis Mary Best. (Best, played by the comedically-gifted Janet Varney, is kept in the mix to keep the real estate gimmick alive and is left in classic suspense movie mode as the keep of the flame, so to speak, with the whispered hint of a sequel in the funny closing credit sequences.)
There are affable performances by Etta Devine as "ghost blogger" Ginger Sparks and Nancy Lenehan as Richard's mother. Even plucky newcomer Cole Stratton as "Ed," a real estate office co-worker, does a fine job in the time he has on screen with his mindless prattling about America's Top Model even as he's skarfing down drugged brownies.
Although the movie is played pretty broadly, the only performance that felt a little over the top was the one delivered by Barry Bostwick in a brief appearance as Father Jimmy, an exorcist. Lines peppered with a little too much winkety-wink, it's almost a relief when the ghostly presence in the house proves to be too much and drives Father Jimmy away.
I know that The Selling is beginning to make the film festival rounds. If you happen to see that it's appearing near you, I'd make an appointment for a viewing, just in case this little gem gets taken off the market.
Marc Hershon is the co-author of the book I Hate People (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Jonathan Littman. Marc is also a screenwriter who has written several television movies for the Hallmark Channel, including Santa Jr., Monster Makers, and Wedding Daze.
Follow Marc Hershon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hershco