A new crop of films gets the "Scary Movie" treatment in the fourth installment of the parody franchise.
Nobody does overstatement like the "Scary Movie" guys, and that's an understatement. If there's a running gag to be stretched into a marathon, they're the crew to do it. That's really the only way to lampoon most fright films, and the "Scary Movie" parodies inflate their targets' inherent silliness to Hindenburg size before detonating them.
"Scary Movie 4" is a run-and-gun lampoon of the "Saw" films, "The Grudge,"War of the Worlds,"The Village" and Tom Cruise's meltdown on "Oprah." Sticklers will complain that the last is not technically a horror show but, really now, have you seen anything scarier recently?
Anna Faris, the anchor of the series and its reliable highlight, returns as Cindy Crawford, a luckless soul who has survived evil VHS tapes and black-cloaked slashers only to become a caretaker in a haunted house.
The amiably dim Cindy doesn't notice anything unusual about the house's elderly, near-catatonic occupant (Cloris Leachman), who keeps trying to send her eye signals that she's in danger. Overflowing tubs of dark water, gigantic wreaths of floating black hair, and a Kabuki-pale boy who yowls like a cat don't make much of an impression, either. Cindy is apparently dazed by the incessant bops she gets on the noggin, or perhaps the abundant supply of brain-bruising one-liners.
Her jockish new neighbor, Tom (Craig Bierko), stumbles upon some nasty alien tripods with deadly rays that disintegrate people, leaving their clothes behind. ("Nice outfit," says one woman, pushing another into the beam and grabbing her ensemble.)
Before you can say Shyamalan, Cindy has gone undercover in a remote village governed by Bill Pullman in vividly phony whiskers. Meanwhile, Tom shares a basement with a lunatic survivalist (Michael Madsen) plotting a counterattack: "We'll build our own tripods. With four legs!" Meanwhile, President Harris (Leslie Nielsen) demonstrates a re-engineered ray blaster at the U.N., disintegrating the delegates' clothes. Meanwhile (there are lots of meanwhiles in this picture), a killer in a clown mask plots to trap everyone in a grungy lavatory and strap them into Rube Goldberg death machines.
Director David Zucker (of the "Hot Shots!" and "Naked Gun" series) does a remarkable job of capturing the look of the films he's spoofing. But speed is everything in a travesty like this, and many jokes loiter too long. An extended outhouse joke featuring Carmen Electra as a blind villager isn't just at the lowest threshold of taste you can reach without limbo dancing, it lingers onscreen well past the point of laughter. In contrast, a gag in which Bierko stuffs a revolver in the waistband of his pants is a perfect little fugue of comedy. Last seen as Russell Crowe's thuggish nemesis in "Cinderella Man," Bierko proves himself a top-notch clown.
The six-year-old franchise shows its age, with some off-the-mark satire and prehistoric references (it reaches back to 1997 for a Mike Tyson ear-biting gag) but there are still enough solid jokes to outweigh the clunkers. It has 10 big belly laughs, which puts it about a dozen ahead of this season's competition.
Scary Movie 4
**½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for crude humor, comic violence and language.