That You Maybe Haven’t Seen
A Parody film is one that uses irony, satire, and humor to mock, lampoon, or criticize a specific genre of film, a particular subject, or sometimes a specific movie. For example, Young Frankenstein is a lampoon of the original Frankenstein. Sometimes these movies can serve as critiques or commentary on certain film tropes. Parody films have been around since the “Abbot and Costello meet various monsters” movies of the 1940s, (which I grew up watching on Saturday afternoon TV), but I don’t just want to name the same oldies that everyone always lists such as This Is Spinal Tap which came out in the 80s, or the Monty Python movies released in the 70s, (and no I’m not a Monty Python fan. I don’t dislike any of the movies. They’re okay, but I didn’t memorize and quote them.)
There have been plenty of great parody films released since the 90s. I also didn’t want to simply list films that are very obvious parodies, although some of these are. I did want to mention a couple of the more subtle ones that people might not understand are parodies because they are so good they are often considered stand-alone movies that are unconnected to their source material, and I prefer gentle mockery rather than some of the more crass parodies of the 90s and early aughts, which I felt were trying too hard. It has to be the kind of film that’s funny to someone who has never been exposed to the source from which it came.
Rather than putting up a trailer to illustrate these movies, I decided to go with the funniest scenes.
National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon
I can’t help it! I know people do not like this movie but I cannot help laughing at the utter silliness of this film, with many of its jokes sticking with me decades after its release (like the screaming police supervisor, a Black guy who bellows at the top of his lungs throughout the entirety of the movie). If you watched a lot of Action movies in the 80s, you will recognize all of the stupid jokes, and need not have been a fan of the movie franchise it’s mocking, the Lethal Weapon series, which a lot of people have largely forgotten exists. This is one of those parody films that mock not just a specific set of films, but the entire genre on which the original films are based, 80s Action/Cop. Hundreds of these movies got made during the 80s and many of them relied on the same formula of a solo or pair of unorthodox detectives who stumble onto some kind of criminal/political conspiracy and work against the orders of their superior officer to solve it. Similar movies in that vein were Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and the Dirty Harry franchise.
This starred Samuel L. Jackson in one of his funnier roles, and Emilio Estevez before he developed real acting skills. It also had a great bunch of cameos like Whoopi Goldberg, Tim Curry, William Shatner, James Doohan, Charlie Sheen, Phil Hartman, Corey Feldman, F. Murray Abraham, and Bruce Willis. This is one of those movies where it helps to have seen the Lethal Weapon films, but it’s not absolutely necessary. It throws a lot of jokes at the viewer in the hope that at least some of them will stick, and some do, but what I like about it is that it’s stuffed with lots of silly background details, that you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention (like a couple of cops doing the limbo under some crime scene tape while investigating a murder).
This is one of my top favorites in what Edgar Wright refers to as the “Cornetto Trilogy” because in each movie one of his characters eats the titular ice cream (The other two films are Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End). Where Loaded Weapon was a parody of 80s cop movies, Hot Fuzz lovingly mocks the already over-the-top cop movies of the 90s, particularly the movies directly referenced in the film, Bad Boys (which starred Will Smith), and Point Break (Keanu Reeves). It has the same basic plot where a couple of mismatched detectives stumble on a criminal conspiracy and break the rules to solve it, only this time it’s set in a sleepy little English town, with seemingly nice old people. It stars Simon Pegg as an overly competent police officer, Nicholas Angel, who gets kicked off The Met and sent to the tiny town of Sandford in rural England, along with Nick Frost as his appropriately named (and lazy) partner, Danny Butterman.
I prefer parody films that approach mockery of the subject from a place of love rather than disdain, and that’s what can be seen here. Edgar Wright genuinely loves these types of moves, and thinks fondly of them, while having a good laugh at many of their tropes.
Best in Show
Long before I saw Spinal Tap or Best in Show I was a Christopher Guest fan from his one season on Saturday Night Live. He served on the show from 1984 to 1985, and I actually do remember a few of his better skits despite him starring alongside such powerhouses as Billie Crystal and Martin Short. I specifically remember he did a couple of pre-filmed skits, one of them with Martin Short as part of a duo of male synchronized swimmers, and when he did news segments where a character named Robert Latta wanders onto the set and looks lost (based on the 1985 real-life case of Robert Latta, a meter reader who wandered around the White House without invitation, for 14 minutes). Both of these skits are available on Youtube and in them, you can see that same ticklish quality that he brought to his films.
Of all Guest’s films, Best in Show is my absolute favorite, where he is both the Director and an out-of-his-league dog owner named Harlan Pepper. The movie gently mocks and lampoons the business of showing and grading dogs and the odd people for whom it’s an entire lifestyle. Guest has a knack for portraying perfectly mundane, but niche, subjects like dog shows, community theater, and sports mascots as places of deep hilarity by focusing on the kinds of odd characters who are obsessed with these activities.
