High Anxiety (1977) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for language and violence (Probably PG-13 today)
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, Howard Morris, Dick Van Patten
Director: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, Barry Levinson
Review published February 22, 2003
Spoof-meister Mel Brooks, having recently spoofed Westerns (Blazing Saddles), horror flicks (Young Frankenstein), and the silent movie era (Silent Movie), sets his sights on the works of Alfred Hitchcock in his sixth directorial effort. Alas, much of the comic edge is gone by this point, making High Anxiety a very uneven comedy at best. What it truly lacks is acuteness, because as a end-up of the Hitchcock style, the moments where Brooks actually spoofs the Master of Suspense are too few and far between, and the rest of the film is mostly uninspired filler.
Brooks stars as psychologist Dr. Richard H. Thorndike, who becomes the new head of a psychiatric institution where the previous administrator met an untimely demise. All isn't kosher underneath, as the head nurse and another doctor who wanted Thorndike's job are pulling some sinister strings behind his back. Meanwhile, Thorndike runs into the daughter of a patient of his, apparently being held captive, while he is also framed for a murder he did not commit.
There are some good funny bits, such as the send-up of Psycho and The Birds, that makes for some moments of laughter for those who know Hitchcock's films. However, while there are some occasional references to certain other films (such as the murder frame-up from North by Northwest and the bell-tower scene in Vertigo), much of the rest is Mel Brooks all of the way. This makes for some disjointed viewing, because a complete satire on Hitchcock could have easily been done, but the screenplay lacked inspiration, injecting a couple of satirical scenes amid a not-too-interesting, mostly non-Hitchcockian psychiatric plot (a very loose homage to Spellbound).
The performances are good, with Mel Brooks delivering some funny moments, particularly during a song-and-dance number where he hams up the lounge act more than he should. Madeline Kahn and Howard Morris (as Thorndike's mentor, Dr. Lilloman) are particularly hilarious in their respective roles. It's a shame the script isn't able to match up to their level of comedic talents.
To properly enjoy High Anxiety you'll probably need at least a passing familiarity with some of Hitchcock's more popular works, but you don't need to be overly familiar, as Brooks only lightly touches the most famous of scenes. It helps if you like broad, old-fashioned humor, the kind which Mel Brooks has come to be known for over the years. As a tribute to the Master, it's a nice idea, but Brooks definitely only had a half-baked notion of what he wanted to do with it. The result: sporadically humorous entertainment for Brooks' biggest fans only.
©2003 Vince Leo