Recently I watched the movie Stan Helsing, first because it was on and Leslie Nielson was credited as being in it, then out of a sense of ennui brought about because I couldn’t immediately find the remote and finally, after about 4½ minutes, out of a masochist’s compunction to get to the end credits, regardless of the cost to my few remaining reservoirs of grey matter.
Stan Helsing is one of those films that’s cheap to make – you don’t have to employ writers for a start – and which presumably exist to keep the money moving round. Like Michael Bay’s career they’re immune to critics, like M Night Shyamalan’s career they just won’t quite die.
Stan Helsing: the giant mammary of a titular character is played by somebody called Steve Howey who, according to IMDB, appeared in teenage virgins’ favourite DOA: Dead or Alive. You know DOA – it’s the one in which the female characters wear clothing that offers no protection from roundhouse kicks, let alone improvised weapons. There might be male characters in it too, but not so you’d notice, what with all the bikini action on display and all. I own it in several formats; Holly Valance is a revelation in it.
Stan Helsing: the laughable premise of the mislabelled comedy is that Stan is the simpleton scion of the house of Van Helsing. Stan works in a video store called Schlockbuster, which is surprisingly not the lamest gag of the film. He and his loyal sidekick Kenan Thompson, formerly of Kenan and Kel fame and far too gifted a comic for this sort of pulp, are planning to go to a Halloween party accompanied by Desi Lydic “the pretty but vacuous blonde one in the provocative outfits” and Diora Baird “the pretty brunette one with the impressive bust and shapely navel”. Before the party they have to drop off some videotapes, encountering one movie reference after another until the whole thing eventually ends. Oh and Leslie Nielson turns up in drag for about 5 lines of dialogue. And Diora Baird’s chest gets groped a few times. In the spirit of the level of wit of Stan Helsing: Diora Baird, Best Supporting Actress? Best Supported Actress more like! Oh how we laughed; it was that or open our veins.
It goes without saying that, as per usual for this quality of film, the girls’ sole purpose in the film is to overstimulate the target demographic and that accordingly they don’t get any good jokes, but to be fair, the boys don’t get any good jokes either. There’s a tangent here about chauvinism and how few decent roles there are for women, but truth be told, far as I’m concerned, women need neither protecting nor pandering to. They shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal by the likes of me and ladies, if you ever meet a drippy, self-proclaimed ‘nice guy’ who tells you that you don’t need to worry about make-up and size zero and all that and that you’re all beautiful the way you are, do me a favour and give the condescending prick a kick in the balls: it’s the only way we learn. Like you needed a guy to tell you that.
Anyway…It’s fair to say that Stan Helsing represents the next level of the devolution of the spoof genre. And what a fall from grace it’s been since the high flying days of Airplane! and the bang for your buck of the first two Naked Gun films. It says something of how far we’ve come when you realise that you’ve started to look back on the days of the Wayans brothers with fondness, although at least Scary Movie launched Anna Farris’ career.
I’m speaking as a lifelong devotee of the Airplane!-style spoof – if you snapped me half like a stick of Brighton Rock you’d find the legend ‘I am serious, and please, don’t call me Shirley’ running through me. Many years ago I sat in the cinema for my birthday and gurgled with delight at Loaded Weapon 1; I grew up waiting patiently as a trapdoor spider for Naked Gun 2½ to traipse across the TV schedules. Airplane! remains one of the few films I can return to time and again, whatever my mood or level of hangover. I even enjoyed parts of Mafia! which is saying something.
The inhabitants of the land of my birth traditionally sneer at American comedy – it’s broad and puerile and can’t compete with the subtle nuances and dry wit of our own, home-grown stuff like Benny Hill. When it comes to American remakes of British comedy series we have a point. And it’s fair to say that spoofs have always been hit and miss – hands up anyone who’ll admit to having seen Silence of the Hams or Spy Hard. But, when a spoof gets it right there’s not a single British film that can match it for sheer joygasmic bliss.
As a child I oinked and squealed with porcine glee at the hapless adventures of Leslie Nielson’s Frank Drebbin of Police Squad; I particularly liked the Psycho shower scene in Naked Gun 2½ even though I hadn’t heard of Psycho let alone seen it. I just adored the idea of a killer singing along with a woman in the shower. Likewise I’ve never seen the disaster B-movie on which Airplane! is said to be based. I’ve no idea whether the scene in Loaded Weapon 1 in which Emilio Estevez opens up to Samuel L Jackson while the world listens via a police radio is actually based on anything in the Lethal Weapon series. I don’t much care; it’s worth it to hear Samuel L Jackson say “Hell, I was breastfed ‘til I was 9 years old, and I still don’t understand women.”
Point being that movie references are fine, but the joke shouldn’t purely rely on the audience recognising the provenance – the joke should be funny in its own right. The film shouldn’t be nothing more than a simple progression of movie references, and most of all, main and supporting characters shouldn’t be a direct reference to a specific character, like the Juno-clone in Disaster Movie. At least Stan Helsing sort of gets that part right.
Likewise, spoofs are always better when the central performances are played totally straight without a knowing wink to the camera – think Robert Hays in Airplane!, or the mackdaddy of them all, Peter Graves. Peter Graves famously gave an exceptional deadpan performance in Airplane! as the pederastic Captain Oveur. Almost as famously, he hated the script – he found it deeply offensive; if you watch the film closely you can see him grit his teeth through some of the scenes. I occasionally wonder what he’d make of the current of filth that followed in Airplane’s wake.
Too many performances, too many cherished jokes. The best are cultural junk food, but even those who eat Kobe beef every night sometimes just want a burger. And just because you’re making a burger doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it with as much care as any chateaubriand of an Oscar-baiting drama.
Stan Helsing marks a nadir, it’s like Oscar Wilde if he’d suddenly decided that saying ‘punilingus’ was a valid alternative to snide wit, like Ren and Stimpy after John Kricfalusi reprised their adventures a few years ago, like the Carry-On films being…even worse.
Leslie Nielson passed away in November 2010. I was as devastated by the news as I could be for someone I didn’t know personally, in fact had never met and knew only from a handful of performances. If I weren’t dead inside, if I had working tear ducts, I’d have shed a tear for the lunatic genius of a man who never stopped doing the same thing he’d always done as an ‘serious’ actor: say the lines, never break character. With Lloyd Bridges long gone and equally brilliant, it’s high time we said our goodbyes to the spoof genre and let it slip quietly into that good night with what little dignity is left to it.
Otherwise we’ll just have to get used to more Stan Helsings, more films made by people with no discernible sense of humour, half-assed films made with no care or talent. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.