Monday 27 June 2016

Movie Review: High Anxiety (1977)

A parody of Alfred Hitchcock's signature films, High Anxiety stumbles and falls into low-brow comedy of the stupid kind.

The respected Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) arrives in Los Angeles to take over as the head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. The previous head died under mysterious circumstances, and Richard soon encounters the weird characters who make up the hospital staff. Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) hisses evil and looks like death warmed over, the oily Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) is ambitious and incompetent, while Dr. Wentworth (Dick Van Patten) appears nervous enough to be a patient and is primed to be the next victim.

Thorndyke, who suffers from a fear of heights condition known as high anxiety, meets some of the patients and finds wealthy industrialist Arthur Brisbane (Charlie Callas) locked in his room, acting like a dog. On a trip to San Francisco to attend a conference, Thorndyke is approached by the icy blonde and breathless Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), Arthur's daughter, who wants to help her father. After a series of strange events, Thorndyke begins to suspect that the Institute is home to a nefarious conspiracy.

Directed, produced and co-written by Brooks, High Anxiety attempts to recreate the parody success of Young Frankenstein, this time by celebrating psychological suspense thrillers, but fails miserably. With a complete absence of ambiance, plot, or wit, Brooks defaults to lowest common denominator primitive humour, and the film collapses into a series of unrelated and entirely unsophisticated sketches.

Scenes that are meant to be funny depict a psychiatric patient acting like a dog; a murder committed by loud music; and secret sadomasochistic sessions at the institute. While the suspense genre relies on nuance, hints of danger and careful build-up, High Anxiety dispenses with anything resembling a deft touch and piles on the harsh juvenile antics, almost all of which fall flat, with many of the scenes unnecessarily extended in length to mask the absence of substance.

The references to Hitchcock are plenty, including the recreation of scenes and themes from North By Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, Dial M For Murder and Spellbound. The Psycho shower attack scene is telegraphed minutes in advance, but the execution is still clever. Perhaps the one good joke in the film riffs on The Birds, with the feathered critters finding a new way to take their revenge on humans. Otherwise Brooks and his team of three other writers are unable to weave anything resembling an actual story worth following, and High Anxiety defaults to a line-them-up-and knock-them-down series of obvious references to other films.

All the performances are ridiculously over the top, with Leachman particularly guilty of manic excess. High Anxiety attempts to salute the master of suspense, but delivers a heap of nonsense instead.

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