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The Countdown

The 10 greatest spoof movies, from Airplane! to Young Frankenstein

As the beloved Airport movies parody ‘Airplane!’ turns 40, Graeme Ross counts down the best spoof films of all time

Thursday 27 August 2020 12:41 BST
Lampooning: (from left) ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ and ‘Airplane!’
Lampooning: (from left) ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, ‘Shaun of the Dead’, ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ and ‘Airplane!’ (Embassy Pictures/EMI/Universal/Paramount)

Exactly 40 years ago, on 29 August 1980, Airplane! opened in UK cinemas. All these decades later, it remains one of the funniest movies ever made. Eminently quotable and much copied, this parody of the Airport movies, with its plot and characters like hapless hero Ted Striker a direct lift from 1957’s Zero Hour!, was by no means the first spoof movie, but has come to exemplify the genre. One of the joys of the best spoof movies is the cast; they are full of actors generally known for their straight roles, often in the films being sent up, like the great Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles and of course Leslie Nielsen, who forged a whole new career for himself beginning with his role as the doctor in Airplane! We could all do with some silliness in times like this, so here is my pick of the 10 best spoof movies.

10. Love at First Bite (1979)

With his famous tan and implausible Bela Lugosi accent, George Hamilton is a pretty unlikely Count Dracula cruising through contemporary hedonistic New York. However, Gorgeous George reveals unexpected comic talents in this silly but likeable spoof. Best gag – George’s reply to his sexually voracious girlfriend Susan St James when she requests a quick round of hanky-panky. “With you, never a quickie, always a longkie!”

9. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

A clever one-joke homage to Hollywood’s celebrated film noir period, with Steve Martin’s private eye interacting with scenes from classic films. Fittingly, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was the last film graced by two of the great names from Hollywood’s golden age: Miklos Rozsa, composer of two of the classics featured here – The Killers and Double Indemnity – and famed costume designer Edith Head, to whom the film was dedicated.

8. The Rutles – All You Need is Cash (1978)

An ingenious and very funny pastiche of the Beatles story and a timely precursor of all the rock mockumentaries to come, with the likes of Mick Jagger and George Harrison himself in on the joke. Like all the best parodies, The Rutles exudes a palpable love for its subject and Neil Innes’s instantly familiar songs, with knowing titles like “I Must Be in Love” and “Ouch!”, are the icing on the cake.

7. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)

Based on a flop television show, The Naked Gun brilliantly utilises the deadpan genius of Leslie Nielsen as inept detective Frank Drebin. It’s a veritable gag-fest and even if some don’t hit the target, they come at you so fast, you won’t even notice. Priscilla Presley scores well as Frank’s love interest in a spoof that you can’t help loving, beaver jokes and all.

‘Nice beaver’: Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in ‘The Naked Gun’ (Elliott Marks/Paramount/Rex) (Elliott Marks/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

6. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Simon Pegg is the deadbeat who finds his true worth when he belatedly realises that he is in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, the implication being that the average Londoner differs little from the walking dead. You don’t have to be an aficionado of zombie movies to enjoy Shaun of the Dead, it’s just great fun on any terms, a hugely affectionate horror-comedy that both lampoons and pays fulsome tribute to the zombie genre.

5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

An inspired, endlessly quotable (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) slice of Python anarchy, beloved for its hilariously surreal script, cheap props (no horses, just coconut shells), locations (Doune Castle, Glen Coe), and all-round silliness. The Holy Grail also probably rescued the Pythons’ career and influenced the subsequent path of British comedy, while being unusually informative about the coconut-carrying practices of the African swallow.

4. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This celebrated, largely improvised mockumentary, following fictional pompous British heavy metal behemoths Spinal Tap, is almost frighteningly accurate – right down to the song and album titles (“Lick My Love Pump”, Smell the Glove) – and is full of great in-jokes that skewer the pretensions of the music industry. Nigel Tufnel’s amp that goes to eleven and the scene where the band get lost in the bowels of the theatre as they try to find the stage are justly famous.

3. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Young Frankenstein has as many belly laughs as any of the films on this list thanks to the fantastic cast, memorable quotes (“It’s pronounced Fronkensteen!”), marvellous sight gags, plus the hilarious send-up of the blind man scene from The Bride of Frankenstein. However, with its authentic sets, music, and black and white photography, this heartfelt tribute to Universal’s classic 1930s Frankenstein films is also the most reverential of movie spoofs.

‘Are we black?’: Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in ‘Blazing Saddles’ (Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock) (Warner Bros/Crossbow Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock)

2. Airplane! (1980)

“Only number two? Surely you can’t be serious?” I hear you say. Well it just goes to show how wonderful my number one is. And don’t call me Shir... Oh, let’s not go there, particularly as the Shirley gag is just one of a nonstop barrage of jokes and sight gags in a movie in which you’re still laughing at the previous joke even as the next one comes flying at you. And surely Otto the autopilot was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar?

1. Blazing Saddles (1974)

The king of spoof movies leaves no western cliche or stereotype unscathed in this riotous destruction of one of cinema’s most loved genres. Memorable for Gene Wilder’s alcoholic gunslinger, Harvey Korman’s pantomime villain Hedy (That’s Hedley!”) Lamarr, and the wonderful Madeline Kahn spoofing Marlene Dietrich as saloon tart Lily Von Shtuup, Blazing Saddles is still as side-splittingly funny as when it was first released. However, as Blazing Saddles is also a condemnation of racism both in the old west and Hollywood itself, there’s so much more to the daddy of all spoof movies than cowboys overdosing on beans.

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