This is the fifth installment in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single-Handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.”
In this penultimate installment, we will examine two of the late career parodies of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer: Vampires Suck and The Starving Games. As I see it, Friedberg and Seltzer’s career can be separated into two distinct phases. There are two reasons why I think about it this way.
For one, there is an easy delineation one could make between the writers’ 2000s output and their 2010s output. As I outlined in previous articles, the 2000s saw a healthy resurgence of the spoof movie, but by the end of the decade it was starting to become clear that the poor quality of these films were catching up with them. Through the 2010s, parody films grew increasingly less popular at the box office.
As such, Vampires Suck serves as a crucial turning point in Friedberg and Seltzer’s career. It was the last of their films to be distributed by a major studio (once again, 20th Century Fox), and the last to get a wide theatrical release.
Second, the content of the later three parody films are witness to a shift in Friedberg and Seltzer’s comedic focus. Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, and Meet the Spartans were heavily reliant on references to popular and celebrity culture. Vampires Suck, The Starving Games, and Superfast!, while being parodies of popular film franchises, gradually pull back on this referential humor.
Thus, I make the case that Friedberg and Seltzer have two distinct eras in their career, which just so happen to be neatly divided by the turn of the decade. Their studio era saw many financial hits that were also massive critical flops. Their independent turn in the 2010s saw lower budgeted films that were (relatively) less reliant on references which could be used for marketing purposes. This turn to the second half of their career pivots around Vampires Suck, which was a (somewhat surprising) box office success following the massive disappointment of Disaster Movie.
Vampires Suck grossed $81 million worldwide, comparable to their previous successes Date Movie ($85 million), Epic Movie ($86 million), and Meet the Spartans ($84 million). And it was received with the same brand of critical panning those other films were subjected to. However, I would not put Vampires Suck in the same pool as those other spoofs. I think Vampires has more of a leg to stand on. It is still mostly unfunny, but it has some clever bits and a general emulative aesthetic that sets it apart from the directors’ previous films.
The film carries out the washed out, gray look of the Twilight films adequately, and it has a generally higher production value than something like Disaster Movie, which looks like it was shot on three sets in two weeks. It also scales back on the random pop culture inserts. There are still non sequitur cutaways to things like The Jersey Shore, but, for the most part, the movie sticks to the franchise it is aiming its sights on.
The parody itself is pretty lacking. Rarely does the script get under the surface of Twilight to get at what makes it such a strange yet enduring cultural object.
But there are throwaway jokes here and there that almost got me. There’s an angsty song Becca (Jenn Proske) listens to in the car that pokes fun at the melodramatic tone of the Twilight films. It is referential in a good way (until you hear the chorus in the full end credits version, which thoroughly ruins the bit). There is a scene where Edward’s (Matt Lanter) vampiric family holds back their thirst for Becca’s blood as she bleeds liberally into a champagne fountain, which is a funny heightening of the scene from the original film. Becca’s father (Diedrich Bader) constantly infantilizing her is a pretty good runner.
On the whole, though, the jokes are hokey and surface-level. The lycanthropic teen has to chase a cat when he sees it. People get hit in the crotch. Edward rides a Segway at the end of one scene for no discernible reason. At one point, Becca literally farts Edward out of a second story window. Friedberg and Seltzer struggle to write coherent and complete jokes. While I prefer their earnest attempts in this film over all of the forced pop culture finger-pointing they stuff into previous films, the absence of random references really exposes their lack of comedic graces.
In one particular instance, they cannot see the clear joke even as it is staring them dead in the face. In a montage, Becca is staring lonesome out the window for three months after Edward skips town. Every month, she sees people with Edward’s dorky haircut. Couples. Children. Dogs. At first, this bit heightens well. Then, in December, she looks at a snowman. It is a regular looking snowman, whose face then morphs into the image of Edward. Why don’t they just continue the bit, so that when she looks out the window the snowman inexplicably has Edward’s hair carved in snow on its head? It’s a classic example of the rule of three, where the repetition heightens each time. I might have chuckled at that.
