The makers of “Spooky House” claim that they produced the picture because of a dearth of movies that might appeal broadly to audiences of all ages. But the sad fact is that the film is likely to succeed only in boring children and adults indiscriminately. The intent was apparently to create the cinematic equivalent of one of those gentle Halloween haunted house attractions–the kind that’s supposed to give tykes an agreeable little jolt while making parents smile at the charming cheapness of it all–but it’s like most such creations in signally failing to please either group.
Ben Kingsley, who’s speedily becoming the contemporary equivalent of Michael Caine–the once-distinguished British actor who will now appear in anything so long as a paycheck is involved–stars as the Great Zamboni, a master magician who abruptly retired when his beloved wife (an American Indian dressed in native garb, no less) mysteriously disappeared onstage during one of his tricks. He now inhabits a creaky old mansion in an unnamed coastal town (the picture was shot on Vancouver Island), where he frequently walks along the dock wearing a turban, a black fright wig and a big fake moustache and leading his pet jaguar Shadow on a leash. He understandably attracts the attention of a passel of nice, “Little Rascal” local kids, the most notable member of which is a just-orphaned tyke named Max (Matt Weinberg). (The rest of the group is notable mostly for its carefully multi-ethnic makeup: there’s an African-American boy, an African-American girl, a Russian boy and an Oriental boy. The girl, for some reason, also has a pet goat that she keeps at what appears to be a boathouse-clubhouse.) Also on hand are three bullying teenagers (Katharine Isabelle, Myles Ferguson and Kyle Labine) in the employ of Boss (hambone Mercedes Ruehl), who dresses like a gypsy but acts like a bargain-basement crime queen. The plot is all about Zamboni overcoming his dismissive attitude toward children by bonding with sweet little Max and protecting the tyke from his tormentors; in the process he regains his humanity and his old life, in a finale that manages to be both sappy and incoherent.
“Spooky House” has the feel of a movie made for a kid-friendly cable channel, but even in that venue it would come across as incredibly lame. Most of the time the action and dialogue are both banal and idiotic–the sequences involving little Zoe’s goat, which gets stolen on various occasions, are unintentionally hilarious, and the Three Stooges-style slapstick involving Isabelle, Ferguson and Labine is simply excruciating. To make matters worse, Weinberg proves a thoroughly uncharismatic child, though the greatest degree of embarrassment is undoubtedly reserved for Kingsley and Ruehl, who debase themselves in so many and varied occasions that they’re virtually incalculable. (Kingsley’s wig alone is a jaw-dropper.) A special word of sympathy, though, for poor little Jason Fuchs, who’s clearly incapable of affecting a plausible Russian accent. (When he first uses it, it seems like an obvious put-on; but it turns out to be serious. Sad, sad.)
There are plenty of special effects in the picture, but they’re all of the chintzy, amusement-park variety, and William Sachs’ direction is virtually non-existent.
The dilapidated, ramshackle “Spooky House” is the sort of picture that gives family entertainment a bad name.