It has often been observed that, in the eyes of our cultural officials, comedy is generally less respected and awarded than drama. Within the field of comedy itself, one form falls below all others in the respectability stakes: pastiche.
Full-blown cinematic pastiches – where an entire film offers itself as a send-up of a genre or a particular movie success – are integral to the industries of Brazil and Hong Kong. In contemporary English-language cinemas, pastiche is a small market cornered by Mel Brooks and the Flying High/Naked Gun cycles.
Yet there is much more to film pastiche – a tradition that stretches to include, for instance, many Bob Hope vehicles of yesteryear, and today the energetic work of the Wayans family (I'm Gonna Git You Sucker , Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood ).
Scary Movie is directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and co-written by his brothers, Shawn and Marlon, who also star. The reason so few Australian viewers will know these names is simply that only a tiny portion of African-American pop entertainment ever reaches our screens (as opposed to our CD players). This is a crossover project for the Wayans clan, because it targets the predominantly white genres of horror film and teen movie – with, one suspects, a gleeful vengeance.
Scary Movie follows – sometimes a little doggedly – the narrative template set out by the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer cycles, with occasional break-out interludes to mock The Sixth Sense (1999), The Matrix (1999) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). The film's commitment to a whodunit plot – however deliberately absurd its conventions and convolutions – and a professional, widescreen look gives it a seal of quality that few pastiches flaunt.
Although the film keeps its feet on the ground in this sense, the brand of humour employed takes it way over the top, many times over. The familiar Wayans mode of broad, vulgar humour is here tripled by its combination with the recent trash comedy style popularised by There's Something About Mary (1998) and its ilk. (Penelope Spheeris' little-seen Senseless , starring Marlon Wayans, offered a preview of this Afro-trash formula.)
In Scary Movie, the result is not merely an emphasis on bodily gags – an Eddie Murphy-like taste for flatulence, obesity, beatings and grotesque accidents – but a weird obsession with supposedly kinky sex. Masturbation via vacuum cleaner, bats flying from a virgin's vagina, atomic explosions of adolescent sperm: all this is remarkable enough, but pales into insignificance beside the torrent of bizarre jokes involving closet homosexuality (such as a character being drilled through the head by a penis).
It is impossible to say whether, on this level, Scary Movie is the most retrograde film ever made, or the most subversive. Its enormous success in America pinpoints the ambiguity which is so integral to pastiche: does mimicking one's betters in parodic mode suggest a drive to emulate and succeed, or a counter-drive to destroy and scandalise at all cost?
This nutty comedy – sometimes hilarious, sometimes just plain blah – is some kind of cultural Trojan horse.
© Adrian Martin August 2000