Just before Halloween 20 years ago, the slasher spoof “Scary Movie” released its third installment, a truly unserious sendup of “The Ring,” “8 Mile,” M. Night Shyamalan and pop culture at large. I died of laughter watching it as a preteen — that it was immature and in bad taste was entirely the point. Two decades and a college degree later, I’m afraid to say, “Scary Movie 3” still kills me.
If the threequel had any chance of survival after the studio fired the Wayans brothers from their own franchise, according to Marlon Wayans, it needed a deus ex machina in the style of “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun.” So, they hired exactly that: the spoof veteran director David Zucker and his “Olivier” of the genre, as Roger Ebert called him, Leslie Nielsen. This inspired union between golden-age 1980s parody and Y2K-era irreverent slapstick gave the cult hit a certain cachet. It was also Hollywood’s last great love affair with its silliest genre.
The farce follows the journalist Cindy (Anna Faris), the aspiring rapper George (Simon Rex) and George’s farmer brother, Tom (Charlie Sheen), as they investigate a killer tape, mysterious crop circles and an alien invasion. Regina Hall reprises her role as Cindy’s best friend, Brenda, while Nielsen plays the looney-tunes president of the United States. Queen Latifah slays as (sorry!) Aunt ShaNeequa, the know-it-all oracle, married to Eddie Griffin’s Orpheus.
And lampooning “The Matrix Reloaded,” the comedian George Carlin pops in as the Architect, who accidentally returned his kid’s creepy video to Blockbuster instead of “Pootie Tang.” “We loved our daughter, but she was evil. Made the horses crazy, killed our puppies, hid the remote,” the Architect explains. “My wife took her to the old family farm and drowned her in the well. I felt a simple timeout would have been sufficient.”
Somewhere between pastiche and schlock, “Scary Movie 3” is more a bricolage of breathless non sequiturs and fourth-wall winks; puns, quips and zeitgeisty references; cockamamie gags and genius line readings — all executed with deadpan precision at a breakneck pace. Don’t worry if you don’t get a joke … a new one is right behind it. Even with those foul, out-of-pocket jokes you can’t make anymore, for better or worse (the Michael Jackson impersonator is still sort of funny), “Scary Movie 3” remains a quotable fan favorite that informed a generation’s brand of humor.
A sheriff’s growing hat. Kevin Hart and Anthony Anderson’s paradoxes on the nature of a rat becoming a mouse if it enters a house. “Oooh, Yahtzee!” Never mind its faded shock value, toilet humor or many, many kicks to the groin. The movie is largely held up by its subtle hilarity — the shovel cocked like a shotgun or the perfect delivery behind “Tom, I’ll need a ride home” — throwaway scenes that have you laughing like you’re a kid again.
The best parodies turn out coffers, or caskets in this case, for our collective obsessions. Enter: the obligatory celebrity cameo. Schoolgirl versions of Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson stretch the dumb blonde shtick to death. Fat Joe and Simon Cowell appear as themselves at a rap battle. Ja Rule plays a Secret Service agent for some reason. Master P, Macy Gray and Wu-Tang members arrive as backup against the aliens but shoot at each other instead. Part of the fun of the movie today is seeing what 20 years has or hasn’t changed.
“Writing ‘Scary Movie 3’ was way harder than writing ‘Chernobyl,’” the Emmy-winning scribe Craig Mazin told British GQ last year. Mazin said that he, along with his co-writer Pat Proft, would count more than 70 script revisions thanks to relentless demands from Bob Weinstein of Miramax to turn the movie into a raunchy sex comedy.
Even now, Mazin loves “Scary Movie 3,” as does Zucker, who considers it one of his three best movies. Often asked if he could make his movies today, Zucker has a favorite line: “Sure, just without the jokes.”
Nowadays, a good spoof is hard to find. A few theories involve cultural and moviemaking changes, as if we’re post-satire or post-genre. Franchises and tentpoles either don’t even try to beat the Oscar bait allegations anymore, or they commit to the bit so hard that it ricochets more than the car that went to outer space in “F9.”
As the decade wore on, no one was safe from the onslaught of parodies, mostly with the word “Movie” in the title (“Not Another Teen Movie,” “Date Movie,” “Disaster Movie,” “Superhero Movie,” et al.). The gag got old, and the spoof soon became a nightmare.
It’s fitting, then, that the franchise that single-handedly revived the genre would also deliver the final blow with “Scary Movie V” in 2013. Parody flicks have been dying a slow death ever since, and — shocker — “Scary Movie 3” might have been the killer all along.