Every year, similar seeming movies will be released shortly after one another. The Armageddon/Deep Impact asteroid destroying Earth controversy of 1998. Friends with Benefits v. No Strings Attached in 2011. 2012’s dueling Snow White features- Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror. Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds v. Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection.
For the first installment of Head to Head, I will compare this year’s horror spoofs A Haunted House (released January 11, 2013) and the franchise-continuing Scary Movie V (released April 12, 2013). There will be spoilers, but for these movies, I can’t imagine anyone caring.
A Haunted House
Written by star and Scary Movie co-creator Marlon Wayans and by Rick Alvarez (producer of several of Wayans’ previous efforts) and directed by Dance Flick associate producer Michael Tiddes, A Haunted House was the first movie this year to take on the popular Paranormal Activity series. When Malcolm’s (Wayans) girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins) moves into his lavish house, they’re beguiled by a possible ghost, which turns out to be a demon that has followed Kisha throughout her life, but also one that she sold her soul to for nice shoes. It’s not clear. Also thrown into the mix are their friends/swingers Steve and Jenny (Andrew Daly and Alanna Ubach), psychic/homosexuality Chip (Nick Swardson), prisoner/preacher/ready-to-cut-someone Father Williams (Cedric the Entertainer), and security guy/ghost hunter reality show star Dan (David Koechner) who doesn’t really have a personality.
If there’s one theme to pick up from this movie’s jokes, it’s sex. Although it’s hard to figure out exact percentages, I’d be surprised if the amount of jokes that deal exclusively with sex doesn’t come close to or exceed 50%. Steve and his wife Jenny are interested in swinging with Malcolm and Kisha and possibly throwing a Mandingo party- a joke that actually pays off later. This is their only character trait. Chip is a homosexual who wants to have sex with Malcolm. To call his character one-note does a disservice to all the other one-note characters in the history of the media. Malcolm spends the first part of the movie upset that Kisha is not interested in sex, and he has an extended scene where he either really or pretends to have sex with stuffed animals. Kisha masturbates with a crucifix, but it’s an Exorcist reference, so I’ll give it a pass. This reliance on sex becomes even worse when the movie has those “improv” style moments, when the camera jump cuts to the person repeating the same joke albeit in a slightly different way, and the actors are either terrible at it, purposely not bringing their A game, or we’ve been spoiled by the talents of the Apatow crew.
Shockingly, this movie has something of a story and a concept, which only becomes apparent when compared to the next film. At points, it seems like the filmmakers were aiming for a genuine satire of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Though, it is unable to maintain consistency of the found footage concept, and the footage looks too clean and lacks the graininess necessary for the idea to work. Nevertheless, it begins small (Kisha blaming keys on the floor on a ghost, a single pan hitting someone’s head) and crescendos to a genuine, crazy paranormal activity moment. This also leads to one of the better gags in both movies- Malcolm immediately leaving his house but unable to sell it because of the housing market- but it occurs too early, so he has to go back to not believing in the supernatural. When the ghost “appears,” House has some ideas how to utilize it- getting high and hanging out with the ghost, Malcolm and Kisha treating the ghost like a bratty child as though it’s throwing a temper tantrum- but this movie doesn’t have the intelligence to do something with it. In other words, it can come up with a couple of chapters (or chapter titles) but cannot build an actual story.
Scary Movie V (or Scary MoVie or MoVie)
In the 2011 Simpsons episode “The Ten-Per-Cent Solution,” Krusty the Clown apologizes to his audience for having Itchy and Scratchy parody Black Swan and The King’s Speech. He knows they’re dated, but because of the nature of animation, it takes many months for something from popular culture to make it onto the two-dimensional screen. This aired in December 2011. About a year and a half ago.
I bring this up because the live-action Scary MoVie makes fun of Black Swan (2010). And Inception (2010). And Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011). And Mama (2013). And Evil Dead (2013). For a franchise so desperate to be on the cutting edge of pop culture, the datedness of many of the references ends up being one of the movie’s greatest downfalls. When you can base jokes and even plot points around a movie released earlier that month, it seems increasingly off when you go back three years just to have a pointless scene that is essentially “We are parodying Inception. This guy looks like Leonardo DiCaprio. Leonardo DiCaprio was in Inception.” Obviously one’s movie memory should go back greater than three years (or three decades), but when your primary concern is timeliness, out-of-date references gives the movie a sense of disconnect.
And disconnect is probably the best word to describe MoVie, though pointless would work just as well. It’s a collection of random movie parodies, regardless of how much they make sense, how funny they are, or how well they connect to the “plot.” The Charlie Sheen/Lindsay Lohan part at the beginning is Benny Hill-esque sexcapades…and looks more expensive than the entirety of A Haunted House. There’s a brief and pointless cameo by Snoop Dogg that has him and his screen sharer saying “cabin in the woods” over and over again. Leads Ashley Tisdale as Jody Sanders and Simon Rex as Dan (presumably) Sheen, Charlie’s brother, have no chemistry and rarely appear together. As an actor, Rex seems to exist only for the Scary Movie franchise, having been with it since #3 (the first non-Wayans one), while former Disney ingénue Tisdale lacks the presence of previous female star Anna Faris. Tisdale’s penchant for wide darting eyes, furrowed brows, and looking shocked without Faris’ bubble-headed commitment constantly overplays the comedy, hitting the audience over the head that something goofy is going on. Of course, if you like being hit over the head, then maybe this movie is for you since over-the-top, yet unfunny, cartoony violence becomes MoVie‘s sex joke. At least there is some dummy/mannequin instead of CGI, a comedy death knell.
