Maybe I'm feeling generous because it's been so many years since we've last seen Tyler Perry's drag horrorshow in the movies, but I sort of wonder if Boo! A Madea Halloween isn't the best of all the Madea films (I admit that the character's last appearance, in 2013's A Madea Christmas, remains unseen by me). Boo! is the third consecutive film starring the loud, violence-prone grandma to have an entirely new screenplay - the first was Madea's Witness Protection in 2012 - following a seven-year run of movies that Perry adapted from his own plays. And I think that's what makes all the difference, because the plays in question belong to the very specific cultural context of African-American churchgoing in the American South. They are message plays, and they are designed to make message movies. And that's not a particular problem, except that all of the theatrically-derived Madea films follow the same path to get at their message, and it is uniformly rather ineffective: you have, on one hand, a melodramatic potboiler about a woman (usually) who needs some advice and tough love to help set her on the right path; you have, on the other hand, you have a slapstick comedy starring Mabel "Madea" Simmons herself (Perry), who gives advice whether it's needed or not, and has no love that isn't tough. Somewhere along the line, the two movies combine into one.

At its best, this format yields ungainly messes; and it does much the same at its worst (the gap between the best and worst Madea films isn't very wide). Starting with Witness Protection, however, Perry seems to have abandoned it. Freed from her stage origins, Madea has become simply another in the long line of antic comedy characters played by an actor positively buried in makeup, using a zany voice to put across comedy that makes up in volume what it lacks in wit. This is at least slightly disappointing, because it leaves us with films that lack that unique quality which marks out Perry's work as the output of an artistic visionary, however idiosyncratic his vision: his melodramas are strangely disjointed from the modern world, moralistically hectoring, and at times barely functional as cinema, but there is a mad passion about them. That's missing from these new, conventional Madea pictures, and it is, undoubtedly, a little bit disappointing.

The flipside is that Boo! entirely resembles a motion picture, so it's probably an okay trade.

In fact, and this gets back to my hedged proclamation that this, after eleven years and eight features, Madea's finest hour, it is a motion picture that isn't even bereft of unironic entertainment value. So here's the hook, this time: it's the morning of 31 October, and Georgia lawyer Brian (Perry) is concerned that his teenage daughter Tiffany (Diamond White) - unless I have forgotten my Madea universe entirely, I think this is the first we've met of Brian's children - is going to sprint away to the frat house Halloween party just down the street the minute that he leaves the house that evening on overnight business. Knowing that he doesn't have the clout with her to actually get her to bend to his will, Brian begs his aunt Madea to come along to keep an eye on the rebellious teen. She arrives, toting along a menagerie of equally colorful old people: her brother Joe (Perry), Brian's dad, a foul-mouthed asshole; her neighbor Bam (Cassi Davis), who is too terrified of Halloween to be left alone; and Hattie (Patrice Lovely), who as near as I can tell is sleeping with Joe. This is Hattie's first appearance in a theatrical Madea picture, but she's an established character in the Perry stage plays, and is a main character in Perry's sitcom Love Thy Neighbor. So basically, Boo! is like The Avengers of cartoonish old people with silly voices.

That's actually it's strength. Boo! does have a clearly-developed plot: Tiffany and her much less gung-ho friend Aday (Liza Koshy) do indeed sneak out to the party, leaving a hugely pissed-off Madea to cart Bam and Hattie along to disrupt things and find the girls. They also call in the police to shut the party down, and this incurs the wrath of Jonathan (Yousef Arakat), the fraternity president, who leads his bros in a rather fanciful staged haunting to punish the women for their squareness. This pisses Madea off even more, and she prepares her own less fanciful but much nastier counter-prank. But this plot is in no way the focus of most of the film's energy, and exists mostly to facilitate the traditional pro-family message that teenagers are horrible little shits, and if you're not going to beat them (and you probably shouldn't), you should at least bully and emotionally blackmail them into obedience. Probably the most surprising thing about the film is that it commits to minute after minute of an extraordinarily long scene, purely on the fuel of "man, child abuse is pretty damn hilarious", and this was made in the year 2016. A close second is the scene that casually suggests that holding the threat of anal rape over a bunch of 22-year-old boys is a great way to fix problems.

(This is Tyler Perry, after all, the man who in 2013 saw no shame in making a movie whose explicit message is "well, if you didn't want AIDS, maybe you shouldn't have had all that whorey sex, whore").

Anyway, I had attempted to commit myself to the idea that this is the best Madea film, and even despite the content of that paragraph, I'm going to see it through. The thing is, Boo! is mainly about one thing and one thing only: putting Perry's Madea, Davis's Bam, and Lovely's Hattie (and less frequently, Perry's Joe) all in a space, giving it a good shake, and watching them careen around. And it works, is the thing. The usual concerns that have always applied are still here: Madea is a caricature drawn in thick crayon lines, and where the line between "tribute to the strong willed Black Matriarch" and "minstrel show shenanigans" rests is a question better left to people who study this kind of material for a living. But I think I tend to agree with them what put the Perry comedies on the wrong side of that line.

Granting all that, the movie is still, at times, genuinely enjoyable and funny, and for the simple reason that it's basically just a hang-out movie. Take four fuzzily-rendered eccentrics, sit them down in a room, and watch their personalities play out as they must - that is, in essence, the whole of Boo! And it's surprisingly effective to see these characters simply inhabit space, rather than muddle through the mechanics of a story. As shrill and arguably degrading as these representations are, one thing is absolutely clear: Perry thoroughly likes these characters and the actors have a huge amount of fun playing them. If mockery lives in the material, it is mockery of the most affectionate, forgiving sort: not "oh Bam, you panicking buffoon", but "oh Bam, you're such a sweet, silly dear". That goes a long way towards making the extended middle parts of Boo!, when it's nothing but a character comedy and the frat party barely even registers as a concern, genuinely appealing on a level that none of the Madea films have ever been before. Add in the fact that there's some actively good lighting and nods to horror movie imagery (scary clowns abound, and they are even effectively scary), making this one of the only Madea films about which it's possible to say something positive about its craft, and you end up with a movie that, for all its lumps, is pleasing at least as often as not. A damn pity that it's all in service to the timeless message "Parents of today! Why won't they whip their mouthy children!", but with this character, perhaps we can only ask for baby steps.

Reviews in this series
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (Grant, 2005)
Madea's Family Reunion (Perry, 2006)
Madea Goes to Jail (Perry, 2009)
I Can Do Bad All By Myself (Perry, 2009)
Madea's Big Happy Family (Perry, 2011)
Madea's Witness Protection (Perry, 2012)
Boo! A Madea Halloween (Perry, 2016)
Boo 2! A Madea Halloween (Perry, 2017)
A Madea Family Funeral (Perry, 2019)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
A Madea Christmas (Perry, 2013)