It’s a dark and stormy night, and the barely-legal teenage girl is home alone for the evening. Perhaps she is preparing for an illicit sexual encounter with her equally teenaged boyfriend, or perhaps she is popping popcorn to watch a movie all alone in her darkened living room. In any case, such plans are put on hold as the phone rings.
“Who’s there?” The girl asks, with just the right amount of nervousness, lightning striking at the opportune time, illuminating what could possibly be the hanging corpse of her now-eviscerated boyfriend. A well placed dramatic chord of music highlights the scene, and the killer’s voice is finally heard on the other end…
We all know the formula that makes an effective horror movie: Add a group of teenagers; have them have sex with each other in various locations such as at parties, in the middle of the woods, in a cornfield, on the dock next to a lake in the middle of the night, etc.; add an angry spirit/demon/murderer/animated doll; add a few scare chords; run, scream and murder until the credits roll. This formula is as old as it is effective, and even the most complicated backstory can be boiled down to that archetype of a plot.
However, like an eternal ice cream headache, films like the Scary Movie franchise never seem to go away. With a fifth installment rebooting the franchise having been released in April of this year, precluded by the unrelated Wayans vehicle A Haunted House premiering in January and already promising its own sequel, it seems like this is one Saw death trap we just don’t want to get out of.
There is an old saying: “comedy equals tragedy plus time”. Now consider the older horror films, once so terrifying to the old time audience, are sometimes now an object of humor. Perhaps the acting is too grandiose and theatrical, or the special effects are not particularly special at all. After all, it’s hard to have to keep the lights on while watching when you can see the strings keeping the ghosts in fight. Regardless, these films were treated with an ancestral respect as befitting the foundation of the horror genre. That was until the spoofs came along.
Nothing is safe from the spoof, whether the film be modern or classic, featuring a supernatural evil or a human killer. All is fair game in the name of parody and mockery, rendering complex plots and themes down to the most simple of designs. The spoof is comedy’s lowest hanging fruit, twisting already existing material for a joke here or there. In a spoof movie, comedy’s greatest asset- surprise- has been removed, offering a joke that is supposed to be funny simply because of what it references and that you understand that reference.
The Scary Movie franchise is the most obvious offender, with each movie mocking a laundry list of other movies, and each mockery more ridiculous than the last. Why does there seem to be a spoof or two lurking in the corners of the corners of every theater? They were here long before the movies that Scary Movie parodies were even greenlit, with the most well known spoofs taking root in the early seventies but handled with masterful timing and irreverence. These new films have transcended the very films they were originally making fun of, and throughout the years, as horror films grew more self aware, the lines of comedy and horror have been blurring.
First thing’s first, though; to understand a parody, one must truly analyze the foundation from which it springs. Horror movies hold up mirrors to ourselves, bringing our darkest fears out in order to have the viewer confront them, in however small of a way. As the “victim” runs from the faceless killer, we run with her; her death is experienced vicariously. The terror comes from the thought of evil, be it a supernatural creature forged from the hellish depths, or a human being utterly devoid of compassion, murdering the innocent (or not so innocent) simply because they were there. The horror genre gives the viewer a choice, through the many different options of horror: cosmic, body, the more realistic horror of house invasion or serial killing; the viewer can sample their own darkest fears carte blanche. Even the grandest, most far-reaching horror films out there have a kernel of truth at its core. Aliens remind us of the fear of the unknown, possessions grotesquely parallel the ravages of illness, both mental and physical. Monsters and the unknown things that stalk the victims in most films are merely symbols of what we fear in real life, the heavily allegorical fountain from which our nightmares spring.
When dialed up to eleven, we are forced to confront the darkest parts of our own humanity, and beyond, while still maintaining our own sense of safety. It is easy to reconcile with werewolves, zombies and vampires because they do not exist. It is easy to tap into this fear within the boundaries of disbelief simply because these things cannot hurt us. We treat ourselves to suspenseful thought experiments, eternally placing ourselves in the same situations as the poor victims. We ask ourselves, “What would I have done in that situation?” Watching the suffering of other people makes us feel safe, in a way, because when the lights come up, we are still there, alive and surrounded by other survivors of the same experience. It is through this exploiting this fear and this feeling that some of the most effective and disturbing satire can be produced.
Inevitably, the mind turns to Michael Haneke’s twice-told dark masterpiece Funny Games. It starts as a simple tale of a loving family going to their lake house for a relaxing summer vacation, but before long, they are approached by two young, articulate and white gloved men. These two nameless entities quickly become the absolute worst thing that can happen to a family, providing one of the most bleak accounts of home invasion seen thus far in cinema. While a simple plot of perpetrators torturing a small family can seem to simply be on trend with such intruder films as The Strangers, Panic Room or even the hardest to watch parts of A Clockwork Orange, Funny Games moves beyond that by weaving horror with a satirical fourth wall breaking vein. Only a parody in the barest sense, the viewer is made to feel not only more uncomfortable each time one of the intruders turns to address the audience. This act, a self referential meta reflection, breaks the protective bubble that the audience has constructed. In this way, what seems like parody on paper turns into a very new horror for the viewer in execution. How many times have viewers witnessed the murder of countless people, in far more horrifying ways than depicted in Funny Games? Why is it only when we are told that it is us who are the voyeuristic monsters, are we truly unsettled?
