In the Early 2000s, Parody Films Weren’t Popular. Then the Wayans Made ‘Scary Movie’
Many filmmakers could lay claim to being the king of horror movies — John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dario Argento — but there’s not as much competition when it comes to the master of Halloween comedies. One of Netflix’s most popular movies at the moment is The Curse of Bridge Hollow, a family-friendly action/horror/comedy in which a dad and his daughter have to battle some Halloween decorations that come to life. The movie stars Marlon Wayans, who’s done his share of dramatic roles but is probably better known as being partly responsible for breathing new life into the spoof film. Specifically, he was one of the masterminds of Scary Movie, the surprise smash of the summer of 2000. That film launched a franchise and made parody movies popular again in a post-Airplane! world. By today’s standards, its humor is sometimes offensive, but back then the film was a sensation. Or as executive producer Bo Zenga once put it, “I don’t know if you could put an erect penis going through the wall and killing someone today.”
The 1990s saw the rise of the Wayans brothers, led by actor/director Keenen Ivory Wayans and comedian/actor Damon Wayans. By the late 1980s, Keenen had made his directorial debut with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, a parody of 1970s blaxploitation films, while Damon had been hired on (and fired from) Saturday Night Live, the two men later coming together to create In Living Color, a sketch comedy show on the then-upstart new network Fox. Edgier than SNL, and featuring a more diverse cast, In Living Color felt hip but also sillier — which was understandable considering the show featured a young comic named Jim Carrey, whose rubbery face and oddball impressions made him a breakout star.
Marlon, the youngest of 10 siblings, appeared on In Living Color with his older brothers and their sister Kim, but soon he and his brother Shawn (born about 17 months before he was) got their own WB sitcom, The Wayans Bros. At the same time, Marlon and Shawn worked on a screenplay that was eventually turned into 1996’s Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. As the title might suggest, it was a spoof of the so-called urban dramas of the late 1980s and early 1990s, like Menace II Society, Juice and Boyz n the Hood. Mocking these films for their speechifying and self-importance — in it, Keenen plays a side character who hollers “Message!” whenever someone is getting serious — Don’t Be a Menace showcased Marlon and Shawn’s mismatched energies, with Marlon playing the stereotypically unhinged gangster character and Shawn portraying the earnest protagonist who’s trying to make a better life for himself.
The reviews were poor, but the low-budget film was a hit, proving two things: (1) There was an underserved Black audience that Hollywood was ignoring; and (2) parody movies had a future. By the time of Don’t Be a Menace, the spoof genre had seemingly run out of gas. Nearly 20 years earlier, the comedic filmmaking team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker — also known as ZAZ — made their name mocking cinematic stereotypes by playing them straight. Airplane!, Top Secret! and the short-lived sitcom Police Squad! (which became the inspiration for The Naked Gun) were structured like serious dramas, except the characters were ridiculous and the situations were over-the-top.
These films’ commitment to deadpan performances made them incredibly funny — and helped create a cottage industry for such movies. But, inevitably, those who tried to follow in ZAZ’s footsteps weren’t as successful, which is why in the 1990s we had comedic duds like Loaded Weapon 1, Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused, which all copied the formula of satirizing a popular film or film genre. The Spoof Industrial Complex was so anemic around the time of Don’t Be a Menace that comedy legend Mel Brooks — whose classic films like Blazing Saddles were themselves parodies — was reduced to making anemic spoofs like Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Don’t Be a Menace was hardly great, but it contained a youthful energy that those old masters no longer possessed. And so Marlon and Shawn set to work on another parody script, struggling to find the right cinematic target. “We developed so many different versions of ,” Marlon said in 2020. “We worked with our brother Keenen and we wrote a Black draft, a white draft, a high school draft and a college draft. It wasn’t until we really saw I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream that it just kind of clicked for us.”
The late 1990s was a renaissance for horror movies — which, much like parody films, had stopped being fashionable. But when Scream, a horror film that smartly dissected the conventions of slasher flicks while being a riveting slasher flick in its own right, became a blockbuster over Christmas of 1996, the genre no longer seemed so moribund. Less than a year later, I Know What You Did Last Summer hit theaters, lacking Scream’s winking self-reflection but proving to be just as big a hit. Both had been written by Kevin Williamson, a young, hungry writer hoping to break into the industry. “Horror films had died a little bit before Scream came around,” he later recalled. “That was one of the reasons I wrote it. I wanted to write something that wasn’t being made right now.” After those back-to-back hits, horror was cool again — a feeling only accentuated by the 1999 Oscar-nominated classic The Sixth Sense. And so Marlon and Shawn crafted a story that combined elements of both of Willamson’s movies, throwing in lots of references to other scary movies as well.
