Before “Scary Movie,” “Date Movie,” “Epic Movie” and “Superhero Movie” there was “High Anxiety.”
Mel Brooks’ loving homage to all things Hitchcock didn’t require pop culture asides or other cheap stunts to make us laugh.
He fell back on the usual suspects – Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn – to fuel the fun.
It helps that “High Anxiesty” is one of Brooks’ tightest productions, a film where the story doesn’t keep falling away to make room for the gags.
Brooks stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of an asylum where the patients get better “once in a blue moon.”
The good doctor quickly draws the ire of the existing staff, from Nurse Diesel (Leachman) to her S&M partner in crime Dr. Montague (Korman). Dr. Thorndyke learns of the asylum’s unsavory practices when a Hitchockian blonde (Kahn) tells him her father is a patient at the facility.
“High Anxiety” mocks “The Birds,” “Spellbound, “Psycho” and many other Hitchcock classics, but it’s pure Brooks through and through. The director/star repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and relies on the chemistry between Leachman and Korman to deliver the biggest belly laughs.
And is there any modern screen comedienne who can compare to Kahn, who turns ordinary lines into mad comic improvisations?
The film leaves us with plenty of classic lines, from “Those who are tardy don’t get fruit cup” to Carey’s beleaguered battle cry, “I got it … I got it … I don’t got it” whenever he’s asked to do some heavy lifting.
Brooks even lets himself belt out a song in grand Sinatra style before the finale set in a bell tower straight out of “Vertigo.”
Note: The bellhop who “stabs” Brooks with the newspaper is director Barry Levinson of “Diner” fame – he co-wrote “High Anxiety.”
Hitchcock experts, including the director’s own granddaughter Mary Stone, weigh in on the film in the Blu-ray edition’s smart “making of” feature. The segment brims with goodies, including how Leachman stopped a scene cold so she could add a pencil thin mustache to her upper lip and how she let her harsh red lipstick stain her teeth for added effect.
If only the excised clips alluded to in the documentary, including a wild romp between Leachman and Korman, could have been featured here.