A smaller victory (and also a less well-regarded one, possibly simply as it is a studio effort in nature) is the Joss Whedon vehicle The Cabin in the Woods. Presented as a simple “group of college kids all get murdered in a cabin” in trailers, this incredibly meta fixture involves a company whose sole purpose is to crank out horror to appease the dark gods that may usher upon the apocalypse should their desires for violence not be met, falling in line with the human sacrifices of the Mayans and the Sumerians. What followed was a deconstruction unlike anything else that has yet been seen, with nods to almost every sort of genre of horror that can be imagined. There was an objection to Whedon’s film from more casual areas of the genre fan community, perhaps because it was far too meta for most audiences, but in the end, he presented a very interesting thought that echoes the message in Funny Games: it is the viewer who is the true monster. The Cabin in the Woods plays upon the old idea of sacrifice to the gods, an easy parallel within the world of films. It could be argued that the “gods” that the characters in the film are trying to please are the audience itself, as even now new horror films must top each author in their audacity, their gore, in order to please the ever hungering audience. In this vein, it could be argued that the spoof, too, must evolve.
These types of films are nothing new, with the horror-comedy genre itself going back as far as 1920 with the silent film Haunted Spooks. Spoofs themselves did not truly hit a stride as a genre until about the 70’s and 80’s, where such spoofs as Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes quickly became underground cult classics. These spoofs contain near surreal levels of silliness by presenting an outright comical antagonist as the main event. However, these classic cult spoofs of yesteryear nevertheless present a very interesting commentary. Horror is like baking: the formula must be precise to create a successful dish, and it is very easy to tip the scales in one direction or another. Killer Klowns and Killer Tomatoes are both effective as spoofs due to the fact that they take the traditional murderous scenarios that audiences squirm in their seats over and turns it on its head by making the pursuing element something utterly ludicrous, in this case, tomatoes, or space clowns, which are loads less terrifying than their terrestrial clown counterparts.
That in of itself is an interesting thought experiment: replace the iconic movie monsters from yesteryear with more mundane versions of themselves. It’s not easy to fear Freddy Krueger when he has feather duster hands. Put Jason Voorhees in space and you have probably one of the most ridiculous Friday the 13th movies in recent, or any, memory.
Let’s not forget the Schrodinger’s Cat of parodies: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This classic musical starring Tim Curry is both a parody and not a parody, depending on what you think it is. It starts off well enough, with a pair of young lovers just trying to visit their old professor when disaster strikes and they are stuck overnight in a spooky castle. When boiled down to the most basic elements, Rocky Horror is deeply unsettling: a mad scientist kidnaps various people for dark purposes, mentally and physically abusing them, tricking them into cannibalism and using them as puppets by the end. Of course, by adding in the “sweet transvestite” element, the situation is lightened considerably, as well as adding in the rock music. Its current reception as an increasingly viral underground cult movie has made it transcend its own label of spoof. None of the people who gather in shadow casts pay much attention to what is being parodied. Fans seem to like it that way.
Moving into the 90’s, spoofs had hit their stride and attempted to keep up the pace. Silly parodies such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It were all the rage, not to mention the truly spectacular Army of Darkness also showed its boomstick in theaters, despite more so implementing elements of slapstick physical humor of spoofs with the traditional horror-begot adventure film. Spoofs at this time were silly, but they held their own plotwise. Army of Darkness, in the same vein of Rocky Horror, transcended its comedic roots in order to achieve massive cult status that has yet to dissipate. It has all the earmarks of a spoof: overacting, funny self referential dialogue. What makes Army of Darkness stand out is the character of Ash. While most spoofs are re-toolings of various iconic characters, or paper cut-outs of horror victim archetypes, Ash is a stand alone character in his own right, a potential target for his own spoofing, and yet he is oddly untouchable. A scant amount of research reveals that Ash himself has yet to be lampooned (unless you count the porn version, hilariously named Evil Head). Ash is an everyman, yes, but he is an everyman with his own voice, truly fleshing out his own pastiche and chainsawing his own place into the iconic horror character pantheon.
One of the more enduring spoofs of the time was the New Zealand zombie masterpiece Dead Alive. Notable as being one of Peter Jackson’s first films, this film turned the traditional zombie formula, “zombies show up and everyone runs”, and transforms it into an intensely insane and delightfully gory deconstruction of the entire genre. What could have been thought of as terrifying transforms into something hilariously campy, harkening back to classic films that were so not classic back when it was made. Dead Alive’s cult status was solidified after Jackson’s foray into Middle Earth. Many who were fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy looked into the director’s earlier works, propelling the relatively quiet reception that Dead Alive had received in its original release into supernova. While the plot is relatively standard: man gets bitten by monkey and becomes zombie, but the execution is priceless. Dead Alive directly spoofs very few films itself, instead opting for an all encompassing pastiche that truly sells it.
