When it comes to pioneering African American cinema, a gross-out spoof of '90s slashers in which a guy is stabbed through the ear with an erect penis probably isn’t the first film that springs to mind.
And yet, by raking in an impressive $157 million, Keenen Ivory Wayans' Scary Movie remained the biggest box office hit by a Black director until F. Gary Gray’s slightly grittier Straight Outta Compton arrived 15 years later.
Unfortunately, Scary Movie, which turns 20 today, also spawned a wave of increasingly witless sequels and knock-offs which soon tainted its unlikely record-breaking feat. The rest of the Scary Movie franchise and the downright moronic Aaron Seltzer/Jason Friedberg stable (Epic Movie, Date Movie) essentially ruined the parody genre for the best part of a decade. (Granted, we’ll still vouch for Not Another Teen Movie — Chris Evans has arguably never been funnier than in his whipped cream-covered breakthrough.)
But how does the original hold up a full 20 years after it unexpectedly dislodged The Perfect Storm from the No. 1 spot at the U.S. box office? Well, as you’d perhaps expect from a turn-of-the-century comedy where taste was already in short supply, several scenes would not pass the contemporary standards tests that old Friends episodes keep on failing in pretty miserable ways.
Anyone who's recently watched the thought-provoking Netflix documentary Disclosure will undoubtedly shudder at the fearmongering treatment of Jayne Trcka's transgender gym teacher Miss Mann. But Scary Movie is an equal opportunity offender, not that it does it any favors. There are dodgy gags about roofies and "retarded retards," broad gay stereotypes (because, of course, every gay man loves The Weather Girls), and the late introduction of an overweight victim who appears solely to get wedged in a cat flap. Anna Faris' final girl Cindy, however, bears the brunt of the film's nasty streak. Not only are the vicious beatings she receives at the hands of jock Greg (Lochlyn Munro) played entirely for laughs, but so is the joyriding oral sex scene, which could be constituted as unintentional rape.
Even ignoring all the highly questionable moments, Scary Movie is still very much of its time. The reference to Geri Halliwell’s Spice Girls departure was already old hat even in 2000, although nothing has dated the film more than the groan-worthy shout-out to the most irritating ad campaign of the era, Budweiser’s “Wassup” (tolerance levels for Marlon Wayans’ stoner shtick are severely tested here).
Nonetheless, despite its many flaws, the comedy hangs together far better than any of the similar vehicles that emerged in its wake. In Entertainment Weekly’s oral history of the film in 2017, Wayans revealed he placed just as much importance on the plot as the rapid-fire humor: “What people tend to do is write a bunch of jokes and just string ’em together. That won’t hold up; you have to create a narrative.”
As one of the three Ghostface killers (spoiler alert: Cindy’s boyfriend Bobby) freely admits in its reveal, Scary Movie’s story doesn’t really make much sense. His fellow psycho Ray somehow survived the aforementioned glory hole incident, for one thing. But unlike later installments that simply resembled an interminably long sketch show, the original has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
And apart from a few half-hearted nods to The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and The Sixth Sense, it also recognizes that a parody needs to do more than simply reference the piece of pop culture it’s skewering. Scary Movie appears to have a genuine affection for its main source material, the first two Scream movies that essentially reinvented the horror genre in the mid-‘90s and their nearest counterpart, I Know What You Did Last Summer.
In fact, Regina Hall (the cliched sassy BFF Brenda) and Shannon Elizabeth (vacuous cheerleader Buffy Gilmore) carefully studied the inspiration for their characters while shooting the film in Vancouver. And the film arguably works better the more faithfully it recreates the original. The cold open where the cast’s most well-known name, Carmen Electra, lampoons Drew Barrymore’s shock demise by running slow-motion, Baywatch-style through some garden sprinklers contains more genuine laughs than the four other Scary Movies combined.
Compare this relatively narrow focus to the free-for-all of its turgid sequel. Scary Movie 2 — which returning star Marlon Wayans has since acknowledged was made in a rush — attempts to spoof no fewer than 27 different movies and shows, including those well-known horror classics Dirty Harry, Rocky, and Dumb and Dumber.
Scary Movie, which was actually Scream’s working title, rarely loses sight of its main targets. See the joy in which disgruntled cinemagoers murder Brenda after she’s loudly narrated her way through a screening of Shakespeare In Love (“That ain’t no man!”) — an inspired subversion of Jada Pinkett Smith’s horrific death in Scream 2. Or the amusing send-up of I Know What You Did Last Summer’s hit-and-run in which the unsuspecting victim, unbeknownst to the gang squabbling over how to get rid of his body, walks away unharmed only to receive a fatal blow from a stray beer bottle.
Such visual gags don’t always land. But they’re delivered with such a quick-fire pace that you’re never too far away from one that does, with other highlights including Cindy and the masked killer engaging in a ridiculous game of hide-and-seek and Buffy’s terror at seeing her boyfriend slaughtered mid-beauty pageant being mistaken for a piece of interpretive drama.
Of course, Scary Movie’s most valuable asset is its leading lady. Faris only had a few straight-to-video and TV movie credits to her name when she was cast as the film’s answer to Scream’s Sidney Prescott. And yet she nails Cindy’s mix of doe-eyed innocence, unwavering positivity, and all-around, often lethal, goofiness.
During filming, Faris needed a pep talk from director Wayans before shooting (“You have to be willing to embrace the idea that the audience is going to think you’re an idiot”) but watching the finished film, you wouldn’t have guessed she needed any help with her on-point parodying of a Final Girl. Faris fully commits to the role, whether she’s throwing her grandma down the stairs in a bid for survival or, in the film’s ickiest moment, being blasted up to the ceiling by her boyfriend’s semen. She also single-handedly carries the Scary Movie follow-ups, although why she continued signing up for such blatantly lazy rehashes remains the franchise’s biggest mystery.
Had Dimension Films adhered to the original tagline, “No Shame, No Mercy, No Sequel,” then Scary Movie would perhaps be remembered more fondly. Sure, it’s puerile, pointless, and, at times, problematic. But to quote the late great Roger Ebert’s surprising thumbs-up review, “Is it funny? Yes it is.”