The fine art of the parody film seems to have been lost these days, as film-makers opt for merely tossing a bunch of pop culture references at the screen in hopes of gaining a cheap laugh and a few bucks.
Which makes it a shame that Mel Brooks’ parody of/homage to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock seems to be forgotten when the subject of Brooks’ 1970s heyday comes up. While High Anxiety isn’t in a league with Young Frankenstein (what is?) it’s a funny romp that will not only make you laugh but encourage you to revisit some of Hitchcock’s work.
Noted psychiatrist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Brooks) has just arrived in Los Angeles to take over as head of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s flight in wasn’t fun – he suffers from an extreme form of acrophobia called vertigo. I mean, called high anxiety. And he isn’t reassured when his incompetent chauffeur Brophy hints that Thorndyke’s predecessor at the Institute may have been murdered. Nor do his new colleagues at the Institute, the smarmy Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) and the pointy-bosomed, gargoyle-faced, gravel-voiced Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman steals every scene) put him at ease. Before long there are more deaths, a mysterious blonde (Madeline Kahn) whose father is a patient at the Institute, and the truth behind Thorndyke’s attacks of high anxiety.
There’s a lot to enjoy in High Anxiety. It offers up a bounty of references to Hitchcock’s films, from the obvious parodies of Psycho and The Birds to more subtle nods to North by Northwest, Frenzy, Suspicion, and Dial M for Murder. (I suggest watching a LOT of Hitchcock (which you should do anyway) before watching High Anxiety – you’ll get a lot more out of it.) At the same time, it piles on cheerfully juvenile humor (if the pooping pigeons don’t appeal to your inner twelve-year-old, nothing will) and “meta” jokes that (literally) break the fourth wall. The pacing is slack and the plot serves as nothing more than a way to get the characters from set piece to set piece, but the whole thing is so good-natured one can’t complain.
By this time Brooks and his favorite actors had made a number of films together, and the cast all work well. Brooks is a good lead as the put-upon Dr. Thorndyke (however, one wonders what Gene Wilder could have done with the role), though Madeline Kahn simply isn’t given enough to do. Stealing every scene, though, is Cloris Leachman as the evil Nurse Diesel. Everything she does is hilarious, and her line reading of the simple phrase “It sucks” will have you in giggles.
The DVD is merely adequate. I can’t tell if the transfer is so-so or if it’s just the soft photography typical of the 1970s. Extras are limited to trailers for other Brooks films (it’s a shame that the trailer for Robin Hood: Men in Tights was so much funnier than the actual movie). Still, as a loving homage to Hitchcock (and a big nostalgia buzz for those of us who saw this movie back in the day), you can’t go wrong with a little High Anxiety.