Wednesday 2 January 2013

Movie Review: Young Frankenstein (1974)

A comic parody of 1930s monster movies, Young Frankenstein combines biting satire with quality production values to deliver a constant stream of laughs. Director Mel Brooks and a perfect cast find the right balance between winking at the screen and losing themselves in faux theatrical melodrama to great comic effect.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is a professor of medicine in the United States, and eager to distance himself from the legacy of his grandfather, the infamous mad grave robber and re-animator of dead bodies. Frederick is engaged to Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), but she won't as much as let him kiss her, lest her lipstick be smudged. When he receives word that he has inherited the long-abandoned family estate in Europe, Frederick travels to Transylvania, where he re-opens the family's spooky mansion on the hill.

Three assistants are ready to help him fulfil the family destiny: Inga (Teri Garr) seems to have no specific skills but plenty of curves; Igor (Marty Feldman) is a willing hunchback with beady eyes; and housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) mainly looks stern and terrifies the horses, but still harbours a crush on Frederick's long-dead grandfather. Warming up to the task, Frederick steals the body of an imposing criminal and reanimates him into a Monster (Peter Boyle), but Igor's botched brain robbery means that although the Monster is none too bright, he is sensitive and capable of exhibiting human emotions in response to sad music. When the lumbering Monster predictably breaks loose and terrifies the local community, Frederick has to find a way to control the damage, safeguard his legacy, and save the Monster's life.

Mel Brooks takes aim at the monster movie brand with his sharp style of wit, and hits the target dead centre. Plundering the fertile ground of creepy eastern European towns, grave digging, experimentation in reanimation, and unnecessarily thick accents, Young Frankenstein never misses a beat in resurrecting the legendary films of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Despite all the farcical comedy and within its efficient 105 minutes of running time, Young Frankenstein still finds the time to raise a few interesting themes. Frederick's control over his destiny is a running thread through the movie. Initially firm that he wants nothing to do with the family history (to the point of insisting that his name is pronounced Frankensteen), Frederick is gradually and irresistibly drawn to the vision and mission of his ancestors. Society's treatment of those who are a bit different is another motif born with the Monster, with the innocent child showing no fear and the blindman displaying nothing but hospitality, while all the other townsfolk default to the torches-and-pitchforks stance.

Gene Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks, and plays Frederick with the smooth confidence of an actor finding the perfect groove. Marty Feldman's hunchback with the ever shifting hump is simply a riot, and is deservedly the most memorable character from the movie. But Peter Boyle delivers the best performance, a hideous Monster who talks only in loud grunts and yet has to display a range of emotions. Boyle's eyes and gestures are outstanding, and soon the Monster becomes a full-fledged person deserving of pity and coddling.

Gene Hackman has fun with a small but hilarious role as the lonely blindman attempting to kindly serve the Monster food and drink. In comparison, Kenneth Mars' performance as Inspector Kemp with one mechanical hand has not stood the test of time as well as the rest of the film.

A large part of Young Frankenstein's enduring success resides in the film's visuals, Brooks and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld recreating in spooky black and white the prototypical mansion on the steep mountaintop surrounded by incessant lightning; the secret laboratory filled with meaningless yet noisy and sparking switches, dials and levers; and the village of simpletons living in perpetual fog and fear of the experiments carried out by generations of Frankensteins.

A comedy masterpiece, Young Frankenstein is monstrously fun.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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