Over the years, Keenen Ivory Wayans has deliberately begun to squander his talent—his sharp eyes, his unbiased radar for the ridiculous, his sense of absurd juxtaposition, even his talented family ‘n’ friends ensemble. From the loose-limbed crazy quilt of high wit on the early In Living Color—not to mention the hiring of that white guy, what’s-his-name—to the opportunistic parody pastiche of Scary Movie, Wayans seems not to have so much debased his talent as sprung some sort of leak.

That’s not denying that a send-up of recent horror flicks isn’t a better idea than either Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Dracula: Dead and Loving It, or that Scary is a better movie. It’s marginally better than some of its targets, of the I Know What the Blair Witch With the Sixth Sense Screamed Last Summer genre. When its bull’s-eyes are infused with Wayans’ comic sensibility—a sort of machine-gun-fire sense of the farcical that hits almost everything, but not always fatally—Scary Movie really is a laugh a minute, if not more.

It even has a plot of sorts. Cindy, played with the perfect-10 gymnastic balance of goofy comic and serious victim by Anna Faris, and her friends are being menaced by that guy in the Scream mask, and they hit a man while driving drunk, and Cindy’s boyfriend is arrested for the killing spree, and one character has a retarded brother, and there’s this slutty rapacious newswoman, and they throw a big party, and there’s a beauty contest, and the killer turns out to be…well, you’ve more or less seen it, so the surprise isn’t in the plot.

A movie this short (85 blessedly brief minutes) shouldn’t oughta run out of steam so early, but it does. The first half-hour makes glorious promises: There’s high zaniness in the connective tissue between the expected sendups of screen shockers. A conversation between Cindy and her dad revealing how those horror-flick white kids get to live in such plush houses piles one absurdity upon another. The dialogue pokes holes in the believability factor of characters stupid enough to run straight into the dark basement when they hear noises down there. “Your mother!” one character snaps. “I’m your brother,” answers the other. “She’s your mother, too.” The lower Wayans aims, the funnier the film is, slipping down a notch from humorous to demented. I mean, Cindy, Buffy, Bobby, Shorty, and Greg attend B.A. Corpse High. Thanks for the tip.

The real fun is how Scary Movie manages to send up horror-cheapie conventions in a fresh way, even as those conventions are being mocked by the films Scary Movie—are you with me?—is mocking. Whereas the Scream series wanted to have it both ways, tearing back the curtains on the cliches but still enforcing them, Scary Movie leaps to a new level. Its opening scene, a wicked take on Drew Barrymore’s spectacular last phone call in Scream, ups the prurient sadism of filming young flesh in peril, sending its panting blond heroine outside, where she tears off her clothes and runs in bouncy slow motion through the lawn sprinklers, shaking her hair and screaming.

Then she gets hit by a car—really whacked—and her panty-and-bra-clad body goes flying. Again and again a smart satiric skewering climaxes with ugly grossness, always aimed squarely at the female characters. And always, I must admit uncomprehendingly, even as the laughter dies in the throats of some, getting an even bigger guffaw from the bulk of the audience members. The barefaced cruelty isn’t in itself insulting. But a film so shambling, patchwork, and absent-minded had better be a lot more good-natured to win my good will, and its sourness exposes the fact that Scary Movie is a pretext to show inexcusable misogynist nastiness masquerading as a parody of someone else’s inexcusable misogynist nastiness. Years ago, I compared Wayans, with his cartoonishly square jaw and slightly untrustworthy Tommy Trueheart smile, to a superhero, and warned him to use his talent for good, not for evil. With Scary Movie, he’s still working for the forces of light, although with decreasing relish. But he’s stashed his cape in the closet and begun taking calls from the dark side. CP