By the mid-nineties, a new scary kid came to town, changing the face of the spoof forever. Scream, released in 1996, cocked the heads of many a horror film buff at the time. Mixing horror and humor, it was a true testament to the blending of the two that Scream not be immediately written off as another comedy-horror. We all most likely know the plot by now, a mysterious murderer is picking off high school kids one by one, and horror film geek Randy Meeks (played by Jamie Kennedy) explains the rules of surviving a horror movie:
1. Never have sex.
2. Never drink or do drugs.
3. Never say “be right back” when leaving the group.
The antagonists even believe that they can get away with their murders due to the fact that they have seen enough horror films and have a fairly good idea of how to go about it. It hit the horror scene like a lightning bolt illuminating the face of a scared ingénue, mixing the humor of a spoof into the actual chills of a horror flick. Scream did more than let us face our own fears, it pushed it even further by presenting a scenario where the killers are aware of the own rules they are bound by. Furthermore, it was a satire of the media’s interpretation of the horror community, parodying the concepts by which Parent Censorship Groups and the religious right perceived horror fans, which follow in the light of easily-influenced serial killers, such as in the West Memphis Three case and would later arise again in Post-Columbine America.
Spoofs began to change shortly after Scream’s release, mostly do to the fact that horror movies were beginning to infringe on their turf. Other self-aware horror films soon followed, with such greats as Lake Placid making the audience unsure of whether to scream or laugh. This led to a subtle change for the spoofs, for if the original movie was aware of itself, where else could it go?
Enter the Scary Movie franchise. Enter Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth, a mouthful if I ever had one. Both of these films came out in the same year, and both of them parody the Scream franchise. When parodying a film that is close to a parody itself, Scary Movie decided to throw as much spaghetti against the wall as possible, hoping that whatever stuck would be considered funny. No movie was safe, with various non-genre specific films (The Matrix and The Usual Suspects are notable examples) in order to make the spoof as funny as possible. The characters are shallow, over-exaggerated caricatures, a far cry from the heroic Ash of the last decade. Far more tragic is the aforementioned Shriek, which parodied the same movies, was released in the same year, but made far less of a splash than its counterpart with far less of its budget. While both films did not feature the most sophisticated of humor, Scary Movie attempted to carve out its own structure and plot, though satirical while Shriek relied more on ridiculous names. It had seemed, in some way, that spoofs had not fallen too far.
Soon the spoofs grew with an alarming frequency, as sequels to franchises soon were released with a heavily humorous vein, such as the Child’s Play franchise. While the killer doll started in more horror territory, with the dawn of Bride of Chucky, the franchise swiftly fell into parody territory. Sequels parodying their original source material made a strange mobius strip of comedy and horror, for is it truly a parody if it spawns entirely from the source?
While the Scream franchise grew bigger and more self-referential, the spoof genre continued with it, but did not grow itself. Viewers were not only faced with more Scary Movies, but a flurry of desperate genre parodies began to crop up. Such masterpieces as Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie and Not Another Teen Movie began to emulate the Scary Movie plot structure. This brought about a mind-numbing parade targeting the less self-aware genres as easier, lower hanging fruit.
It did not get easier for that plot structure as the line between satire and film grew blurrier and blurrier by the passing year. The enduring parodies of yesteryear, the Young Frankensteins and the Fright Nights ended up having more and more in common with the newer genre of horror than the spoofs that were being produced. After so long, horror movies have started to snap back to their derivative roots.
One movie in this vein is Hatchet by Adam Green, an incredibly simple horror film that is distilled down to its purest roots. Like most parodies, the backstory of Hatchet is inconsequential to the meat of the story. It is not in us to truly notice why Victor Crowley kills, as like Jason Voorhees before him, we know that it is not why the deformed backwoods mutant murders, it matters simply that he does. With the now released Hatchet 2, and the soon to premiere Hatchet 3, Victory Crowley is being hailed as the newest icon in horror, but the question remains: can he be?
The Hatchet films are more of an homage to the Friday the 13th films; an incredibly effective homage, but one nonetheless. Is it possible for a copy of a copy to still terrify like the original? What will happen if someone tries to parody Hatchet? Will the world then explode? At this point, the lines have been blurred to the point that the “true horror” films are almost indistinguishable from the parodies themselves.
What does that mean then, for the parodies? Perhaps they will find a new life on television, where shows such as the doomed Reaper’s fun take on a deal with the devil, or even Dead Like Me’s comedic deconstruction of death. The shallower spoofs, hopefully, will diminish as the genres run out, for how effective can jokes be about a movie already filled with jokes? That remains to be seen.