'Scary Movie': Did It Kill The Spoof?
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Those Scary Movie movies -- everyone has seen the first one, but did you know there are five of them? Want to hear something objectively scary? They make up one of the most lucrative comedy movie franchises of all time, taking in nearly one billion dollars at the box office.
Who knew funny-scary was so profitable? When the original Scary Movie premiered in 2000, with a $42.3 million opening weekend (against a tiny $19 million budget), no one saw it coming. It was nearly the biggest opening of the year, behind only Tom Cruise and Mission Impossible 2.
At the time, it was the largest opening ever, comedy or otherwise, for a Black director. Hollywood couldn’t believe it. One studio executive exclaimed, ”It’s as stunning an opening as there’s ever been.”
A shocking victory for the movie parody -- but ironically, Scary Movie may have put Ghostface’s Buck 120 hunting knife into the heart of the spoof genre.
Kicking some ZAZ
Scary Movie rode the long tail of a movie parody wave.
In the 1960s, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen gambled on Casino Royale to spoof the James Bond movies.
Mel Brooks owned the parody in the 1970s, creating a series of genre goofs that scored with audiences. There was Blazing Saddles (mocking the Hollywood western), Young Frankenstein (classic horror), Silent Movie (er, silent movies), and High Anxiety (Hitchcock films). Mel did more parodies in the 1980s -- Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights -- to much lesser effect.
But it was Airplane that changed the game.
For Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, Jerry and David, or ZAZ, as they are collectively known, Airplane was their first big studio outing. (They had previously created the cult classic Kentucky Fried Movie). Airplane, like Scary Movie, was a from-out-of-nowhere hit.
On a budget of about three million bucks, Airplane brought in more than $83 million (in 1980 dollars). Abrahams and the Zuckers out-Brooksed Mel Brooks, throwing so many jokes at the screen that audiences could barely catch their breath.
The guys were joke-writers by trade, and story was not their strong suit. Luckily, they convinced the studio to option the rights to Zero Hour!, an old black-and-white disaster movie so deadly serious that it begged to be made fun of. Voila – instant plot!
“We didn’t realize at first just how strong a story Arthur Hailey had written,” admits Abrahams. That sturdy story framework, combined with hundreds of jokes and visual puns, formed a blueprint for the next twenty years of movie parody.
For ZAZ, Airplane led to the less successful Top Secret spy spoof and then the crazy-popular Naked Gun series in the 1990s. There’s not an unfunny movie in the Naked Gun bunch. As the series went on, however, the movies became less about spoofing cop flicks and more about OJ Simpson careening down flights of stairs, the Wile E. Coyote of the ZAZ Cinematic Universe.
It’s ‘Scary’ Out There
The 1990s brings us to Scary Movie.
Proving that movie minds hungry for a hit think alike, two projects competed to mock 1990s horror flicks. The comic ‘geniuses’ behind the tepid spoof Spy Hard had a screenplay called Scream if I Know What You Did Last Halloween. The comedy mafia known as the Wayans family scribbled their own version: Last Summer I Screamed Because Friday the 13th Fell on Halloween.
At least the Wayans brothers had the excuse that their Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood was a modest hit in 1996 -- the Spy Hard guy’s new screenplay clearly ripped off their titling gimmick.
Enter Dimension (Bob Weinstein’s branch of Miramax), which also produced Scream. Deciding that it didn’t want someone else to profit from parodying its movies, Dimension bought both scripts and paid the Wayans to combine the best of both into a sort of parody movie Voltron.
(The funny thing is Scream was already a post-modern riff on genre tropes. And Scream’s original name, not coincidentally, was Scary Movie. So the comedy Scary Movie was, in a sense, a parody of a parody.)
Scary Movie was a monster hit, though it hasn’t aged well. There are scenes involving date rape and homophobia. Poor Anna Faris (a virtual unknown who didn’t even have a headshot or an agent when she was cast) spent the movie getting knocked around and smacked in the face.
Despite its shortcomings, Scary Movie hangs together far better than its imitators, says movie writer Jon O’Brien. More than just making fun of horror movie cliches, “Scary Movie appears to have a genuine affection for its main source material.”
Bottom line: The movie worked. Like Airplane, director Keenan Ivory Wayans credits a solid plot for anchoring the comedy. “In a parody, you still have to tell a story,” Wayans says. “What people tend to do is write a bunch of jokes and just string ’em together. That won’t hold up; you have to create a narrative.”
If only the movie had the good sense to live up to its marketing tagline:
No mercy. No shame. No sequel.
Scary Things That Happened to Spoofs: The Sequels
What happens when your little movie makes unexpected millions? Crank up the assembly line, the suits want more.
So the family -- director Keenen Ivory Wayans and actors Marlon and Shawn -- agreed to do another one. Once again, the movie made crazy dollars -- $141 million on a $45 million budget. The Scary Movie franchise was a legit goldmine!