But the two brothers weren’t the only ones thinking that a horror parody could be lucrative. Enter Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, a writing duo who had been responsible for the Spy Hard script. Their slasher-spoof screenplay, titled Scream If You Know What I Did Last Halloween, got scooped up by Dimension Films, the same company that put out Scream. Dimension was run by Bob Weinstein, brother of then-powerful producer Harvey Weinstein, who along with Bob oversaw Miramax. Why would Miramax bankroll a film that made fun of one of their biggest hits? Zenga later surmised, “I think they didn’t want somebody else cannibalizing their movie.” Eventually, Scream If You Know What I Did and the Wayans’ script were folded into one another, with Keenen coming on as director.
Crass and lewd, filled with sexual humor and off-color jokes, Scary Movie wasn’t like anything in the comedy firmament at the time — except for maybe Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the smash sequel to the 1997 original, itself a loving homage to a specific genre. Initial commercial expectations were relatively modest, and reviewers weren’t always pleased with the film’s juvenile, R-rated antics. USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna sighed, “Maybe I’m just too old to appreciate the startling sight of a phallus jammed into someone’s ear,” while Dana Stevens wrote in The New York Times, “If you’re amused by jokes involving male genitals, female pubic hair, flatulence and dismemberment, it should be a big hit.”
Turns out, a huge audience was amused by those very things: On its opening weekend in July 2000, Scary Movie brought in about $42 million, a record at the time for an R-rated film. The film’s runaway success helped make stars of relative unknowns like Anna Faris and Regina Hall, who played characters in the friend group that accidentally kill someone. But Scary Movie’s impact was cultural as much as it was financial. “It was huge to have an African-American director open an R-rated comedy that was that big,” Hall said later. “It broke the ceiling for what was possible. It was a movie that was really diversely cast, and we saw young audiences gravitate toward that.”
But where an earlier iteration of spoof films were straight-faced and deadpan, Scary Movie was proudly raucous and shocking. The titillating lowbrow humor had been there from the start: As Friedberg put it in 2014, “Imagine us pitching, ‘He pulls her panties down and her giant bush fills the entire frame and he grabs a weed whacker to whack it down.’ actually made the movie, but in pitch form it sounds ridiculous.” Some jokes were homophobic, some made light of things like sexual assault, but as Marlon said in that 2020 interview, “People were literally in the aisles and you could hear the laughter outside the theater. Like most of our movies, it got critically panned. It always does, but you know, comedy is subjective. And not to say the critics are right or wrong, but that’s just not their brand of humor.”
In quick succession, the film birthed a franchise, although the Wayans weren’t asked back after 2001’s Scary Movie 2. (Ironically, David Zucker was brought on to direct the third and fourth installments, with Zucker and former ZAZ associate Pat Proft writing 2013’s Scary Movie 5, which was helmed by Malcolm D. Lee.) The Wayans were angry at being kicked off their own film series, but they didn’t look back: Keenen directed Marlon and Shawn in 2004’s equally broad White Chicks, another big hit, and 2006’s Little Man, which didn’t do quite as well commercially. Then in 2013, Marlon hatched another horror spoof, teaming up with director Michael Tiddes to make A Haunted House, a takedown of found-footage flicks like Paranormal Activity. They released a sequel, following it up with Fifty Shades of Black (you can probably guess what that’s a spoof of).
But Scary Movie didn’t just help cement Marlon’s big-screen career: Friedberg and Seltzer went on to make low-budget parodies their speciality, churning out a series of torturous, puerile but lucrative (at least for a while) spoofs with unimaginative names like Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. “We like to work,” Seltzer once told Grantland about their ability to knock out one spoof film after another. “And know how difficult it is to get a movie made. So if you have a movie that worked financially, then the studios are much more apt to do that again than something more original.”
That may be true, but these things tend to be cyclical. In 2022, parody films are once again at a low ebb, the Scary Movie series no longer the zeitgeist-y phenomenon they once were. (As for Friedberg and Seltzer’s most recent spoof, 2015’s Superfast!, a sendup of the Fast and Furious franchise, it crashed and burned at the box office.) Marlon Wayans still does the occasional outrageous laugher, like Sextuplets, but nowadays you’re just as likely to see him in dramas such as On the Rocks or the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect.
For a brief moment, though, he and his family were making the brashest, crassest comedies out there, tapping into an audience hungry for something supremely sophomoric. The jokes haven’t aged well — the immaturity often coming across as mean-spirited — but if anything, the movies’ inappropriateness only makes them more remarkable now. It’s only been 22 years since Scary Movie came out, but it feels like several lifetimes ago. You couldn’t make it today. It’s astounding they got away with it back then.