But I digress.
The other major aspect that separates Vampires Suck from Epic Movie or Disaster Movie is the acting. These actors, most of whom were total unknowns to me, are doing a decent job playing the parody versions of Twilight characters. This is a clear point of contrast from Epic Movie, where it is clear that no actor knows who their character is or how they should be playing it. They are just reading lines from a script and doing their best to sell the jokes as written on the page.
Jenn Proske, on the other hand, is good in her role as Becca. She captures the fidgety awkwardness that Kristen Stewart brought to the first Twilight film, and this performance makes the entire movie more watchable as a result. Vampires Suck is no comedic masterpiece, but it shines when put in direct comparison to Friedberg and Seltzer’s three prior films, which struggle to even sustain a story let alone tell well-written jokes.
Which brings us to their next film. The Starving Games backslides slightly into Friedberg and Seltzer’s worst tendencies, as there are a fair number of uninteresting jabs at pop culture ephemera of the moment. References to Avatar, Honey Boo Boo, 16 and Pregnant, and mobile games Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja are eyesores in this otherwise bland and straightforward send-up of The Hunger Games. There is very little for me to speak on here. The film was mundane and slight, and I found myself tiring of it well before the abrupt climax.
What is interesting about The Starving Games is the dramatic and noticeable shift in Friedberg and Seltzer’s budget. At a reported budget roughly a quarter of what they were used to in their studio days, The Starving Games looks very cheap. It is mostly shot in anonymous wooded areas with little to no sets or props. Characters that exist outside of this area are shot mostly in close-up, and the only thing to establish scope are static wide shots of the same crowds of extras. I don’t expect a huge production in a spoof movie, but this is a remarkable downturn from the relatively diverse settings of Epic Movie.
The Starving Games was financed in part by Peter Safran, a producer who had been with Friedberg and Seltzer since their Scary Movie days. Regency was no longer in the picture. As for distribution, Lionsgate and Fox were nowhere to be seen, either. Instead, then upstart distributor Ketchup Entertainment handled the limited theatrical run, and Anderson Digital orchestrated the digital release.
I could not find much on Anderson Digital, certainly not enough to find out what the initial rollout of the film on VOD looked like (I believe it was day-and-date with the very small theatrical). What I found was that Anderson was acquired by Alchemy, which a year later filed for Ch. 7 bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. After this, the trail ran cold on who exactly owns the rights to The Starving Games now. It is almost always available on multiple streaming services, so some company is still shopping it around as part of its library.
In any case, this is what I was interested in while watching The Starving Games. Not the comedy of the movie in front of me, but the industrial backstory behind its release. The film could not bother to sustain my attention, to the point where I become more invested in figuring out who exactly is still trying to earn money off of this dud.
This period in the Friedberg-Seltzer saga is a sad one. It is the pendulum swinging back the other way (likely hitting someone in the crotch on the down-swing, if I’ve learned anything from the two writer-directors). The duo had fully fallen from grace and were struggling just to get a movie distributed.
On the other hand, Friedberg and Seltzer were co-producing their own films. They were independent filmmakers with (theoretically) more freedom to make the films that they wanted to make. Far fewer people were watching said films, but freedom from the studios might have been a relief to the pair.
They could even venture out from behind the spoof movie name and make their own original comedy. Produced by Jason Blum, who does not practice an immense amount of oversight with his directors, Best Night Ever could be Friedberg and Seltzer’s chance to make the movie they had always wanted to make.
In the next installment of this career retrospective, we will look at Best Night Ever, as well as their final writing/directing credit to date, Superfast! We will also try to understand what Friedberg and Seltzer’s infamous career can tell us about Hollywood, film genres, and the craft of filmmaking … Or we’ll just keep beating this dead horse of mocking the mockery genre. We’ll see.
As always, thanks for reading!