Friday, July 30, 2010

High Anxiety

I’ll happily state upfront that Mel Brooks, no matter what his Spaceballs cartoon was like, will always be a comedic genius in my eyes. That said, his Hitchcock-spoof High Anxiety (made one year after Family Plot) is definitely one of his mid-range films, certainly not on the level of earlier films like The Producers, Young Frankenstein, or Silent Movie, but superior to Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Robin Hood; Men in Tights, or even the much more famous (and somewhat overrated) Spaceballs.

Brooks stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Really, Really Nervous (say what you want about the man, he will go as low as possible in his efforts for a cheap laugh). Upon his arrival, he discovers that his predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, and the head nurse and her doctor boyfriend (Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman) seem to both know more about it than they’re telling, and resent him for being an outsider that’s jumped above them in position. There’s also an issue about the lack of recoveries by any of the patients at the institute, particularly the wealthy father of Madeline Kahn, who may just be straight up imprisoned now.

Of course, the plot is rarely all that important in a Brooks film; what is important is the constant barrage of jokes flying at your head. We get such things as the camera panning in so much it smashes through a window (a joke Brooks liked so much he reused it in Robin Hood: Men in Tights), a psychiatric session that rapidly devolves into a boxing match, and a patient that suffers from sharp phantom pains and nightmares of werewolves. The jokes aren’t as consistently good as in his best films, but when they work they’re brilliant.

There’s also, as one would imagine, quite a few Hitchcock references thrown in. There’s a lavish set design to everything (not used as a joke at any point, just nice to see such attention to detail) far beyond the norm for one of Brooks’ films, and after his initial plot set up, he eventually starts throwing out as many references to Hitchcock as he can cram into a short time span. Obviously Spellbound, given that it’s at a mental asylum, but we also get references to Psycho, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, a section where Brooks is framed for murder in a Wrong Man scenario that covers a good half of Hitch’s films, and probably a couple others that I missed. Yes, all this in just an hour and a half, it’s a pretty fast-paced effort, and I have to admit that the jokes about Hitch tend to not be quite as good as the ones that don’t actually require him. For instance, one of the best bits in the movie doesn’t require you to be familiar with a single Hitch film. Brooks is on the road being filled in by his cab driver about his predecessor, who he learns was “a victim of…foul play.” Instantly jarring thriller music pops up, and they look around all startled, only to see a bus next to them with the Los Angeles Symphony playing. Yes, he had used this joke already in Blazing Saddles (the shameless self-stealer), but screw it, it’s still funny.

While hardly a masterpiece, this is definitely a film that every Hitchcock fan (or Brooks fan, for that matter) should be checking out. I have no idea if Hitchcock ever saw it, though I have no doubt that he would have cheerfully informed Brooks that Hitch’s own comedies were much better. He could be so mean like that.

Rating: ***

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