It’s a sad state of affairs that the biggest joke in parody films anymore is often the film itself. What passes for satire these days elicits plenty of strong reactions… but rarely is laughter among them. This week, theater audiences will be dragged to A Haunted House a send-up of all the found footage horror films of the last few years; Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside. These of course are just the movies we can tell will be skewered based on the trailers. The movie stars, and was co-written by, Marlon Wayans; herein lies the potential for concern.
The Wayans Brothers — Marlon, Damon, Shawn, and Keenen Ivory — have been making films together, or at least collaborating on each other’s projects, for a long time. Though Damon has been involved the least, over the years they have put-together a number of comedies designed to lampoon certain film genres and trends. In 2000, Keenen Ivory directed a film written, at least in part, by his brothers Shawn and Marlon. It was called Scary Movie, and, like A Haunted House, it took aim at the spate of horror films popular at the time of its release. The really scary thing about this particular movie is how it marred the art of parody for many years to come.
It should be conceded that comedy is arguably the most subjective genre of film; there is no collective sense of humor. However, in terms of its basic construction, Scary Movie should be studied in film schools as the precise method by which one should not produce a parody film. It is laden with the cheapest, most insubstantial jokes designed to shock audiences or at least play to their basest impulses. There’s a downright sophomoric fart joke in the opening seconds, and the mentality of “when in doubt make a sex joke” seems to be the driving force. Not that the humor need be G-rated, but the lazy raunchy comedy here is on par with a porn parody more than a studio comedy.
One of the big problems with Scary Movie is that it doesn’t just poke fun at horror films. It makes several references to topical pop culture footnotes throughout that fall flat time after time. We are treated to such gems as Prince in his yellow jumpsuit, Dawson’s Creek gags, and a segment lifted from that atrocious “wassup” beer commercial. These references don’t just sail past our funny bones, but they also give the movie a desperately dated feel. Yes, these guys were “satirizing” horror movies from a specific era, but none of the pop culture nods are necessary and, as the years continue to distance us from Scary Movie, will only serve to limit its audience and effect. As the franchise continued, the pop culture roasting became more prevalent than the horror movie mockery.
The success of Scary Movie at the box office has turned out to be extremely unfortunate for the art form of comedy, particularly spoof comedy. There are six writers credited on Scary Movie, incredible considering the crippling weakness of its script. Two of those credited are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These two continued to work on the Scary Movie sequels before branching off into the subset of films known as the “movie movies.” These cinematic faceplants included Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans, films less about crafting intelligent parody and more about serving as ephemeral pop culture hat racks. The formula became, “hey, (insert topical personality or character), what are you doing here?” immediately followed by that character inexplicably getting hit with a large object. Funny.
Back in the 1980s, the standard for spoof came at the hands of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. These were the guys that brought us Airplane, Naked Gun, and Top Secret. They knew how to balance lampoon of established material with unique sight gags and slapstick. As much as it would seem apt to judge Scary Movie as a cheap imitation of these masters, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams actually came aboard for the woefully inept Scary Movie 4. To continue lording their work over the Scary Movie series is hypocritical.
Instead, let us examine 1988’s I’m Gonna Get You Sucka!. Like Scary Movie, I’m Gonna Get You Sucka! was directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and acts as a parody, casting a cadre of legends and lovingly spoofing the tropes of blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The comedy in the movie comes not only from references to the films it is lampooning, but also in the comical lead characters and situations that stand on their own. The movie was clever, plot-driven, and expertly blended cultural satire into the narrative. Why did none of this translate to Scary Movie?
It may have something to do with the old adage of too many cooks in the kitchen. On the one hand, it is understandable that the other Wayans would favor a collaborative writing process given their roots in the sketch comedy show In Living Color, but when the number of writers on a single movie becomes a running gag throughout the life of the franchise, there’s a problem. “From fourteen of the sixteen writers of Scary Movie” was actually used as a comedic tagline at one point.
But we can then hold out some hope for A Haunted House. Though Keenaen is not involved, only two writers are credited. If we may offer any advice at all to co-writer Marlon Wayans, it would be to look to his brother’s I’m Gonna Get You Sucka for screenplay structure inspiration; clever standalone jokes, minimized toilet humor. We would also warn against using the Friedburg and Seltzer model of crowding that haunted house with nothing but pop culture junk. Our optimism here may be paltry, but after such a disastrous trailer, we’re hoping against hope that this won’t be just another bad joke masquerading as a satirical comedy.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Open Road Films; United Artists]