[box cover]

High Anxiety

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

Given the dead-on accuracy of Mel Brooks' directorial eye in his brilliant Young Frankenstein (1974), it seemed like a delicious idea for Brooks to pay the same sort of loving homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock that he lavished on that of Frankenstein director James Whale. Unfortunately, High Anxiety (1977) falls far short of its potential, with Brooks failing to parody Hitchcock's distinctive visual style and succumbing to his own affection for broad, dumb jokes. He stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of "The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous" following the suspicious death of his predecessor. The staff is the standard array of Brooksian oddballs, some memorable and others annoying — the always reliable Harvey Korman is Dr. Montague, a smarmy, mustachioed psychiatrist who's engaged in a secret sado-masochistic relationship with the evil Nurse Diesel (a hilarious, disturbing Cloris Leachman, who speaks in a guttural Germanic accent and wears a highly exaggerated bullet bra); Ron Carey as the institute's driver (whose signature bit is to have trouble lifting heavy objects, saying, "I got it … I got it … I ain't got it," a routine that's never funny); Charlie Callas as a patient who thinks he's a cocker spaniel; and Dick Van Patten as a guilt-ridden doctor who wants to clue Thorndyke in on the shenanigans at the institute.

The most direct Hitchcock parodies in the film are, sadly, are the dumbest. When Van Patten attempts to leave the institute, his car is sabotaged — but instead of the brakes going out like in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Van Patten's radio is set to play loud rock music, puncturing his eardrums and giving him a cerebral hemorrhage. A too-lengthy setup about Thorndyke wanting a newspaper leads to a Psycho shower scene that could have been golden, copying the classic almost shot-for-shot until the frustrated bellhop charges in and attacks him with it — the end of the scene, with Throndyke's hand grasping the shower curtain and ink from the paper circling the drain is hilarious, until Brooks ruins his own gag by adding an unfunny tag line ("That kid gets no tip"). And his take on The Birds is just one long poop joke. Things pick up a bit halfway through the film when Thorndyke attends a convention in San Francisco and meets Madeline Kahn as the requisite hot-and-cold blonde who's concerned about her father's treatment at the institute. What High Anxiety lacks is the understanding of and love for the source material that Brooks showed in Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles (1974), making it an extremely tepid, often stupid mockery of Hitchcock's quirks without any appreciation of his mastery. Sadly, Brooks' Sinatra-esque delivery of the title song in the hotel bar is the most satisfying scene in the picture, reminding us of how very, very good his satire can be when he's not derailed by his love of low-brow humor.

Fox's DVD release of High Anxiety arrives as part of the eight-film "Mel Brooks Collection," available in the box set or separately. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very, very good — exceptionally clean and bright — and the DD 2.0 audio (stereo English or monaural French and Spanish, with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is quite good as well, although John Morris' score is a pale imitation of Bernard Herrmann. No extras, keep-case (slimline case in the box-set).
—Dawn Taylor

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