But was it any good?
“We got rushed to do a sequel,” says Marlon. “It still performed, but not the way we wanted it to. It wasn't as good as the first one. It was all right. It wasn't using its jab or hook. It was just right hand, right hand, right hand. It was a little more desperate.”
Less money, fewer laughs. And then things got worse -- the Wayans get shut out of their own franchise. Marlon and company had worked up an idea for Scary Movie 3 -- “and they basically stole our idea.”
“We read on Christmas Eve that they were going with someone else,” Marlon said. (We're familiar with that Christmas message, Marlon) “We probably could have sued or whatever. I could write a book on that whole thing, honestly. They definitely still owe us money, lots of money. What they did was really bad business.”
And bad for Anna Faris’s face. The slapstick got more violent with each sequel. “In Scary Movie 3, there’s an airplane cart that lands on my face,” she says. “I thought, “F--- these people. I’m about to break my f—ing nose.”
The sequels kept coming -- and amazingly, continued to make money. Both Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4 grossed more than $150 million worldwide.
The studio even gauged interest in The Wayans' making Scary Movie 5. “We said no,” says Marlon. “We had our time and did what we could with the franchise. I think "Scary Movie" is tired.”
Scary Movie 5 was the installment that at long last put the stake in the franchise's heart. The movie was so worthless that it made critics long for the comedy gold of Scary Movie 3. “Lacking a single honest laugh,” wrote Empire critic Kim Newman, “this is shoddy by comparison with the other Scary Movie sequels.”
Scary Things That Happened to Spoofs 2: The Imitators
The success of Scary Movie spawned a series of other generically named spoofs -- Disaster Movie, Date Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, Superhero Movie, My Big Fat Independent Movie, Another Gay Movie, Epic Movie, and Extreme Movie. Tell us which of these was funny -- we’ll wait in an incinerator.
Parodies became parodies of themselves, imitating what preceded as much as mocking a particular genre. The new parody formula went like this: Lift a scene from a more popular movie and add vomit, poop, and/or semen. Wait for the laughs that never come.
Since Scary Movie 5, the entire movie parody genre has virtually disappeared. Is that the Scary Movies’ fault? Not exactly. But it’s tempting to blame its imitators. Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) spawned a slew of painful knock-offs like The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Superbad About It and 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
If a title makes you groan and roll your eyes, chances are the movie won't be much better.
Scary Things That Happened to Spoofs 3: Marlon Wayans
At this point, the movie parody market had pretty much dried up, except for the work of Marlon Wayans. Remember how he turned down an opportunity to make Scary Movie 5 in 2013 because the whole thing was tired? That same year, Marlon wrote and starred in … A Haunted House, a parody of horror movies. It even opened on the same day that Scary Movie 5 was supposed to premiere.
“Some will think it's a guilty pleasure,” said Marlon. “Others will be too embarrassed to say they liked it. And some, it just won't be for them. Comedy is all subjective. When you get good reviews, you get excited. But I don't make movies for critics. I make them for audiences.”
Some people did show up -- not Scary Movie numbers but respectable. Wayans was right about the critics as the movie rated 9% on the Tomatometer.
Undeterred, Marlon returned the next year with A Haunted House 2, which fared even worse with critics and at the box office.
With A Haunted House, Wayans had created a parody of a parody of a parody. And followed it up with a sequel to a parody of a parody of a parody. Is it any wonder audiences got tired of all this? We're asleep. Like a photocopy that gets copied again and again, the humor in each subsequent version is fainter and harder to recognize.
Can The Spoof Rise From the Dead?
Comedy genres are like Freddy Krueger. Sure, they seem dead but everyone knows they’ll be back soon enough.
But the next successful spoof won’t be a copy of a copy. The filmmakers will follow the blueprint laid out by Keenen Ivory Wayans the first time around. The same plan that worked for Airplane = start with story.
Even if that means fewer jokes! Originally, Airplane had a bunch of embedded fake commercials that detracted from the movie’s comic momentum. “Paramount executives were very helpful in making sure we stuck to the plot,” says Abrahams, “while trimming away the excess stuff.”
Another key to great parody might be straight-ahead casting. “Paramount would suggest actors like Bill Murray and Chevy Chase,” says Jerry Zucker, but the ZAZ guys insisted on having deadpan, serious actors to deliver the ridiculous lines. It worked brilliantly.
One reason the great Leslie Nielsen sucked in failed parodies like Spy Hard and Dracula: Dead and Loving It is he’s trying to be goofy. It’s couter-intuitive but playing it straight is funnier.
Finally, please no sequels.
“They offered Airplane II to us,” says Jerry. But his brother David knew their heart wasn’t it. “We just didn’t want to do it.”
For the sake of comedy spoofs, let’s hope more filmmakers follow that advice.