SCARY MOVIE: a post-modern horror spoof without any post-modern wit (2000 in Film #26)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of July 7th, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie

All through watching Scary Movie, a film I missed twenty years ago the first time around, I kept thinking as I sat, largely stone-faced and more than a bit repulsed… would 18 year old Tony have found this funny?

The answer is, honestly, yes. Probably. 18 year old Tony found Road Trip, which we discussed earlier this summer, very funny at the time. It certainly isn’t as nasty as Scary Movie in its frat-boy comedy but it’s just as base, obvious and cheap. Both of these films are aimed, squarely, at youthful or teenage audiences who are rewarded by cheap laughs. However, Scary Movie comes from a different stable. Road Trip is an extension of the post-modern revival of the teen sex comedy. Keenen Ivory Wayans’ spoof harkens back to the Zucker Brothers or Mel Brooks brand of cinematic spoof, in this case directly lampooning the modern horror genre, particularly the post-modern horror genre made up of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, with a few other examples sprinkled in.

In fact, Miramax—the production company behind Scary Movie—were already producing a Scream spoof when the film was written, and WGA arbitration gives the writers of that other script credit here given the ideas were undoubtedly fused together to make what would become Scary Movie. The targets are primarily recent examples of the horror movie inversion, the meta-textual examination of horror tropes, characters and narratives which earlier this year remained still in evidence with Scream 3, which was derided (perhaps unfairly) for taking the concept to the max and making films within films, examining Hollywood within that spectrum. It was perhaps both too soon for a spoof like Scary Movie and exactly the right time, given the sizeable box office take that would lead, over the next fifteen years, to four sequels.

Here’s the thing, though. Scary Movie is terrible. Not just terrible, but *horrible*, and considering it so desperately wants to ape Airplane or Hot Shots etc… it is, despite being younger than those films, infinitely already much more dated.

Comedy, as you know, is the hardest genre to nail in any medium. Laughs are subjective. We all find different things funny and, no question, there would be audiences out there who today lap up Scary Movie, still. It remains a spoof people talk about. It has lingered in the cultural consciousness, for better or worse.

It is hard, however, to look back twenty years at Scary Movie and not just find it powerfully free of laughter, but also deeply offensive and crass without in any way being charming. You don’t find that with then Zucker output. There are plenty of obvious and crass jokes in films like Airplane or The Naked Gun, but there remains a warmth about that humour, and a timelessness – even if Leslie Nielsen takes off film noir, or Robert Hays is making light of 70’s disaster movies. There are dated sub-genres that resonate. Horror is, and should be, without question the same. Scream and the post-modern ilk are ripe for humour, given they are knowingly one step away from parody in their very conception anyway, and are playing on the audiences’ awareness of the tropes they had started to laugh at by the 90’s.

What Wayans, who wrote the script partly with his co-stars and brothers Shawn and Marlon, does with the comedy here is play out the logical extension of these jokes without any sense of innate wit or staging, aside from one or two examples. The story follows, roughly, the plot of Scream, with Anna Faris standing in for Neve Campbell as the innocent, here largely virginal Cindy watching as her friends and fellow high-schoolers get picked off one by one by Ghostface, while balancing the pressures of her horny boyfriend. It follows the same pattern as Scream while only, occasionally, being inventive in how it subverts the subverted tropes – Shannon Elizabeth’s Buffy (narf) watching her boyfriend be slaughtered while an audience believe she’s reciting an original dramatic work is probably the only time the deaths raise a smile or light titter.

Everything else is truly awful and retrograde, and has aged terribly, even for gross out or lowest common denominator comedy. Shawn Wayans’ hunky jock Ray spends the entire film, almost from his first word, making gay jokes as the film slams us again and again and again with the joke that everything he says or does indicates he’s homosexual, and nobody around him can see it. Cheri Oteri grates as the Courtney Cox newscaster (amusingly named Gail Hailstorm, admittedly), one sequence seeing her interviewing a murder victim as she’s slaughtered which feels in really bad taste, while Regina Hall screeches her way through a role that leads to a contrived and truly unfunny death sequence in a cinema (even though we get probably the best joke of the film, a trailer for Amistad II). And let’s not even get started on the David Arquette’s Dewey spoof, Doofy, which presents the local town cop as a man with visible special needs that are frequently mocked. It’s genuinely quite shocking to behold with our distance.

There is ultimately no invention to Scary Movie. It is lazy from beginning to end, with only the mildest examples of sight gag or script-based wit to raise a smile. The rest is just puerile, gross without being funny, and nasty for simply the sake of it. Plus, when the killers are revealed, their rationale is strongly suggested that they are slaughtering their peers because they haven’t come to terms with their homosexuality, and that leaves a really sour taste in the mouth. At least Road Trip had a certain level of care for the characters involved, as indeed did Next Friday, which is a far better example of black comedy on screen at the top of this year. Scary Movie is cheap spoof which does the targets of its humour no favours, and often veers away from hitting those marks to make a sex gag, or often a gay gag, which almost never lands properly.

In a way, Scary Movie actually owes as much to the revival of the sex comedy as it does any attempt to revive the spoof, which had pretty much died a death since Mel Brooks’ poor Dracula: Dead and Loving It in 1995, being peddled along gamely by an ageing Leslie Nielsen with diminishing returns (save 1996’s Spy Hard, which is genuinely great). Wayans seems as interested in mining that pervy well, one which hasn’t aged very well either, as he does either horror or late 90’s popular culture references, given the film does contain (pretty naff) nods to The Usual Suspects, The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project too. What’s weird is that the Wayans had done spoof before, in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, which extended his original late 80’s Blaxploitation revival I’m Gonna Git You Sucka into taking off African-American coming of age films. It may be no Airplane, but it’s certainly more proficient than anything in Scary Movie.

The irony, of course, is that David Zucker would come aboard to helm Scary Movie 3 & 4 once the Wayans parted ways (to make more spoof films, incidentally), so perhaps I’ll have better luck finding laughs there. Scary Movie itself, perhaps inevitably now coming from the Weinstein table, just reminded me how we may have our fair share of rubbish comedy today, but we rarely get anything this tasteless. For that we should be thankful.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

20 – Road Trip

21 – Mission Impossible II

22 – Shanghai Noon

23 – Titan A.E

24 – Shaft

25 – Chicken Run

26 – The Patriot

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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