The one person who comes out of MoVie relatively unscathed is the underrated Darrell Hammond. In it for one scene, he plays the doctor who introduces Jody and Dan to Charlie’s children who went missing after he was killed during the opening segment and were found in a cabin in the woods (hence Mama). He also has the movie’s one funny line when he explains that the house is wired with cameras because it’s owned by the “Institute for Case Studies.” If he’s not being considered as Ed Hocken in the supposed Naked Gun reboot, it would further show how far this film’s writers, the creators of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, and former comedy icons David Zucker and Pat Proft have traveled into not knowing funny.
The first thing that stuck out to me is how much these movies struggle with their screentime. Pretty much all films have lulls, but at 80 minutes for House and 85 minutes for MoVie, you’d expect them to move at such a brisk pace that these down spots wouldn’t be as noticeable. Yet the majority of their running times seem to consist of padding. The filmmakers are not using the time to build ambiance or to throw in as many jokes as they can think of, but more as if they had a minute quota they needed to reach before their film could hit theaters. This leads to plenty of moments that feel slow and unnecessary. Both movies handle this difficulty differently. House has people doing nothing, acting “normally” (there are long stretches that avoid any attempts at humor), or repeating the same joke over and over. Predictably and alternatively, MoVie will throw in another pointless parody- elements from Inception and 50 Shades of Grey have no bearing on anything.
However, there are several common elements between the films. As both movies have their genesis in Paranormal Activity, there are aspects of that franchise that one would expect to be parodied simply by the nature of the beast. They each get a lot of use out of the backwards stomach dragging. Oddly enough, only the Charlie Sheen opening in MoVie managed successful jokes about the mass presence of cameras, but that had nothing to do with the Activity cameras but everything to do with him filming his sexual escapades. Oh that Charlie Sheen. What a card!
In both movies, a pan hanging from the ceiling hits the protagonist in the head. In House, this only happens once, while in MoVie it leads to Dan suffering an Officer Nordberg-esque beating from various kitchen appliances. The two parodies also feature a Hispanic maid trying to exorcise the evil spirit through incense-ladened rituals, though MoVie uses her race itself as more of a punchline, e.g., there is a piñata joke. There is also a shared interest in poop and fart jokes. Both movies also have silly dancing scenes, but it happens once in House and several times in MoVie. They also both feature numerous sex jokes involving vibrators and sex with inanimate objects. Finally, House and MoVie seem to think that the mere presence of marijuana in and of itself is sufficiently hilarious.
A Haunted House is the better movie. Note: I am not saying it was the funnier movie, because applying that adjective to either of these films feels disingenuous and a bit seedy. However, A Haunted House gets the edge for better performances and, surprisingly, a better story. I also give it a couple of extra, but non-decisive, points for being rated R and having nearly 1/10 of the budget of its competitor. (According to Box Office Mojo, House‘s production budget was $2.5 million while MoVie‘s was $20 million.)
The actors in House, while mostly bad, never mug for the camera as hard as the ones in MoVie. They remain in character throughout, and there’s never a “Hey Kids! It’s Mark Hamill! (applause)” moment, of which the latter film has several. Although the jokes are repetitive and heavily reliant on sex of heterosexual, homosexual, fetish, and interracial varieties, there’s a consistency to the humor. I can’t say that this is always a positive thing in comedies as a whole, but when compared to the slipshod and desperate nature of MoVie, House ends up appearing more confident in what it’s doing.
While House is a chore to get through (as is MoVie), it nevertheless remains centered around a single plot- a haunted house with demonic possession. The main movies it parodies- Paranormal Activity, The Exorcist, and The Devil Inside– can all be related back to this original nucleus. MoVie runs the gamut and drops most of them (including Paranormal Activity) just as quickly and clumsily as it picks them up. Additionally, while Dan, Chip, and Father Williams initially exist in their own “segment,” House brings them all together once Kisha is possessed by a demon, and I have to give the movie some credit for producing a unity among the four main characters despite the limp ending. These elements makes it more similar to Airplane! where the jokes were mostly tied into the plot and the characters built a camaraderie, rather than the arbitrary, Family Guy-style adopted by the Scary Movie films. Though don’t take me likening House to Airplane! to be me suggesting in any way that they are at all comparable.
Both A Haunted House and Scary Movie V are terrible films. I cannot recommend them under any circumstances. Just lazy filmmaking all around- neither bad enough to be fun to mock nor good enough to be enjoyable. But in Head to Head competition, A Haunted House squeaks ahead. Now let us never speak of these movies again. At least until A Haunted House II and Scary MoVIe are released.