If I were to say the words “parody movie” out loud, and you were somehow within earshot, you’d probably be upset with me (or at least a little bit peeved). Because parody movies are not hip right now. They’re not even close to being so, not when the biggest names in parody today are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (lovingly referred to as “a plague on our cinematic landscape, a national shame, a danger to our culture,” by the Austin Chronicle). And not when the newest parody film to hit theaters is A Haunted House 2, something that can almost assuredly be described as not very good.
But parody is more than whatever’s churned out today. Parody is meant to cause great laughter, and to lampoon the overused and over-successful in film (preferably at the same time). And unlike some other flavors, horror movie spoofs are rooted in philosophy and intelligent thought. Might I point you towards Lord Shaftesbury (yes, that Lord Shaftesbury), who in his 1709 hit, “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor,” provided this gem:
“The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.”
Parsed into 21st century English, it goes something like this: tension must be relieved, and that relief will be comedic.
When applied to a horror spoof, it makes perfect sense- what better source of tension is there than a dead guy who’s come back to life and is now extremely intent on stabbing you? And unlike other spoofs (spoofs of The Hunger Games, for example, only popped up after we had The Hunger Games), horror parody in film dates back a long way. Maybe not as far back as Shaftesbury, but close.
The Extremely Olden Days
The first feature-length horror films hit in 1920. Originally, it was just The Golem (about a rampaging golem) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (about a rampaging cabinet). Two years later came Nosferatu, an adaptation of “Dracula” that wasn’t actually about “Dracula” for legal reasons, but tingled spines none the less. Interspersed around these big three were several shorts of a spook-tacular variety — it was one of those that first fell victim to a vicious spoofing: 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Enter Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, the parody was a silent twenty-minute short starring Stan Laurel (back before he was making a career as a part of Laurel and Hardy) as the eponymous Dr. Pyckle. That awkward Y, as the film explains in its opening titles, “is pronounced as in ‘Dill.'” Pickle jokes, of course, were the height of humor in the roaring ’20s.
And as out of date as it might seem, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride bears all the hallmarks of traditional parody. The stories are just about the same: good doctor drinks foul potion, becomes hideous beast, terrorizes townspeople. And as Mr. Pride, Laurel is clearly trying to start the 1920s version of a rap feud with John Barrymore (who played both Jekyll and Hyde in the original short).
When Laurel becomes Pride, he’s made up to look exactly like Barrymore’s Hyde, only far cheaper, uglier and with an obvious hairpiece. His version of terrorizing the townspeople involves stealing ice cream from a little boy and ensnaring a hapless civilian in a deadly Chinese Finger Trap. Oh, and instead of the short’s ending, wherein Jekyll gets rid of the menacing Hyde by committing suicide, the spoof ends when Pride tries to grope his female lab assistant and gets bonked on the head with a bottle. Roll credits.
The Slightly Less Olden Days
Laurel continued to churn out parody films, but he’d never mock a horror film again. The cinematic world pressed on, unabated, without any true parodies of horror flicks. A number of films rode the line in the 20s, 30s and 40 — films that were “horror comedies,” but not really true parodies. Bob Hope had hits with The Ghost Breakers and The Cat and the Canary, pursued by ghosts and a serial killer, respectively. But Hope’s films (and the endless supply of movies with a cameo by either Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff) were more horror-themed farce than actual spoofery. Nothing was being sent up, besides some extremely basic genre conventions. A ghost here, a murderer there, you know the drill.
Finally, real parody reared its occasionally-hilarious head in 1948, with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The Universal Monsters were the dominating force of horror in early Hollywood, and Abbott and Costello took real live Universal Monsters — Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolf Man — and made them do slapstick.
The Abbott and Costello Meet… series of parodies would continue through the mid ’50s, with the humorously fat and thin duo meeting the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Mummy.
3. The Parody Desert Days
Like the drop-off after Laurel’s first horror parody, Abbott and Costello’s final horror sendup was met with a long dry spell, where no parodies of note occurred and no frightening creatures were forced to prance comically alongside the “Who’s on First?” guys. The ’60s were notable for only two major spoofs. One would be 1963’s The Raven, Roger Corman and Vincent Price‘s mocking of (you guessed it) “The Raven.”
