Starring: Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn
Director: Mel Brooks
Distributor: Fox Home Entertainment
Fans of Alfred Hitchcock may not appreciate flagrant parodies of the old master’s work – sending up the shower scene from Psycho, for instance, may seem a tad sacrilegious. On the other hand, watching an out-of-control bellboy attacking a naked Mel Brooks with a rolled up newspaper might just hit a nerve in the old funny bone, especially when one realises that said psycho went on to win an Oscar for directing Rain Man. He was also nominated for his work on Bugsy, Diner and Avalon but here, Barry Levinson exposes himself as quite a freak.
He’s just one of the many paraded before our eyes in Mel Brook’s comedy/thriller High Anxiety. Clois Leachman plays a not-so closeted sadistic neo-Nazi at the ‘Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous’ where Brook’s character, Dr. Thorndyke has just been appointed director, much to the chagrin of the masochistic Dr Montague (Harvey Korman). In between sessions of bondage, discipline and therapy, Thorndyke discovers that perfectly normal patients are being imprisoned in the Institute simply to bolster the coffers, including the father of a rather gorgeous blonde named Victoria Brisbane. Madeline Kahn is an absolute bombshell in this role, sending up such Hitchcockian blondes as Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak, and creating a comic prototype for babes subsequently mainstreamed by actors like Reese Witherspoon in Clueless.
Birds, North By Northwest; Spellbound – they’re all plundered for jokes. Hitchcock’s composer, Bernard Herrmann even gets a ribbing when a dramatic moment is underscored by wild, staccato music, and then revealed to be the sound of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in full flight, overtaking our startled protagonist and his chauffeur in a bus. The title High Anxiety refers to an unfortunate condition afflicting Thorndyke, namely acrophobia or a fear of heights, which of course, was the crux of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Mel Brooks is no Jimmie Stewart, nor, for that matter, Cary Grant or Anthony Perkins. But he sure can multi-task, capping his list of credits off with a Sinatra-style rendition of the theme song; a reference to The Man Who Knew Too Much – yet another tribute to the master of suspense. All up, it’s old school humour that never fails to get a laugh.