From “Old” to “Now” – The Three Cycles of Film Parody
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Author: Bryan Ghingold
If you make a list of the classic genres, chances are you will include horror, romantic comedy, science-fiction, action, adventure/fantasy, and many others. Not likely to be included in that list, however, is film parody—a genre that has just as much prevalence and value as any of the others, but is often overlooked. But what allows parody to stand on its own feet? Like the more prominent genres, parody films have consistent conventions. This can be seen in the semantic elements shared by the various films belonging to the parody genre, and the lack of syntactic elements by their nature as parodies. In this essay, I will discuss three semantic elements of the parody genre; plot structure and characters, use of mise-en-scene to mimic the film being parodied, and the comedic element of self-reference. I will approach syntactics a little differently, arguing that by the nature that they are parodies, the three films have no syntax. I will explain the semantics and syntactics of film parody by a close study of three parody films from different eras; Young Frankenstein (Brooks 1974), Scary Movie (Wayans, 2000) and Superhero Movie (Mazin, 2008).
Young Frankenstein is a parody of the horror genre. The film uses its narrative to poke fun at the film Frankenstein (Whale, 1931). Its primary narrative follows the grandson of the infamous Viktor Frankenstein, Frederik (Gene Wilder). After Frankenstein is made a laughing stock by a student in his biology class, Dr. Frankenstein gets word that his grandfather has died and that he is included in the will, prompting him to visit the Frankenstein mansion in Transylvania. Once there, he discovers his grandfather’s secret library, lab, and workbook with the help of housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), and with the aide of two assistants Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Teri Garr), recreates The Monster (Peter Boyle) to comedic effect.
Though the primary narrative is a comedic twist on the classic Frankenstein story, the film includes subplot and character references to other horror films—a semantic element of the parody genre. Specific points in the narrative when other horror films are referenced include when the monster is put on display and rejected, which is reminiscent of King Kong (Cooper & Schoedsack, 1933), and the character of Frau Blücher, who is a direct reference in appearance and behavior to Mrs. Denvers (Judith Anderson) from Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940). Character names and behaviors are also paying homage to (but are slightly different from) the original. In the original Frankenstein story, Viktor Frankenstein had an assistant named Fritz. Igor, who is the younger Frankenstein’s assistant, is a common misnomer for Fritz and thus a very deliberate choice for the name of the character in Young Frankenstein. Another play on names occurs throughout the film when young Frankenstein (in a matter of shame) insists his name be pronounced “Fronk-un-steen,” until the end of the film when he embraces his family’s legacy and proudly proclaims himself a “Frankenstein.”
Another syntactic element of the parody genre is to use mise-en-scene reminiscent of the film(s) being parodied. I cannot say I rented the 1931 Frankenstein to see if the shot composition was similar or identical, but I did read that the laboratory set in Young Frankenstein was set up to look identical to the lab in the original; complete with original props, thanks to the still then-living prop designer on the 1931 film, Ken Strickfaden. Mel Brooks also chose to shoot in Black and White, though color was obviously available to him, as a stylistic homage to the original film.
The final semantic element of film parody I am discussing is self-referential humor. Most film parodies acknowledge either an audience (usually with a character’s slow turn and stare toward the camera, such as when the little girl famously runs out of flower petals and asks the monster “what can we throw into the river now?”) or the fact that they are a movie (the most prominent example that comes to mind is from another Mel Brooks parody, Spaceballs  when Lone Star [Bill Pullman] and Dark Helmet [Rick Moranis] take their Schwartz lightsaber fight off the set and accidentally kill a crew member.) Throughout Young Frankenstein, Igor is constantly looking toward the camera, and even addressing the spectator.
These semantic elements are shared over the gamut of films I have selected to profile the parody genre. If Young Frankenstein can be considered the “old” part of the cycle, then Scary Movie can be considered to be the “recent” part of the cycle. The 2000 film makes fun of the 1996 Wes Craven directed Scream, an interesting film in its own right, as it falls into the hybrid genre of Horror/Horror Parody due to its seemingly self-awareness and self-reference (see: Jamie Kennedy’s “rules to survive a horror movie” diatribe), and cultural references (Wes Craven cameo as a school janitor in a Freddy Krueger-esque sweater). Scary Movie spoofs this almost-spoof with a narrative structure and characters practically identical to Scream. After the murder of their classmate Drew (Carmen Electra, playing the Drew Barrymore character from Scream [no coincidence there is some name swapping going on]), a group of friends bands together and tries to figure out who is killing teenagers and why. Virginal Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris, taking on the Neve Campbell role of “Sidney” in Scream) thinks the killer is after them because of a man they accidentally ran over and killed the previous year (in a spoof of I Know What You Did Last Summer [Gillespie 1997]). Just as in Scream, once Cindy has sex with her boyfriend, he and another of their friends is revealed to be the killer(s), working in conjunction to kill their friends and Cindy simply because that is what happens in horror movies.