The other, starting in ’64, would be The Munsters. While not whispered in the same reverent tones that Mel Brooks and Abbott and Costello are, The Munsters was parody nonetheless. It had Universal Monsters. It made those Universal Monsters do things they did not normally do, like play baseball or learn lessons as a family. And it poked fun at the makeup effects, aesthetics, and general spookiness of the Universal films. Thus, it must be added to the list.
Then nothing, for like, ten years.
4. Mel Brooks and the Great Awakening
Then Young Frankenstein. Depending on who you talk to, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is the apex of horror parody, the apex of all parody, or a movie that is funny and happens to contain Frankenstein jokes. Whichever answer comes out, we all know Young Frankenstein by heart. “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” “Walk this way.” The monster’s exceedingly huge dong.
But what Young Frankenstein did, in 1974, was open the door up for a sudden string of horror spoofs in the late ’70s. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes made fun of Roger Corman-style B-movies, with its low budget, terrible effects and vaguely ominous fruit. Piranha was like Jaws, only gorier and with naked people (if you’re the kind of person wants to see nipples bitten off by angry fish, Piranha is the movie for you). Love at First Bite was a Dracula parody starring a human-shaped being of pure suntan who used to sell Ritz Crackers (also known as George Hamilton). These illustrious films were followed by several more, all around a Love at First Bite level of quality.
And once this little parody bubble started to grow, the great dam keeping horror and comedy (mostly) apart finally burst. Horror-comedy was everywhere. There may not have been too much parody in that “everywhere” (although there was some including a Killer Tomatoes Sequel, a mocking of Cannibal Holocaust entitled Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but the ’80s and the ’90s were a new boon for the horror-com. A boon that has continued boon-ing into the present day. Note that last year, we had like five or six horror comedies, most notably This is the End and Bad Milo, although not all were parodic.
5. The “Parody is Everywhere” Days
Wes Craven‘s Scream, in 1996, was a sendup of traditional slasher conventions. Scary Movie, in 2000, was a sendup of Scream (among other things). And parodying a parody was confusing enough to finally crack whatever mental block kept the genre from going mainstream. Post-Scary Movie, parodies swarmed our multiplexes and choked our rivers with their dead.
But why Scary Movie? It’s no Young Frankenstein or Airplane!, certainly not on the level of parody’s best and brightest. But perhaps because Scary Movie couldn’t go six seconds without another reference to something — a horror movie, a regular movie, or a Budweiser commercial — it finally made the parody into something frenzied and new. And popular.
Of course, it can also be argued that parodies became popular because various moneygrubbers realized that the parody film (a genre that requires little to no narrative tension and doesn’t have to be artfully shot) can be filmed for basically no money and still pull in some profit. Or a lot of profit. It would explain why the bulk of today’s parody offerings are disastrously awful.
To digest the worst the genre has to offer, just read the following title of a not-made-up-at-all parody film: 30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is where we’ve come almost a century after Dr. Pyckle terrorized screens.
Quality films still spoof the horror genre today, but now they almost exist as their own subset, because “parody” has nearly been corrupted by the Friedbergs and Seltzers of the world. Would you really call Shaun of the Dead a parody film? Its characters mention and then tear apart every trope of the zombie genre, and the film pays homage to the Romero films every chance it gets. But to call it a parody almost makes it seem derivative, as though it was an endless series of kicks-to-the-crotch delivered by Lindsey Lohan in zombie makeup. It’s a watering-down of the genre connotation.
Whatever you’d call them (and I guess in the end you would still call them parody films), the righteous ones still live on. So even if A Haunted House 2 is not getting favorable reviews this weekend (and I’d call “Unapologetically stupid. Proudly stupid. Aggressively stupid.” an unfavorable review), wait just a little bit longer.
Maybe Mel Brooks has something in the works. Maybe even old Lord Shaftesbury.