'Scary Movie' at 20: How a low-budget horror spoof became one of the biggest sleeper hits of all-time

·8-min read
The tagline for Scary Movie was "No Mercy. No Shame. No Sequel". (Dimension)
The tagline for Scary Movie was "No Mercy. No Shame. No Sequel". (Dimension)

In 2000, a parody of the recent run of slasher films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer became a sleeper smash – 20 years on, it remains one of the biggest box office hits ever by a Black director.

So how did it happen? We speak to one of its stars to find out.

The idea

Originally, there were two Scary Movies. At least, there were two scripts. One was called ‘Scream If You Know What You Did Last Halloween’ and was by a pair of young writers called Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who had worked with the king of spoof, Leslie Nielsen, on 1996’s Spy Hard.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 13:  Writers Jason Friedberg (left) and Aaron Seltzer and their wives attend radio station KROQ's "Valentine's Day Singles" screening of 20th Century Fox's comedy "Date Movie" on February 13, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. Guests arrive with inflatable "dates" at right. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Jason Friedberg (left) and Aaron Seltzer and their wives attend a screening of "Date Movie" on February 13, 2006. (Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

The other was by Shawn (who came up with the idea), Marlon and Keenen Ivory Wayans (as well as frequent collaborator Phil Beauman), brothers who had blazed a trail on the sketch show In Living Color, as well as making two hit parodies – 1988’s classic I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.

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Dimension Films – the company behind Scream – bought both, seemingly comfortable with the idea of lampooning their own product. They handed the job of actually making the movie to director Keenen Ivory Wayans and his fraternal team, although the Writers’ Guild eventually decided to give all six writers credit on the script. It was a decision which infuriated the Wayans’, who would argue that none of Friedberg and Seltzer’s work was used in the finished product.

Production begins

Keenan Ivory Wayans, Carmen Electra, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans at the after party for the New York premiere of their latest film 'Scary Movie.  The party was held at Laurabelle's. Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images
Keenan Ivory Wayans, Carmen Electra, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans at the after party for the New York premiere of their latest film 'Scary Movie. The party was held at Laurabelle's. Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the film, now called Scary Movie (incidentally the title writer Kevin Williamson originally gave Scream), went before the cameras in Vancouver, with a budget of $19million. It told the familiar story of a ghostfaced psycho murdering teens in a small town while a rapacious media looks on and useless law enforcement try to catch him. With jokes. For many of the cast, it was their first feature credit.

“It was my first audition in Hollywood,” Anna Faris, who plays hero Cindy Campbell, told IndieLondon. “I was just so scared.”

In fact, Faris was so green that she literally had no clue what to do when Wayans called ‘Action’ for the first time. She asked her co-star what to do – he told her it was time to say her line.

Playing the pivotal role of the idiotic Officer Doofy was Dave Sheridan, a comedian and sketch performer with dozens of TV credits who was also enjoying his first movie role. Ostensibly riffing on David Arquette’s gormless cop Dewey from the Scream series (as well as others which we won’t reveal here for fear of spoilers), Doofy’s personality and mannerisms were actually based on a comedy character called Chip that the actor had played for years onstage.

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“They put up all the actors in one extended living hotel system,” he tells Yahoo Movies UK. “It was the Sutton Place hotel in Vancouver. We called it the Slut-inn, because there’d be all these ladies waiting at the bar downstairs knowing that actors were staying at the hotel.”

Dave Sheridan as Officer Doofy in Scary Movie. (Dimension)
Dave Sheridan as Officer Doofy in Scary Movie. (Dimension)

The young cast, in a strange city and with no other friends, would go out most nights. They revelled in the amount of money they were given by the film company for food, an amount few of them were used to, especially when it was exchanged into Canadian dollars.

“It would be what Orson Welles would need to go eat a meal,” laughs Sheridan. “We were eating at four-star restaurants and still had enough to go out to bars the rest of the night. I’m surprised we didn’t all gain weight while we were shooting the movie.”