The “recent” cycle of film parody tries especially hard to not only include elements of the mise-en-scene of the film(s) it is parodying, but to replicate them verbatim. In Scary Movie, there are several moments where the set, lighting, actors, and effects mimic or replicate moments from other horror films. One of the most notable of these moments would be when the overweight girl is killed by the garage door, in a fashion similar to a character in Scream, when a very thin girl unrealistically fits herself halfway through a pet door on the garage door, which the killer raises, cutting her in half. Everything from the layout of the garage, to the color of the garage door, and the bottles that the girls in both films throw at the killer is practically identical. The only difference in the scene is that the incidental teenager is overweight; a commentary on the unrealism of the scene in Scream (and perhaps, it cannot be overlooked, the fact that low brow comedy often goes to the “fat joke” for a quick and easy laugh). Another notable moment is the unfortunate “semen geyser” sequence. To highlight the fact that Cindy and her boyfriend having sex is important, the filmmakers decided to imitate the famous sequence from Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984) where Glen (Johnny Depp) is killed by being sucked into his bed, and then in an eerie backwards-camera effect, his blood shoots out and up in a geyser, spreading itself onto his ceiling. In addition to being reminiscent of this scene, the “semen geyser” in Scary Movie is also something of a self-reference or self-awareness. Cindy’s boyfriend, Bobby Prinze (John Abrahams) is meant to be like Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) from Scream, who was cast because of his resemblance to a young Johnny Depp.
That final sequence is by no means the only moment of self-or-audience-awareness in the film. Earlier in the film, Bobby is trying to get Cindy to have sex with him, and he tells her “this is like a scene from a movie or something” to which she replies “this isn’t a movie baby, it’s real life” Bobby chuckles and replies “It’s all a movie, baby, there’s the sound guy, there’s the script supervisor…” at that point the film cuts and we actually see the crew (or actors representing the crew) in the room with them. In fact, the entire film is full of moments where characters deliver a soliloquy from Scream, only to have another character mention that they heard that in a movie, or how convenient it is that their lives aren’t part of a movie, etc.
The success of Scary Movie led to a new cycle in the parody genre. Quick, cheap, topical, and quickly dated low-budget-made-to-seem-high-budget films usually called “_______ Movie” or “Not Another _______ Movie,” where the blank is replaced by the name of the genre being parodied. I call this the “now” cycle of film parody. They don’t have the quality of Scary Movie, but they are in the same vein. Such examples of the now cycle include Not Another Teen Movie (Gallen, 2001), Date Movie (Friedberg & Seltzer, 2006), Epic Movie (Friedberg & Seltzer, 2007), Superhero Movie, Disaster Movie (Friedberg & Seltzer, 2008), and even the upcoming Not Another Not Another Movie (Murphy, 2009). These films have the same semantics as the old and recent cycles of film parody, but they add one fatal semantic more notable than the others I’ve listed in this section that in my opinion destroys these films and ensures they don’t have the same shelf life as other parody cycles. These films rely on topical gags from the celebrity or entertainment news realm.
In the film Superhero Movie, there are several cultural and timely references that will quickly be forgotten, and then the film will not be able to stand as well on its own as other parodies do. When Rick Riker (Drake Bell) is video chatting with Professor Xavier (Tracy Morgan), the feed cuts out and Morgan’s dialogue is supposed to sound funny or vulgar because of the interruption. He references the Internet sensation “Two Girls, One Cup” that was widely talked about in 2008, but now is all but forgotten. When Rick meets Xavier, he takes him on a tour of his mutant school and introduces him to some well-known comic book mutants. Along the way, they meet a Barry Bonds look alike who downs a bottle of steroid pills and then shoots lasers out of his eyes. While it might be funny to associate the notion of professional athletes and drug use, the specific reference will not hold up well in time. In the 2008 movie Meet the Spartans (Friedberg & Seltzer), Sean Maguire imitates the famous scene from 300 (Snyder, 2006) where Leonidas (Gerard Butler) kicks a Persian messenger into an endless pit by kicking look-alikes of Brittney Spears, Kevin Federline, Sanjaya Malakar, the American Idol panel and Ryan Seacrest, Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Cruise, and Dane Cook into an endless pit.
