Gilbey on Film: “Vampires Suck”? It really sucks

Why movie spoofs aren’t as funny as they used to be.

It may just be a coincidence that the recent US release of the Twilight send-up Vampires Suck fell on the 30th anniversary of the disaster movie spoof Airplane!. But if that's the case, then it's one of those tastelessly contrived sort of coincidences -- that is to say, not a coincidence at all.

I'm not claiming any sort of masterpiece status for Airplane!; the spoof from that period which I remember with greatest fondness is the more shambolic Top Secret!, which dates from when Val Kilmer was considered a comic presence, rather than a ridiculous one. (His sense of humour was recently spotted in the pleasantly dopey action-movie spoof MacGruber -- worth seeing for the knockout comic timing of the splendid Kristen Wiig -- but Kilmer's performance had about it the air of a penance for past on-set tantrums.) I'd also recommend Gary Sinyor's Stiff Upper Lips, which was as blandly beautiful as any of the Merchant/Ivory films it was laying into (though I prefer its working title: Period!).

Airplane! is not quite the laugh riot you might remember it to be -- the cast, which once looked comparatively deadpan, now seems primed for laughs. Maybe that's just the natural corrosion to be expected from watching two decades of reality-TV performers whose self-awareness levels are through the floor. (If in doubt, blame reality TV, eh?) But Airplane! did establish a new language for film comedy, one in which Mel Brooks, Ken Shapiro, Woody Allen and MAD magazine had all also had a hand.

So it deserves more than to have its memory desecrated by the tin-eared, wit-impaired writing-directing duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who between them have been responsible for most of the lamentable, multiplex-hogging knock-offs with Movie in the title. They had a hand in all but the second of the Scary Movie films, with offences such as Disaster Movie and Epic Movie also littering their charge sheets. There's no horse left to flog now. The pine box over which they are bent, hammers held aloft, is more nails than coffin.

Critical antipathy toward the pair has never been higher. Over at the excellent In Contention, Chad Hartigan wrote:

The only thing less funny than a spoof movie made by Friedberg & Seltzer is the conceptual gag that America keeps playing where we ironically buy tickets to see them. Just to make fun of it, of course. Only problem is we're giving them real money and they are super-rich and successful, despite being the worst thing to happen to film-making since, well, ever.

In the words of The AV Club's box-office report from last weekend, "There is literally nothing you could do to prevent people from seeing Vampires Suck." That site's Sean O'Neal speculates that the film's barnstorming success (over $12m in its opening weekend) can be attributed partly to the fact that "teenagers need a cool, dark place where they can gather and text each other without the distraction of story, or even discernible punchlines". He's on to something there.

And if the audience members do accidentally notice what's on the screen, they are sure to connect with a fleeting image or reference (they are manifestly not gags) that chimes with their cultural landscape. Friedberg and Seltzer's Meet the Spartans was ostensibly a 300 spoof but its first tne minutes alone (confession time: I didn't get much further in than that) included references to Brangelina, Happy Feet, American Idol and Casino Royale.

The reason there aren't jokes in these flicks is that the jokes aren't the point. The audience is looking for familiarity. Getting the reference is enough: funny is irrelevant. From this meagre moment of recognition -- "That's from High School Musical!" or "That's supposed to be Lady Gaga!" -- comes the buzz of connection, however faint. We've all felt it, whether we're picking up on an allusion to the First Folio Edition of Hamlet, or recognising the jingle from the Cadbury's Fudge commercial.

It doesn't make the success of Vampires Suck any more heartening. (Perhaps it was to this that Simon Pegg was referring when he tweeted last Friday: "Sometimes the gulf between commercial success and genuine artistic quality yawns wider than can be jumped by even Jet Bike Steve.") But maybe America's teenagers (and the British ones who will flock to the film when it opens here in October) are just looking to nurse their barrels of soda -- their equivalent of the barfly's double bourbon.

Are Friedberg and Seltzer simply providing the succour that high-school counsellors cannot? There could be a movie in that.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit