Scary Movie was ground zero for some of the worst comedy of all time

Screenshot: Scary Movie. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

A main character in The Hunger Games is named Peeta. In The Starving Games, an alleged parody of the series, the equivalent character is renamed Peter. Given that any deviation from the source material is the film’s attempt at humor (Katniss Everdeen becomes Kantmiss Evershot), consider that here, the joke is that someone is named Peter.

Comedy, like every other genre, has distinct eras. Action- and effects-heavy blockbusters reigned for a while, until There’s Something About Mary and American Pie brought gross-out and raunch comedies back into popularity, and we’re currently in the age of improv-heavy Apatow-type films. But there was also a period, stretching across the first 15 or so years of the new millennium, when movie spoofs were almost a surefire bet for studios. It was a dark time.

The age was embodied by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the anti-geniuses who thought Peter was a funny name and that changing The Hunger Games to The Starving Games constituted a good day’s work. The genesis of their shtick—which can be loosely defined as referencing something obvious and, if they’re feeling ambitious, having it get kicked in the balls—can be traced back to Scary Movie, the horror movie riff that was popular enough to spawn four sequels and launch a curdled cottage industry of Movie movies (Date Movie, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie). Friedberg and Seltzer were writers on Scary Movie, and from its success they springboarded into positions of inexplicable power and popularity.

Scary Movie marked the third wave of parody popularity, and the broad genre got broader with each resurgence. At first, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner told real stories, however goofily (Young Frankenstein, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), and had real things to say (Blazing Saddles isn’t just parody but satire; it is about racism in the Western genre). The next era, kicked off by David Zucker and Airplane!, valued laughs over character or theme, and preferred a thousand little gags over a few big laughs (it had no comedic set pieces; the film was the set piece). Discipline and sophistication, whether visually or narratively, stopped being the point.

Illustration for article titled Scary Movie was ground zero for some of the worst comedy of all time
Screenshot: Scary Movie

The anything-for-a-laugh ethos became the prevailing one; even Brooks would tamp down his ambitions with the juvenile Spaceballs and Men In Tights. The list of genres and titles that got the spoof treatment grew long, with films like Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard, Loaded Weapon 1, and others even less worthy of remembrance. This is where Scary Movie came in, and while the film’s unexpected success revitalized the genre’s commercial viability, the third era of parody didn’t really come into focus until Scary Movie 3. That’s where Friedberg and Seltzer made their presence known. After this they would immediately pivot to Meet The Spartans, Vampires Suck, and the rest of their shitty oeuvre. The trend of lazy obviousness in lieu of jokes would go on to define parodies even as its popularity waned. When The Starving Games went straight to DVD, other Scary Movie alumni stepped in, keeping the flatulent torch alive with A Haunted House and Fifty Shades Of Black. A few Brooks-level films did get produced during these years, notably Wet Hot American Summer, Walk Hard, and Black Dynamite, but they were decidedly cult objects, and if quality wasn’t dictating box office, why put in the effort to make a comedy funny?

It isn’t that Scary Movie and its immediate sequel are masterpieces or even very good, but there’s a pronounced drop in quality once Keenen Ivory Wayans left as director and took his brothers with him. He didn’t go on to better things, though; after Scary Movie 2, he made White Chicks and Little Man, which stood as go-to examples for Hollywood terribleness until Friedberg and Seltzer got going.

The first film takes on Scream as its target (with plot details from I Know What You Did Last Summer filling in as backstory), which was an understandable choice—the film was phenomenally popular—but also a self-defeating one. The defining feature of Wes Craven’s film was its self-awareness. (Its original title was even Scary Movie.) Scream’s characters talked about horror-movie rules, poking at conventions and tweaking audience expectations. That level of meta-commentary made Scary Movie a spoof of something that was on some level a satire to begin with. As would later be definitively proved by Not Another Not Another Movie, which actually, genuinely exists, parodying a parody is the kind of gambit that just shouldn’t be tried.

Illustration for article titled Scary Movie was ground zero for some of the worst comedy of all time
Screenshot: Scary Movie

It isn’t a fatal flaw here, however, as Wayans had no aspirations of commenting on Scream or slasher movies in general. Instead, his film is basically wacky gags in a horror setting. Maybe half the jokes have the same setup as a moment in Scream or Summer, only to complete the thought with an absurdist detail or pratfall. (The total absence of genre commentary is surprising. The Wayans did a lot of race-themed humor—including two blaxploitation spoofs ahead of Scary Movie—but they ignore the horror cliché about black characters being the first to die.)

Writing about Scary Movie, Roger Ebert observed that parodies were the hardest movies to critique, as they purposefully had no characters to analyze or themes to consider. All they could be rated on was how many of the jokes land, and Scary Movie is decent on this score. None of the jokes are particularly clever or inspired, let alone gut-busting, but the laziness that would increasingly define the series hadn’t yet taken hold. The self-seriousness of Summer, if not Scream, is something that could be profitably taken down a peg, and the murder-mystery intrigue of “who is the killer” provides some needed narrative structure.

It also had a couple of genuine things in its favor, starting with Anna Faris in her breakout role. Faris makes the material feel a lot better than it is, striking the right tone of faux seriousness and infectious enthusiasm. She demonstrates how good timing and delivery can elevate comedy that doesn’t otherwise provide a lot to work with, and elsewhere the cast’s general chemistry papers over how thin everything is. This formula made the film amazingly popular; it was the ninth-highest grossing movie of 2000, earning just $280,000 less than X-Men. It’s enjoyable enough that one can almost overlook how it was ground zero for the worst comedy of the ’00s and beyond.

Illustration for article titled Scary Movie was ground zero for some of the worst comedy of all time
Screenshot: Scary Movie 2

The laws of diminishing returns kicked in with Scary Movie 2, which switched the target from slashers to supernatural thrillers, specifically The Haunting and House On Haunted Hill. Trying to recapture the success of the first film means a lot of similar or identical jokes, and an increased reliance on supporting characters like Shawn Wayans’ Shortie, the ridiculous stoner character to end all ridiculous stoner characters. Lt. Frank Drebin of The Naked Gun movies could survive the sequel treatment because he was too deadpan to grow tiresome; Shortie demonstrates how quickly over-the-top extinguishes itself.

The film’s Exorcist-themed pre-title sequence is probably the funniest stretch of the whole series, but the main plot—with the gang from the first film tricked into staying at a haunted house—lacks whatever inspiration there was in the first one. This is true even though the supporting cast is better here, with David Cross, Tim Curry, Andy Richter, Chris Elliott, and James Woods all providing a baseline of talent that helps insulate the film from the lower jokes-per-minute success rate.

Honestly, a lot of the film’s jokes don’t even feel like jokes. There’s a sequence where Chris Elliott’s character, a greasy butler with a disgustingly shrunken hand, serves dinner. He touches and licks the food, and at one point basically fucks the turkey. It’s gross, sure, but what’s the joke there, beyond the fact that it’s gross? Wouldn’t it be funnier if he ruined it despite his best efforts, or if they didn’t react the way normal people would—some kind of unexpected punchline? This is like Sideshow Bob deliberately walking into rakes.

Still, the film plays like Masterpiece Theatre compared with what followed. Whereas the first two had specific genre targets to parody, Scary Movie 3 takes its inspiration, so to speak, from Signs, The Ring, 8 Mile, and The Matrix movies. The only connective tissue between those was that they were popular and had come out recently; this was where spoofs started to congratulate audiences for being familiar with the most popular popular culture of the age, an odious lowering of comedy’s lowest bar. According to Wikipedia, it won the 2004 Teen Choice Award for “movie your parents didn’t want you to see.” Kids, listen to your parents.

The film is dire, despite Zucker taking over as director and the addition of spoof god Leslie Nielsen as the U.S. president. Both have a history of success with the genre, but there’s a shocking dearth of jokes, or even attempts at jokes. Instead, Scary the movie just makes obvious changes to the most familiar aspects of its sources, so that instead of a crop circle, there’s a crop “attack here” sign pointing at Charlie Sheen’s farmhouse. Recognizing it, and recognizing that it is changed from the original, is the entirety of so many bits from here on out.

Basic comedic principles are ignored, and wanting them isn’t something that’s too much to ask of a movie like Scary Movie 3. At one point it seems like there’s going to be a running gag where Sheen (playing Mel Gibson’s Signs role) begs off old titles. “Don’t call me Father, I haven’t been a priest since…” is followed by “Don’t call me dude, I haven’t been a snowboarder since…” but then it ends there. A running gag has to be told more than twice to work as a running gag, and the jokes that do recur—assuming we can consider all the random falls, beatings, and violence as recurring jokes—don’t escalate or build off each other in any meaningful way. It’s as though Zucker just wanted things he could point to as jokes (“Look, he cocked his shovel. Shovels don’t cock.”), and was indifferent to whether they actually were. The call-outs to better parodies (Nielsen says, “I just want to tell you all good luck. We’re all counting on you”; someone quotes BASEketball’s “You’re excited? Feel these nipples!”) are quietly sad.

Scary Movie 4
Scary Movie 4
Photo: The Weinstein Company

Sadder still was the film’s success. While Scary Movie 2 made less than half the box office as its predecessor, Scary Movie 3 returned the series to hit status, grossing over $110 million. That endorsement of lazy humor set the stage for the genre from there on out. What could be easier, from the perspective of a screenwriter, than doing absolutely no work at all?

Scary Movie 4 took the comedic dreariness even further. The targets this time around are War Of The Worlds, Saw, The Village, Million Dollar Baby, and Tom Cruise, but the biggest joke is on the audience itself. Is it possible for a screenplay to be written in less time than it takes to watch the resulting movie? Surely such an experiment is the only way this was considered done.

It’s not worth rehashing any of the plot or jokes, two words that cry out for quotation marks in this circumstance. It is worth examining the ugly undercurrent behind some jokes, though. Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart, whose banter is what qualifies as a highlight, do a Brokeback Mountain spoof where the central gag seems to be that gay people exist. Elsewhere there are minstrel depictions of black characters, their bling clattering to the ground as aliens vaporize them (again, that they’re wearing such items is the only deviation from the original, which means it’s the joke). It builds off the similarly icky 8 Mile material of part three, where a bit involves the Eminem stand-in wearing a hoodie that makes him look like a Klansman. The first two films, with Shortie and Regina Hall’s character, skirted these issues themselves, but they ultimately felt like they were skewering the stereotypes, not feeding them, as is the case here.

Scary Movie 5
Scary Movie 5
Photo: The Weinstein Company

The fifth Scary Movie, made in a Hail Mary ploy for relevance seven years after the fourth was released, is the type of film where you think it’s almost over, and then you check the DVD and realize to your horror it’s only been on 25 minutes. It is beyond awful, and further irredeemable for taking on found-footage films like Paranormal Activity, a deserving target if there ever was one, and not scoring any points. The other plots are stolen from Black Swan (parodying psychological thrillers is interesting in theory but, you know, this is Scary Movie 5) and Mama, a movie that wasn’t bad, but when was the last time anyone thought or talked about Mama? A good parody shouldn’t require familiarity with the source to work; here, lukewarm gags about a forgettable movie approaches abstract art.

Scary Movie 5 was by far the lowest-grossing of the series. Between that and The Starving Games flopping, it should have permanently ended the careers of Seltzer and Friedberg, who... are apparently in preproduction on Star Worlds Episode XXXIVE=MC2: The Force Awakens The Last Jedi Who Went Rogue. It’s going to be terrible. God have mercy on us all.

Final ranking

1. Scary Movie (2000)
2. Scary Movie 2 (2001)
3. Scary Movie 4 (2006)
4. Scary Movie 5 (2013)
5. Scary Movie 3 (2003)

Ryan is an A.V. Club contributor. His writing has also appeared in Reuters, MarketWatch, the WSJ, and other outlets. He writes a lot about finance but would rather be talking about books.