This fourth entry in the franchise comes nowhere near matching the gross-out of the original SCARY MOVIE, but that doesn’t mean the series has moved toward sophisticated satire – just that the crude sex and scatology jokes are filmed in a way that will earn a PG-13 rating. Despite an infusion of talent once associated with everything from AIRPLANE to HOT SHOTS to THE NAKED GUN, SCARY MOVIE 4 feels tired and worn out – far more tired and worn out that the films it spoofs, which is a really bad sign.
The redeeming thing about SCARY MOVIE was that, in spite of its penchant for crude humor, it stayed focused mostly on its target, which was the SCREAM franchise and did a reasonably good job of skewering the familiar plot elements. SCARY MOVIE 4, on the other hand, almost feels as if it couldn’t be bothered to aim at the target, let alone hit the bulls-eye. There is a scatter-shot feel to the film’s parody, which splices THE GRUDGE into THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and tosses in SAW and THE VILLAGE for good measure. That wouldn’t be so bad, but we also get gratuitous jabs at non-horror films such as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and BILLION DOLLAR BABY. (Yet there is no trace of KING KONG, despite his appearance in the movie’s poster.)
It’s as if director David Zucker and co-writers Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft wanted to ditch the SCARY MOVIE franchise and get back to a more general movie spoofery, of a kind they used to do in AIRPLANE. They seem bored with the horror genre, and it shows in their lackluster rape and pillage of recent hits for material. Too often, the stitched-together sequences feel less like parody and more like plagiarism; the film becomes almost as dull as watching a low-budget knockoff trying to cash in on a big-budget blockbuster.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Zucker-Abrahams-Proft team, in all their permutations, has never been particularly good at creating a story. TOP SECRET was good evidence of this, and at least one of the reasons their breakout hit AIRPLANE worked so well was that its story stuck reasonably close to its source, an old melodrama called ZERO HOUR.
Without a strong narrative thread to tie everything together, the film must work on a joke-by-joke level – which means the jokes need to be fast and funny all the time. Sadly, the film is only fitfully funny, batting about .250. Leslie Nielsen is reasonably on target as the dim bulb president (based on guess who), who wants to finish hearing a children’s story before dealing with a devastating Martian invasion. Charlie Sheen (with that baffled squint he uses to such humorous effect) shows up just long enough to make us wish he were in more of the film. Bill Pullman (last seen in THE GRUDGE) shows up just to show he’s a good enough sport to take fun in poking at his own film. And a suicide bomber has the misfortune of trying to detonate just after the Martian attack has rendered all electrical devices useless.
But to enjoy those moments, you have to sit through some really tedious gags that are dragged out past endurance and good taste (not that the later really matters in this particular case, although exercising a little of it might have shortened the unfunny moments considerably). You get to see Carmen Electra take a noisy dumb in a the village meeting room (she’s blind, you see) that goes on for what feels like five minutes – long after the initial giggles have fade. An initially funny sight gag based on the jawless Yoko from THE GRUDGE wears out its welcome when the film goes for a second and third laugh, which fail to materialize. And for some reason the crowd assembled on the street in front of the Martian “Tri-Pod (as in iPod, get it?) enjoys listening to crappy ’80s music. (Didn’t Zucker, Abrahams, Proft, and the film’s other write, Craig Mazin, realize that the real joke would have been to have them horrified by the sounds of Boy George – and then relieved when the Martians switched to blasting everyone with their heat ray?)
Fortunately, all is not lost. The film begins with an absolutely perfectly hilarious spoof of SAW, starring Dr. Phil and Shaquille O’Neal. Here, the filmmakers not only hit their target, perfectly mimicking the situations and look of their source; they also put the personas of their two stars to excellent use, poking fun at O’Neal’s inability to hit free-throws and at Dr. Phil’s folksy good-guy routine. (I will admit to not being a fan of the TV shrink, so I particularly enjoyed seeing him saw his own foot off – and sawing the wrong one [the one not chained to the wall], to boot. That’s no spoiler, since you can see it in the trailer.)
Finally, the spoofery in SCARY MOVIE 4 seems misguided because it is trying to autopsy a corpse that is far from dead. Parody tends to work best upon a genre that is exhausted past the point where films that use its elements can be taken seriously. THE GRUDGE and SAW are still viable franchises. WAR OF THE WORLDS didn’t launch a bunch of cheap rip-offs, so there hasn’t been a chance for its plot and visualize to degenerate into overused clichés worthy of scorn. New horror films are coming out, and some of them are doing quite well. And the filmmakers behind SCARY MOVIE 4 cannot summon the craftsmanship and artistry necessary to match, let alone exceed, the films at which they take (often undeserved) pot shots. As a result, their work seems like a petty exercise in attacking their betters. It’s really about time that someone turned the tables on them. Perhaps Eli Roth could figure out some way to squeeze some comedy filmmakers through the torture chamber in HOSTEL 2?
SCARY MOVIE 4 (2006). Directed by David Zucker. Written by Craig Mazin and Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft, from a story by Mazin, based on characters created by Shawn Wayans & Marlon Wayans & Buddy Johnson & Phil Beauman and Jason Freidberg & Aaron Seltzer. Cast: Anna Faris, Craig Bierko, Regina Harris, Dr. Phillip C. McGraw, Shaquille O’Neal, Leslie Nielsen, Bill Pullman, Carmen Electra, Chris Elliot, Michael Madsen, James Early Jones, Anthony Anderson, Cloris Leachman, Charlie Sheen.
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