Friday, December 5, 2014

High Anxiety Review

I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Psycho might be one of my all time favorite movies. I recently discovered that one of my favorite comedy film makers, Mel Brooks, made a hilarious "tribute" to some of Hitchcock's films called High Anxiety (1977). I can thank The Q Filmcast for introducing me to this hilarious bit of cinema. As a comedy film, it's pretty good. As a spoof of more than ten Hitchcock films, it's something along the lines of amazing.
Renowned Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) conceals a fear of heights, or High Anxiety. Thorndyke takes over as the new director of the PsychoNeurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after the last director dies under suspicious circumstances. He soon finds himself to be in the company of some very strange colleagues including Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), a charge nurse with a dark sneer and a tendency toward domination; Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), a psychiatrist with a closeted habit of his own; and Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the eccentric daughter of a patient at the institute. Thorndyke heads to a psychiatry conference where he is framed for murder. Thorndyke must confront his own psychiatric condition in order to clear his name, save the Institute, his reputation, and his own sanity.
I've been telling friends and colleagues that I saw High Anxiety and have tried to introduce them to the movie's premise. Most of them have already heard about it and seen it. While I'm a fan of both Hitchcock and Brooks, I haven't seen the entirety of their filmographies, but you'd think I'd have heard about this movie related to the two directors. High Anxiety spoofs The Birds, Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo and makes references to many others. Hitchcock wasn't involved in the making of the movie, but Brooks held a private preview of the movie for Hitchcock to see his reaction. When Hitchcock walked out at the movie's end without saying a word, Brooks feared that Hitchcock hated the movie. But days later Hitchcock sent a congratulatory case of wine to Brooks, knowing that Brooks was a wine connoisseur. Evidently Hitchcock himself got a kick out of High Anxiety on some level.
The Hitchcock references are many and cleverly woven into the story and dialogue. The location of the phone booth scene beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is Fort Point, the same location a critical scene in Vertigo was filmed. Brooks hired the actual bird handler from The Birds to work on the bird scene in this movie. As a tribute to the Roger O. Thornhill character in North by Northwest who never reveals his middle name, Richard H. Thorndyke in High Anxiety is hesitant to reveal his middle name. In another tribute to Hitchcock, Dr. Thorndyke is told that a "Mr. MacGuffin" changed his hotel room reservation. Hitchcock's MacGuffins were objects or devices which drove the plot but which were otherwise inconsequential and could be forgotten once they had served their purpose. There are a couple of nods to Psycho as well; Psycho has one of the most famous murder scenes which has already been spoofed many times over in other media, so you just know there's going to be some kind of a "shower scene" in this one, and it doesn't disappoint.
The humor is mostly good, as is Brooks' usual fare. There are some witty set ups to ridiculously silly punch lines. There's also some highly juvenile gags that you simply can't help but chuckle at. The movie also includes some crude humor here and there, which usually garners an eye roll from me. The movie is rated PG and while some of the crude humor suggests something dirtier, at face value it's pretty clean for a Brooks movie. For example, at the psychiatry conference Thorndyke is asked some questions about psychosexual development according to Freud. Right after he begins to answer, a conference attendee enters with his two children apologizing for their presence because he couldn't find a babysitter. Thorndyke continues to awkwardly lecture on the topic of sexual development while using kid-friendly vocabulary for the human anatomy which makes him sound like a buffoon. You're probably okay watching this with small children present since you'll get the underlying joke that will completely go over kids' heads. This was released before the PG-13 rating was created.
Comedy movies usually don't lend themselves to deep or interesting stories. High Anxiety isn't any different. The story is used mostly as a means of delivering a bunch of silly jokes, which it does exceedingly well. But as a story, there is a lot that is left unresolved and seems non-sequitur. It's a fun movie, but it isn't Mel Brooks' best. That's probably why I hear about Young Frankenstien, Spaceballs, and The Producers a lot more than High Anxiety. But you can't deny that High Anxiety is a good movie. Brooks put a whole lot of work into it; he was the lead role, director, producer, co-writer, and for the title song he was both composer and lyricist. You can't tell me that's not impressive.
High Anxiety is a good, funny Mel Brooks movie. Brooks has such a unique style that his movies are almost a genre unto themselves; this movie is no different. All the Hitchcock references are fun to watch for. You don't need to be an avid Hitchcock fan to appreciate High Anxiety, but many of the gags will be even funnier if you have seen a number of Hitchcock films. It's not Brooks' best movie, but I think it's worth seeing for a good laugh. As of writing this, High Anxiety is on NetFlix Instant Play; it's worth catching there. It's only worth purchasing if you're already a Mel Brooks fan.

What is your favorite Mel Brooks movie? Comment below and tell me why!

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