Guest is never mean or demeaning to these characters, doesn’t hurt or humiliate them for fun, but just shows how bizarre, weird, boring, or quirky they are, while they all behave as if they’re completely normal, like the gay couple that redecorates their hotel bedroom with paintings and their own pillows, the Yuppie couple that projects their neuroses onto their Weimaraner, Harlan Pepper himself, who insists on naming different types of tree nuts, and Cookie and Gerry Fleck, she with the sexually robust past, and Gerry who literally has two left feet, and this is the type of comedy I prefer, where characters tell the audience who they are by their reactions, rather than simply putting them in humiliating situations.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil
Tucker and Dale doesn’t just pick on any one film but calls out the various tropes of serial killer movies like Friday the 13th, and movies about the cannibalistic rural poor, and where we learn what types of people we’re dealing with through their reactions to highly exaggerated situations. The movie plays with and overturns audience expectations and movie stereotypes as a basic plot.
Dale and Tucker are a couple of handymen visiting the country to fix up Tucker’s ramshackle Summer home and they encounter a group of college students who automatically jump to the conclusion that the two of them are serial killers, based on their in-depth knowledge of teenage slasher movies. In their efforts to protect one of their number from Dale’s quite innocent attentions they keep getting themselves (and the local police) into increasingly bizarre and fatal accidents, like falling into a woodchipper and getting their head opened up with an ax. Dale and Tucker’s reaction is to assume they are dealing with some kind of teenage suicide cult. None of the characters are aware that there is a real serial killer in their midst until about halfway through the movie.
The Dead Don’t Die
This is one of those movies that some people might not know is a parody because it’s so dry. lowkey, and quiet. From the mind of Jim Jarmusch, a man who never makes an obvious film, comes this offbeat mockery of the common tropes of zombie movies. Here is another parody that relies on the quirkiness of characters dealing with a ridiculous situation, rather than relying solely on the situation itself just to generate laughs. I think what makes this parody film great is its adherence to detail and how it approaches the subject. Jarmusch doesn’t just pick a couple of films and mock them, he aggregates tropes from across the genre and overturns, or exaggerates them for comedic effect. It’s clear that he doesn’t hate zombie movies or his characters, who are reasonably intelligent but still make silly choices. They seem to understand that they are in a zombie movie, yet seem helpless to combat any of its tropes. Most of the characters are very blase about the end of the world, engaging in desultory conversations about the symptoms of the zombie infestation, rather than reacting to the zombies.
Like Christopher Guest, Jarmusch takes weird characters, drops them into a ridiculous situation, and then notes their reactions, in this case, it’s a small town experiencing what starts out as an odd change in daylight hours but eventually devolves into a zombie outbreak. One character, in particular, a deputy played by Adam Driver, seems to understand they are all in a movie, as he comments on the repetition of the country song theme, comes right out and calls out zombies at the first crime scene, and claims that he has seen the movie’s script. Tilda Swinton plays a funeral director, who is terrible at her job, swings a samurai sword, and makes no effort to save anyone in the town, and Tom Waits is the town alcoholic, who lives in the woods and provides commentary on the events as they unfold. The cast is rounded out by Chloe Sevigny as a Deputy, Danny Glover and Steve Buscemi as a couple of random town residents, and Selena Gomez as a visiting college student who is too foolish to follow the police instructions to stay indoors because there are zombies.
The movie is full of the usual zombie tropes which make sense, plus a couple of scenes that don’t, which makes the movie even funnier. This isn’t a guffaw-a-minute, laugh-out-loud type of film, but the sly chuckle, and ticklish feeling in the belly type of film and that’s okay.
What We Do in the Shadows
Despite the existence of Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Nicholas Cage’s Vampire’s Kiss, and The Lost Boys, all released in the 80s, I still consider What We Do in the Shadows to be the greatest vampire mockumentary that has ever been made, as it lovingly disparages several eras of vampire movie tropes, and manages to be both charming, sweet, and yes, deeply, deeply funny. This movie is Taika Waititi’s grand introduction to the American public, and could not have been better made if it had been directed by Christopher Guest. It has spawned at least two spinoff shows, one set in New Zealand (Wellington Paranormal) about the two clueless and incurious police officers featured in the movie, and the other set in America with the similar premise of four vampires living in a flat in New York.
Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement cover the entire gamut of vampire movies, from the Nosferatu version in the 8,000-year-old basement-dwelling Petyr, to Vladislav (The Poker) the Bram Stoker version of Dracula based on Vlad the Impaler, then there’s Viago who is an homage to Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, and finally, there’s Deacon who is a version of a 1980s Lost Boy (with a cute little shoutout by Deacon). By the end of the movie a newbie vampire named Nick, a human servant named Jackie, and a pack of werewolves, (not swear-wolves), have all been roped into this shameless silliness.
I am and always have been a major Star Trek fan, so this is my all-time favorite SciFi parody. Yes, it’s better than Spaceballs and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, because this is a mocking love letter written directly to Star Trek and all of its many tropes, from the aliens with bumpy foreheads, to its know-it-all fandom.
I said before that I prefer my parody films to be done in a way that shows the creator’s love for the movies and TV shows they’re commenting on. Such movies are simply more fun to watch and Galaxy Quest is a prime example of parody. It never directly mentions Star Trek but if you are a Trek fan you will recognize its reflection in the costumes, dialogue, and basic plot.
Galaxy Quest is also a parody of the classic film trope, used most recognizably in The Seven Samurai, where a group of people who were only pretending to be heroes find themselves in a situation where they must actually live up to their reputation. This trope (of actors becoming heroes, called The Fake- Real Turn) was also seen in the movies The Three Amigos, and a Bug’s Life. In Galaxy Quest, a group of actors have their long canceled television series mistaken for real-life historical events by a group of aliens who don’t understand acting and recruit them to fight in an intergalactic war on their behalf.
Amazon Women on the Moon
This is one of the oldest movies on this list, and I feel it should belong on any list of good parody films, but it’s often forgotten. This is a movie that lampoons late-night low-budget films, TV ads, several genres, and a few people, but does so in an anthology format. The skits are all over the place but most of the hits land, including a porn star who goes through her daily routine naked, Martian spacewomen who kidnap some male astronauts, the Lochness Monster as Jack the Ripper, a man who gets accidentally sucked into a late-night TV movie, and my personal favorite an infomercial about Black people who lack the ability to sing Soul music, narrated by B.B. KIng, and featuring the song stylings of Don “No Soul” Simmons.
The movie also has an all-star cast, some of them before they became stars, like Arsenio Hall, Rosanna Arquette, Michelle Pfeiffer, Carrie Fisher, Phil Hartman, Robert Picardo, and David Alan Grier. The skits themselves are directed by five different popular directors from the time, including Joe Dante, Peter Horton, and John Landis. The premise is that some unseen late-night viewer gets impatient while waiting for his movie, Amazon Women on the Moon, to stop having technical difficulties, and begins channel flipping, encountering the different skits.
Another thing that makes this an incredibly funny movie for me is that I know the words to all of the songs Don sings in the movie. In my defense though, I do know all the words to B.B King’s version of The Thrill is Gone, so there!
This is one of the most controversial parodies on this list, as it stars Robert Downey Jr in black face. If that is not your cup of tea, then by all means, feel free to skip this movie but I still think you’re gonna miss out on all the other things this movie has to offer, like an unrecognizable and mean-spirited film producer played by Tom Cruise, Jack Black at his irreverent best, and a stinging parody of the type of Oscar-winning war movie (and its actors), that the plot of this film was supposed to lampoon before it goes off the rails to become its own thing.
This is a love letter to acting, war films, and the Hollywood industry on one level, but on another, it’s a scathing critique of all those things, hence the difference between parody and satire. Galaxy Quest is a parody that is commenting on a specific entertainment by nearly directly referencing it. The people doing the commenting generally like and respect what they’re commenting on, and those are the types of parodies I prefer. Tropic Thunder is a bit of an outlier in this regard. This movie is cynically mocking Hollywood’s interaction with America’s industry of war, specifically the type of films that are based on the Vietnam War.
I would of course have watched a whole-ass movie about Satan’s Alley!
Kung Fu Hustle
Actually, this is director Stephen Chow’s love letter to Looney tunes, using Martial Arts Wuxia films as the vehicle. It’s also a parody of the Chosen One trope by way of the Chinese Actioner, and an example of my favorite type of parody film, The Affectionate Parody, where the creator is commenting on his love and respect for a certain genre of film. No direct references are made here but you can see what influenced Chow in this story of a wannabe gangster who eventually becomes the hero he was meant to be.
Mystery Men – A silly love letter to superhero movies, loosely based on the Flaming Carrot comic books, about a group of wannabe heroes trying to make a name for themselves in Champion City, which already has a star superhero named Captain Amazing.
Wellington Paranormal – A direct parody of The X-Files series, and a spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows, featuring three New Zealand cops investigating and solving supernatural events in Wellington.
Black Dynamite – A parody of the Blaxploitation movies starring Michael Jai White as the greatest Action star of the 70s, who fights crime and seeks revenge for his brother’s death at the hands of The Man.