As far as Superhero Movie’s semantics, the film parodies the entire superhero genre, but its primary narrative is structured around Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002). Rick Riker lives with his Aunt and Uncle, likes the girl next door, Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton), is generally considered a dork at school, and gets his (dragonfly) powers on a school fieldtrip to an animal testing lab. Meanwhile, the antagonist, Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald) is a millionaire whose science company is in financial ruin and who is at odds with the board of directors. To aid his poor health, he submits himself to an experimental procedure that gives him super powers. The mise-en-scene mimics Spider-Man throughout, from the opening sequence on the school bus, to the lab, to Rick’s home and bedroom and their proximity to Jill’s. Of course, it wouldn’t be a parody if other superhero movies were parodied. As I mentioned earlier, there is a character mocking Professor Xavier of the X-Men (Singer, 2001) franchise, and the entire mutant academy as well as several prominent mutant superheroes are featured. At one point, Rick has a flashback to the death of his parents which is lit, set, and costumed almost identically to Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) memory of his parents’ deaths in Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005).
The characters in Superhero Movie are also named in accordance with the parody semantics; it is a common comic book/superhero trait to name characters with double letters: Rick Riker, Peter Parker, Green Goblin, Jill Johnson, Lou Landers, Lance Landers, Pepper Potts, etc.
The film is perhaps slightly less self-aware or self-referential, but inherent in the fact that it is a genre, style, and story parody, it has some degree of self-awareness. It does fall victim to the temptation of dated references such as Facebook, Two Girls One Cup, and the vastly overdone parody of Tom Cruise’s personality/behavior that seems prominent in all Friedberg & Seltzer genre parodies.
The syntax of these films is difficult to discuss. Unlike a western or a melodrama, there is not much subtext beyond the fact that the films are well-meaning, good spirited rip-offs of other films. I cannot say that the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and any
of the other characters or spaces has any deep social meaning, because the film is simply “having a go” at the semantics of the 1931 film. I can’t say that Scary Movie is trying to make a deep social statement about the modern horror film, because Scream did that, and Scary Movie is only making fun of the semantics of Scream. I cannot in good conscience argue that Superhero Movie dives deep into the themes of choice, responsibility, duty, and morality, because it is only making fun of the semantics of the superhero genre.
Parody as a genre has been around for a long time. Elements of parody were around in the earliest films. Some might call Gertie the Dinosaur (McCay, 1914) the first mockumentary, or hybrid between parody and documentary (as Gertie was not satirical, just farcical). Despite the perceived drop in quality or audience-comprehension half-life, parody is still as viable a genre today as it was in the early days of film. As we have discussed over the course of our class, genre cycles are usually like pendulums. I read several reviews of what I have called the “now cycle” parody films, and almost universally, the critics cry that these films are the death of the genre. I smiled as I read that, feeling as though I have a piece of insider information they don’t. Something so juicy, I could go to prison just for knowing it (there I go with the dated cultural references…). Those critics are wrong. Genres don’t die, they hibernate, reinvent themselves, and come back in a different cycle. Sometimes it is quickly as with the film parody, which has gone through three noticeable cycles in 35 years. Other times it is slower, as with film noir. Regardless of how long it takes, parody films in whatever iteration or cycle, will be around forever.
1.Meet The Spartans. Dir. Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer. Perfs. Sean Maguire,
Carmen Electra, Kevin Sorbo. New Regency Pictures, 2008.
2.Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. Perfs. Heather Langenkamp, Johnny
Depp, Robert Englund. New Line Cinema, 1984.
3.Scary Movie. Dir. Keenen Ivory Wayans. Perfs. Anna Faris, Shannon Elizabeth, Dave
Sheridan. Dimension Films, 2000.
4.Spaceballs. Dir. Mel Brooks. Perfs. Mel Brooks, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman.
5.Superhero Movie. Dir. Craig Mazin. Perfs. Drake Bell, Christopher McDonald, Leslie
Nielson. Dimension Films, 2008.
6.Young Frankenstein. Dir. Mel Brooks. Perfs. Gene Wilder, Cloris Leachman, Peter
Boyle. Gruskoff/Venture Films, 1974.
Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit