When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunity chiefly to the satirist…
— Jacques Barzun
Maybe what’s going on in Scary Movie 4 isn’t exactly satire — which is too sharp and discerning a word — but crass, dumb parody; not exactly a movie, but the parody of particular contemporary films and the conventions they deploy to create the “Scary Movie”. So, in a sense, the possibility of the Scary Movie franchise is a reflection that the prevalence or glut of a certain product, the “Scary Movie”, is no longer accepted with the same reverence as it once was. The man behind that machine which is to resemble a monster, pulling those levers as expertly as he can, is exposed.
More generally, it is with a mix of ironic detachment and fatigue that we relent, in one way or another, our oftentimes abiding respect for convention. Respected institutions begin to appear silly, (Hollywood and Mainstream media as epithets) which is dispiriting, not least because new foundations must be sought in an increasingly chaotic and dizzyingly variegated landscape. If the appearance is one of absurdity, the feeling, more or less, is one of despair.
Which is to say that Scary Movie 4 owes its existence to that iconic mask of despair, Edvard Munch’s Shriek, or, more commonly, The Scream or The Cry. It’s normally understood that the person in the painting, in a pique of existential angst, is said to be contemplating the dawn of modernity, as well as, if not screaming himself, covering his ears at the distressing shriek of nature — the 20th century off in the horizon, soon to wrought its incredible carnage.
But time passes by fitfully, and this once grim countenance becomes cannibalized by Pop Art and popular culture to the point of meaningless kitsch. Wes Craven’s irreverent 1996 horror movie Scream is where Munch’s Shriek, if you will, exacts its revenge. That familiar despair is placed aside and Munch’s creation gets to killing, and as a quick study of current pop culture, questions the cast on any number of horror movie factoids.
The novelty of Craven’s Scream was its self-awareness and continual self-reference; it was a movie eager to explain the clichés and tropes of its genre. The video store clerk goes to lengths describing the narrative progression of “Horror Movies”, what typically happens, when particular characters are killed off, who the likely suspects are, all this having the effect of deconstructing the movie while it still develops. Thus Scream, apart from being affectingly scary, is essentially a satire of its genre.
If this is all too cute, consider that its original working title was Scary Movie, later to be recycled for the Wayans brothers’ 2000 parody. A closer and more imitative reading of Scream, Scary Movie was that predictably inane though no less enjoyable parody everyone expected it to be. At a cost of $19 million, its $156 million domestic take cemented its logic: Make more. And so they did; with the paltry cost of $90 million combined, the next two installments grossed close to $400 million, not including DVD sales.
And yet its ambitions grew larger with each successive installment, its mandate growing so bloated as to included anything patently absurd and therefore worthy of cinematic parody. References were pulled not only from horror movies but any movie, and then, inevitably, public scandals. Michael Jackson was never far away. So what lands on our laps after three equally bawdy, if inane, potboilers is Scary Movie 4, the bastard child of commerce for the sake of commerce and pop cultural decadence.
Anna Faris is back as Cindy Campbell, reprising the role of Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge. With her cloying smile and adorable naiveté, Faris is the eminent “straight man” enduring all of the absurdity that ensues. Her ex-husband Charlie Sheen (if we weren’t paying attention to the franchise) wakes up with three porn stars in his bed (not out of character) ingests a bottle of Viagra (again, not out of character) whilst chasing it down with vodka (ibid). Needless to say, he gets an incredibly large and incredibly comical erection while Faris’ character absent-mindedly gabs away in the next room.
Enter Craig Bierko as the brooding Tom Ryan, a send up of Tom Cruise’s character from last year’s War of the Worlds. As the gruff working class stiff on the verge of losing custody of his children, Ryan contemplates his situation with two gay gangsters (Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart), invoking the Brokeback Mountain and Hustle and Flow spoof. The masked killer from the original Scary Movie is long gone; the conceit now is that aliens have come to destroy the earth — nothing scarier than that. But in the process, Lil’ John, Chingy, Shaq, and Dr. Phil make appearances as themselves, for no apparent reason. Particularly astute, though, is Dr. Phil poking fun at himself, thus confirming his professional artifice, and Leslie Nielsen as a roman à clef for a daft, easily recognizable world leader. Naturally, Michael Jackson is there to lure young children to safety.
We know the plot points. This isn’t a movie so much as a series of set pieces with a theme of parody in mind, only to quickly devolve into toilet humor of the most literal kind and asinine, gross-out histrionics.
If nothing else, the Scary Movie franchise exists as a matter of commerce. With four movies in just six years and a fifth one due out next spring, there can be no doubt about the motivation behind this timetable. The legacy of biting satirical films, however — from Young Frankenstein to Blazing Saddles to Airplane!, among others — has all but been sullied. Dumber, more vulgar fare like this year’s Date Movie now pass as satiric commentary on popular cinema and culture.
It’s likely that we are a far more cynical, far more vulgar culture than in the past, and that these movies are merely a reflection of this trend. Likelier still is that because of the economical scale and relative ease with which these movies can be put together, an aim for trenchant parody doesn’t necessarily fit into the calculus. Exhibiting no reverence for the conventions of movies and parody movies per se, the situation is one of opportunism. Even more, the situation is one of decadence and complacency. One can either be enervated by futility or seized with despair; which, incidentally, is two ways of describing the same thing.