Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Essentials- "High Anxiety" (1977)

The Essentials- #52

High Anxiety
Recognize the image above? Remind you of a horror classic, directed by one Alfred Hitchcock? Well "High Anxiety" pokes fun at many Hitchockian tropes, and it was brought to life by the masterful Mel Brooks.

If the spoof sub-genre needs anything right now, it needs somebody who understands pop culture tropes. Mel Brooks was so creative and satisfying over the years because he didn't just watch a movie he wanted to spoof, he digested the genre he wanted to spoof. Look at "Blazing Saddles" from 1974, its pretty clear that he understood the concepts and norms of every Western released. It is also safe to say that Westerns were something Brooks more than grew up with. Same with "Young Frankenstein," Brooks must have really absorbed what made the Universal horror films unique, because that is clear in the final film. The same can be said about "Spaceballs" and how Brooks approached "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones." If you watch a spoof from the last fifteen years and then you watch a Mel Brooks spoof, the difference is night and day. Mel Brooks never just recreated an memorable scene then added a fart joke. He took his comedies seriously, which is why they are so memorable today.

In "High Anxiety," Mel Brooks tackles Alfred Hitchcock's career and it is absolutely bracing. From the opening titles, everything feels right. The musical score by John Morris sets the perfect tone and the Brooks begins immediately with big laughs. Consider a scene where Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is flying into the Los Angeles airport. We get a close-up of several faces in the airplane windows, everybody is excited and thrilled to be L.A., then we see Thorndyke who is absolutely terrified to land. The laughs come even faster as Thorndyke gets off the plane and is trying to get to his car. There are some safe jokes, but they work so well that it didn't matter. As the opening credit sequences ended, I sat back, tempted to rewind and watch it all again.

Dr. Thorndyke is on his way to The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous. He is to become the brand new administrator there. Once he arrives, there are very strange happenings going on at the institute. There is so much funny going on in the stretch at the Institute, that it will make your head spin of laughter. It also helps that Brooks' brought along regulars like Cloris Leachman and Dick Van Patten as two Institute employees as well as Madeline Kahn as Brooks' soon-to-be-love-interest. When Thorndyke goes into downtown Los Angeles to represent the Institute, he is framed for murder. As Thorndyke tries to prove his murder, it will draw him face to face with his own anxieties.

For Hitchcock fans, I feel Brooks really absorbed what made Hitchcock such an important filmmaker in the first place. Hitchcock changed suspense in Hollywood forever, and I think Brooks did a really good job utilizing the tropes that Hitchcock created. While he did that, he created a story that was both fun and addicting at the same time. Its easy to make an audience laugh, but its harder to build a worthwhile story around those laughs. For Mel Brooks, especially in his early days, Brooks' was able to created intriguing stories while also creating huge laughs. I think it is safe to call Brooks a comedic genius.

I recently bought a Mel Brooks collection on blu-ray. I think it is very worthwhile to discover what a real spoof movie looks like. Brooks was able to play with tropes while also creating a completely original story out of it. Not only that, but Brooks approach spoofs in an elegant, intelligent and a hypnotic way. Something that I feel is drastically missing in spoof movies today.

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