Published July 1, 2000
Gross-out comedies are now as much a tradition of the summer movie season as the special-effects blockbusters — and sometimes the two are hard to tell one from another. Scary Movie, which shot to the top of the list of box office grosses (if you’ll pardon the expression) in the week after it opened, purports to be more than just another gross-fest in the style of the Farrelly brothers by sending up some of the familiar conventions of recent teen movies — especially the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer series. It doesn’t seem to have mattered to the Wayans brothers, and in particular Keenen Ivory Wayans, the director, that Scream etc. were already send-ups of generic teen slasher movies, even as they belonged to the same genre themselves. After all, it’s the gross bits that they were interested in.
Well, what can the critic say but that they succeed in being quite astonishingly gross — though only intermittently funny? The fact that the film managed to get an R rating is absurd, though hardly surprising given the vagaries of the system. I wondered if there is a new double-standard by which the R can be awarded in spite of the presence of an erect penis so long as the female nipple-count is zero (though there is one joke involving the use of a chainsaw to trim female public hair). It’s hard to stay mad even at such details as these, however, as they are not self-important or self-consciously “arty” but just a part of the general purpose of grossness, which clearly obliges the filmmakers to do whatever they can get away with.
For that is obviously the purpose of this kind of film. Things that are not all that funny in themselves, or in some cases not funny at all, elicit nervous laughter when we see them in public, in mixed company, and magnified to several times life-size on the silver screen. This is an unexpected place in which to see things that are normally kept private, and the humor obviously depends on the unexpectedness. And, of course, on the fact that we know it will offend some people. But if we are neither of the party that seeks to offend, nor of the party disposed to take offense, we are likely to feel, as in fact I felt during this film, that we do not belong there. We are mere spectators of the passionate conversation of two other people on a subject that is not nearly so interesting to us.
What is interesting is the satirical element, but like so many other pictures these days, this one suffers from its exclusively cinematic frame of reference. The hooded figure in the Munch “Scream” mask is well and truly ridiculed and made fun of, but he is, after all, only a character in a movie, corresponding to nothing in the real world (if we thought he did, of course, he wouldn’t be funny). Even the movie-makers who first thought up this ridiculous killer are not to be thought of as guilty of artistic sins in need of the Wayanses censure and comic correction. Like all the other movie references in this movie — which include The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix and others — it is just a peg for hanging the gross bits on. If you’re into shocking, or being shocked, then this is the movie for you. Otherwise, not.