Making a comedy

One of the big differences about Scary Movie is that unlike the parade of inferior spoofs that followed (most of them written and directed by Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg), there’s actually some kind of story structure rather than just a slew of random pop culture references shoehorned into ninety minutes.

“In a parody, you still have to tell a story,” Keenen Ivory Wayans explained to Entertainment Weekly. “What people tend to do is write a bunch of jokes and just string them together. That won’t hold up; you have to create a narrative.”

“I think the saving grace to the first Scary Movie is…it didn’t try to veer too far into too many other movies. It’s basically [Scream and I Know What You Did…] squashed together,” says Sheridan. “It’s lit more dramatically than some comedies would be.

Carmen Electra in Scary Movie. (Dimension)
Carmen Electra in Scary Movie. (Dimension)

“The killings have some gravitas to them [but] they’re still goofy. I’m thinking of the first scene with Carmen Electra and myself at the house. There are moments there that feel tense and I’m chasing her, the kill all seems very real and then I yank out her artificial boob.”

Still, there were some then-current cultural gags in the mix, such as a long riff on the hugely successful Whassup? Budweiser advert.

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“That commercial was just getting hot as we were wrapping the movie,” remembers Sheridan. “They wrote that in and we shot it. In order to stay topical, Keenen would have his brothers and few other writers [and] they would roundtable every night and punch up the next day’s shoot. They were constantly changing [the script].”

The infamous 'Wazzup' scene in Scary Movie. (Dimension)
The infamous 'Wazzup' scene in Scary Movie. (Dimension)

And luckily for a comedian like Sheridan, Keenen Ivory Wayans was more than happy to improvise.

“There are some directors who don’t want you to come up and make suggestions,” he explains. “A lot of that is because they don’t know how to say no and they would feel uncomfortable shutting you down. But because Keenen was an executive producer for so long on a sketch TV show, it came very easy for him to say no. And that made it easy for everyone to approach him…he’d be like, ‘no, we’re not going to do that, but thanks, keep it coming.’”

Hitting it big

A still from Scary Movie. (Dimension)
A still from Scary Movie. (Dimension)

Despite its small budget and fairly unknown cast, Scary Movie banked $42million in its opening weekend, on the way to a global box office haul of $278 million. It remains one of the biggest movies ever directed by a black director and one of the most successful R-rated comedies of all-time.

“It was huge to have an African-American director open an R-rated comedy that was that big,” co-star Regina Hall told Entertainment Weekly. “It broke the ceiling for what was possible. It was a movie that was really diversely cast and we saw young audiences gravitate toward that. It wasn’t a white film, it wasn’t a black film, just, “Oh, Brenda’s black, Cindy’s white.” It was just a movie.”

Marlon Wayans in Scary Movie. (Dimension)
Marlon Wayans in Scary Movie. (Dimension)

Dave Sheridan couldn’t afford to fly himself from Los Angeles to New York for the premiere, so saw it in a local cinema with his high school friends.

“It was sold out,” he remembers. “There were people sitting in the aisles, actually. I knew then it was a hit before the numbers came out.”

Inevitably, a franchise was spawned – five movies and counting, although the Wayans’ left acrimoniously after the sequel, which was rushed out almost within a year.

“What my brothers and I did was take a $19million movie and we made it into a half-a-billion-dollar franchise,” Marlon Wayans told the Chicago Tribune in 2013.

Regina Hall, Charisma Carpenter and Anna Faris in Scary Movie. (Dimension)
Regina Hall, Shannon Elizabeth and Anna Faris in Scary Movie. (Dimension)

Anna Faris became a star and Dave Sheridan’s movie career was launched. “Had I known when I was making Scary Movie 20 years ago that somebody was going to ask me [questions about it two decades on], maybe I would have tried to pay attention a little more rather than partying so much,” he laughs now.

But did he ever find out what David Arquette thought of his performance?

“When I finally ran into David, it was at a film premiere of a film he directed,” says Sheridan. “I walked up to him and introduced myself and before I even got my name out, he was grabbing my hand, staring daggers at me and said, ‘I know who you are, I know who you are.’”

He laughs. “So maybe he did take it personally?!”

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