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Today, we’re well acquainted with seeing satires that actually operate in the genre they're poking fun at-- think Tropic Thunder for war movies, Austin Powers for spy adventures, Shaun of the Dead for the zombie genre. But for a long time that gray area didn't exist, and movies that operated as middle fingers toward some previous effort were almost always straight comedy spoofs. That all changed in 1996 with Scream, a wildly successful, imaginative horror film that commented on the genre it was also firmly a part of. In honor of this weekend's Scream 4, lets look back at how we got there.
For as long as anyone has found success at anything, there’s been some fingerpointer who’s immediately followed to lampoon the victory. I guarantee it happened after the first caveman stood up (“ohh look at Hank, he doesn’t think he needs arms to walk”), after the Wright Brothers took flight (“those assholes think they’re birds”) and after someone used the first indoor toilet (“Walter thinks he’s too good to shit in the woods”). The successful need a solid kick in the ass now and again to remind them they’re human, and the arts and great artists are no different. Each subgenre that escalates in popularity is followed by inevitable and sometimes hastily made cut down responses. The big budget airline disaster craze was mocked by Airplane. The high school coming of age tales were derided by Not Another Teen Movie. Cop films got their send up in the form of The Naked Gun and its sequels.
But as good as some of these films are, they don’t exist in the genre they’re mocking. I love Airplane to death, but it’s not a big budget thriller. Not Another Teen Movie has its moments, but in the end, it doesn’t tug at the heartstrings like the sappy fare its teasing. Even The Naked Gun, one of my favorite movies ever, doesn’t tap into the frenzied chase for a bad guy. Above all else, they’re spoofs, classed up versions of that caveman yelling at Walter for shitting inside. That’s not to say they’re without redeeming value, but because they don’t conform to the standards of the enterprise they’re deflating, they’re not engaging with the genre itself.
In 1984, This Is Spinal Tap was released, a brilliant lampooning of both documentary filmmaking and bad 80s bands. The reason why it continues to play so well with audiences and critics is because Spinal Tap themselves were a believable enough bad metal band-- they even still go on tour. It rides that brilliant line between stupid and clever, never crossing enough to take it away from the genre it’s teasing. Unfortunately, the unparalleled awesomeness of Spinal Tap combined with well below average numbers at the box office made many studio executives view the genre-based satire as a one-off attempt. Even as it gained converts through the years, it was seen as a special project that couldn’t be repeated.
Then Scream came along. A witty and--more importantly--scary satire of the horror genre, the Wes Craven directed flick made more than $170 million at the box office, erupting like a scathing yet appreciative indictment of the slasher genre. It referenced dozens of its horror predecessors, firing jokes at the expense of clichés and common tropes, all while keeping audiences riveted to the scary movie narrative that was happening simultaneously. The reason why Scream works so well is because it taps into the same emotions we feel while watching a horror flick; they’re simply bolstered by satirical comedy.
A horror aficionado would never cite Scream as one of the scariest movies ever released. Nor would a comedy fan ever put Scream on an even par with Caddyshack or The Blues Brothers. It just doesn’t do either of those elements well enough, but it does do each effectively, which is why it’s routinely rated as one of the better slasher flicks ever released. Beyond that, its success has made major studios comfortable with attempting like-minded satires at home in their own genre. Scream wasn’t a movie for small pockets of the population like Spinal Tap, it was a phenomenon that random people on the street were talking about. It’s spawned three sequels, the first two of which grossed more than $160 million each, and many of the genre-based satires that followed it fared even better.
Just one year after the first Scream, Austin Powers sent-up bad spy movies. The third one many have veered a little more toward ludicrous spoof, but the first two, while a bit ludicrous, still operate as spy narratives themselves. In 1999, the criminally underrated Galaxy Quest did the same thing for Star Trek. After that, it was Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Tropic Thunder and Zombieland just to name a few. Some of those films may actually be better than Scream, but it’s a serious question of whether they would even exist if Wes Craven’s slasher satire didn’t prove the genre was an acceptable place for studios to make bank. More likely, they would have been straight spoof films which would have ultimately tarnished their quality.
We’re two days away from Scream 4. Love it, like it, feel indifferent about it or even hate it, you should take a minute to appreciate its existence. Without it, you may have missed out on many of the last decade and half’s best movies.
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