★ ★

It’s Halloween, and the Upsilon Theta fraternity (Greek letters: “YO”) are planning their annual, off-the-hook party. The horny frat guys’ first invites go out to coltish high-school brat Tiffany (Diamond White) and the other hottie members of her clique, including prim Aday (Liza Koshy). (You can tell Aday’s the churchy one because she’s the only girl not dressed like an extra from the 1984 teenage-hooker exploitation film Angel.) Of course, Tiffany’s protective father (Tyler Perry) forbids her to go, and recruits her aunt Madea (Perry again) to keep an eye on her during Halloween night. Undeterred, Tiffany vows to scare Madea and her old-fogey crew (Cassi Davis, Patrice Lovely, and Tyler Perry in yet another disguise) with a fake haunting that will prevent them from leaving the house.

All of these plot details are just the agar medium in which Tyler Perry’s comic improvisations are allowed to grow, and once that’s poured and gelled the movie gets on with an extended quarrel between Madea and everyone else in the world. While some critics despise Madea and the neo-minstrel show they claim she represents, she is a genuinely witty character, bolstered by both Perry’s nimble improv skills and the fact that, like Bugs Bunny, she seems to exist in a metaphysical territory slightly outside of reality. But there is such a thing as too much improv, and by the time said quarrel reaches its 50th minute, it’s enough to make even Paul Feig tap his watch and motion to “hurry it up.” That leaves the final half of the film to focus on the “haunting,” which provides plenty of opportunities for Madea and posse to quaver, holler, and fall all over themselves as they try to escape from the supernatural.

The killer clowns and zombie invasions that menace Madea are scary, but some viewers will be more disturbed by the ghosts in this movie—not the ghosts onscreen, who do nothing more than make the lights flicker, but the ghosts of Mantan Moreland, Willie Best (known professionally as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat”), and so many others who shuffled through an entire grotesque cinematic “tradition” of black characters going bug-eyed and frantic after encountering ghosts. Is there even a way to make a burlesque horror movie with a black cast that doesn’t exhume this stereotype? The film touches on the twist of Madea as a battle-axe variation of the Final Girl trope, taking off her earrings before she issues a threat and smacking her foes upside the head with her massive handbag, but when there’s a choice between that and Madea falling down the stairs, guess which one Tyler Perry thinks is funnier?

How can a critic even judge this movie? Nobody voluntarily going to a flick titled Boo! A Madea Halloween is hoping for Au Revoir Les Enfants 2. Can it only be measured against other Madea films? (For the record, it’s not as funny as Madea Goes to Jail.) Can its wall-to-wall weed jokes be taken as a “serving suggestion,” like those commercials for sugary cereal that hint that adding bacon and eggs makes it “part of a complete breakfast?” Is it only fair to grade it on a curve skewed to how many other people are also in the theater, and how disposed they are to laugh, to yell out repartee at the screen, or to throw things? Maybe the best way to laud it is to reflect that it was inspired by a throwaway one-liner in Chris Rock’s Top Five, and that the whole production took six days—six days!—to shoot. “Wooly Bully” was rumored to have been written in a few hours to fill up a single’s B-side, as was Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” (you know: “All right now, E-Z Rock/Now when I count to three/I want you to get busy!”). Boo! A Madea Halloween isn’t even close to the infectious bounce of that party classic, but it shares some of its on-the-fly verve. Now if only that verve was in the service of something greater.