High Anxiety

REVIEWED BY: The Graveyard Tramp Posted on 10/04/2011

To me, Mel Brooks has always been one of those comedians/filmmakers whom I wanted to appreciate and enjoy more than I have ever really been able to. I love a lot of his ideas more than I do his actual execution of them, and think his only moments of true comic genius came in the mid-sixties, when he created (with Buck Henry) the classic spy spoof series Get Smart, and as the writer/director of The Producers , a brilliantly satirical and dark comedy.

By the mid-1970s, Brooks had pretty much settled on his filmmaking formula: pick a popular theme or genre and satirise it to the hilt, throwing in enough one-liners and sight gags that even if only a quarter of them stick the audience will still come away feeling entertained. Blazing Saddles (1974) stuck the boot into the Wild West, Young Frankenstein (1974) played the Universal monster classics for laughs, and in Silent Movie (1976) the only person who got to speak a word of dialogue was French mime Marcel Marceau.

In High Anxiety, it’s the films of Alfred Hitchcock that are squarely in Brooks’ sight. In his first ‘speaking’ lead role (after Silent Movie), Brooks plays the prominent psychiatrist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, who arrives as new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after his predecessor mysteriously turns up dead. Thorndyke suffers from high anxiety, an extreme fear of heights, something which the spiteful Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) use to their advantage when they try to stop Thorndyke from poking his nose into some strange events that are happening at the institute.

The film’s threadbare plot allows Brooks to parody scenes from just about every Hitchcock film, from the shower scene from Psycho and the birds on the jungle gym from The Birds to the United Nations murder in North By Northwest. And of course, the films’ title and poster art are clearly inspired by Vertigo (which was actually withdrawn from public circulation by Hitchcock from 1973-1983, so much of the potential younger audience forHigh Anxiety would have been unfamiliar with one of its main source materials - something which is pretty important when dealing with satire. Brooks also makes concessions to some non-Hitchcock material, with gags and characters lifted from films like Blow Up, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and The Spy Who Loved Me (the character of Braces being a clear rip of the Bond villain Jaws).

Unfortunately, High Anxiety sees Brooks mostly treading water and grasping for ideas. For every joke that works, there are many more that fall flat, and it seems obvious from this film that Brooks’ creative well was starting to run dry. It’s perhaps not surprising that it took him another four years to turn-out his next film (1981’s enjoyable To Be or Not to Be), after which his films became hopelessly outdated and largely unwatchable (his 1987 sci-fi spoof Spaceballs being the only bright moment amongst dreck like Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Life Stinks).

There are a few bright spots in High Anxiety, most of them supplied by the great Madeline Kahn, who plays the concerned daughter of one of the inmates at the institute. The scene where Kahn lounges on her bed and gets turned on by what she thinks is a dirty phone call (it’s actually Thorndyke being strangled in a public phone box) is a real highlight, and she does the Hitchcock blonde so well. However, by the time she turns up the film is almost half over and already going nowhere, leaving High Anxiety in desperate need of some time on the couch to sort out its problems.

Recommended only if you are a Brooks’ completist, a Hitchcock fan who might enjoy seeing the master’s work satirised, or if you have ever had the hots on for Madeline Kahn.


DIRECTOR(S): Mel Brooks | COUNTRY: USA | YEAR 1977 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Magna Home Entertainment | RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9 | REGION: 4 | DISCS: 1


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