The Naked Gun director David Zucker is trying to bring the spoof movie back – and we’ve been taking a look at just where it went right and wrong.

It’s telling how far a genre has fallen that a recent news story of note pretty much passed unnoticed. David Zucker, one of the fathers of spoof comedies, is set to direct a film called The Star Of Malta. He’s written the film alongside Michael McManus and longtime collaborator Pat Proft, and it’s the first new spoof film I’ve reported on in some time. In fact, outside of a reboot of The Naked Gun – starring Liam Neeson – it’s the only one I remember coming up in the history of this site.

Showing my cards: I love a quality spoof film. Top Secret!, from David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, just about edges the trio’s classic Airplane! for me. David Zucker’s The Naked Gun has long been a favourite of mine too, and in more recent times I’ve warmed more than most to David Wain’s romantic comedy spoof They Came Together from 2014.

Airplane

As much as Zucker has been a creator of the modern spoof, he’s also I’d suggest one of the people who help speed it towards a grave. 2013’s Scary Movie 5 ended a promising franchise on a particular low note – he’s credited as writer, and uncredited director of some scenes – and movie studios have given the subgenre a wide berth since. Zucker also directed Scary Movie 3 and 4 as well, and neither of those I’ve ever been tempted to go back to.

But across the 80s and 90s, it was boomtime for spoofs and parodies. Outside of the films already mentioned, movies such as Gary Sinyor’s Stiff Upper Lips, Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! double pack, Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Paris Barclay’s Don’t Be A Menace To South Central Whilst Drinking Your Juice In The Hood, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and if I’m in the right mood, the odd bit of Spy Hard too.

And then it’d be remiss not to acknowledge the shoulders that the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team stood upon. Mel Brooks was the one who turned the spoof into a mainstream success with Blazing Saddles, and he consistently ducked in and out of making more in the decades that followed (Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Spaceballs).

The 2000s weren’t kind to spoofs. Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite was a rare highpoint, but sadly the whole idea was trampled all over by shitshows such as Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet The Spartans et al. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the directors of all of those, are worryingly now – according to IMDB – in pre-production on Star Worlds Episode XXXIVE=MC2: The Force Awakens the Last Jedi Who Went Rogue. And whilst it’s wrong to pre-judge a film in advance, I fear that’s the best joke they’ve got on past form.

Wrongfully Accused

Things got so bad with Friedberg and Seltzer’s films in fact that it made me look back at 90s and 2000s efforts I’d otherwise forgotten with kinder eyes. There are moments in the likes of Wrongfully Accused, Jane Austen’s Mafia!, High School High (directed by Hart Bochner, Ellis from Die Hard no less!), Down Periscope, Repossessed and even National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 – itself effectively a parody of a parody – that landed better.

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The sheer number of films there used to be is telling as to how economical spoof and parody movies tended to be, and how they could be easily marketed by hooking their titles onto other films (Carl Reiner’s forgettable Fatal Instinct a case in point).

Furthermore, how they kept hitting at the box office: the commercial success of The Naked Gun trilogy at first very much took Hollywood by surprise, and then 2000’s Scary Movie proved a sensation (the spoof of Scream proving more profitable than, well, Scream). In fact even before then, Paramount backed few films in the 1980s that came anywhere close to being as profitable as 1980’s Airplane!.

Studios only lost interest in the end when the subgenre was pillaged, and the keys were handed to filmmakers who felt all you had to do was reference another film, with any kind of joke an afterthought. The laughs disappeared, so did the audience. Up until news of this latest project, the only spoof I was actively aware of was that aforementioned planned reboot of Naked Gun, that’s been bumbling along for so long that Ed Helms was linked for a long time before the mantle passed to Neeson.

I thus hope we’re back in safer hands with David Zucker, a man with a better track record than anyone one in the subgenre to date. Proft has an up and down record, having penned the original Police Academy, and co-wrote Naked Gun and Hot Shots! films. Between them both, they’re hopefully capable of re-energising things with The Star Of Malta. All we know of the plot is that it’s a spoof of 1940s film noirs, an area of film that offers rich pickings.

The synopsis reads thus:

Set in late-1940s America, Malta follows prizefighter Joe Medina, newly released from prison for killing his opponent in the ring, as he pursues his love, Harriet Evans, to Hollywood. Hitchhiking west, he accidentally gains possession of a highly sought-after but cursed gemstone, known as The Star of Malta. He proceeds on an accidental murder spree, leaving a trail of people he never intended to kill.

We await casting details, but if Zucker, Proft et al are looking for inspiration to recharge their creative batteries, then the best spoofing to be found at the moment is on the smaller screen rather than the big. I’d argue that Mischief Theatre’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the one-hour BBC special of its own West End stage production, is the highpoint of the last ten years in this area, and its TV series The Goes Wrong Show isn’t far behind.

In lieu of someone giving Mischief Theatre the money it’d take to bring perhaps something like The Play That Goes Wrong – another of its West End hits – to the big screen, Zucker feels like a man who could re-establish faith in spoofs. The Star Of Malta should be in production by early next year.

While we wait to see if it lands well, it’d be remiss not to end with a celebration of the late, great Leslie Nielsen, a man who just – just – edges Lloyd Bridges as the on-screen king of the deadpan parody delivery. Over to you, Mr Nielsen. And boy, how much are you missed…

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