Viking Night: High Anxiety
By Bruce Hall
June 22, 2017
When you think of Mel Brooks movies, a handful of classics immediately spring to mind. High Anxiety is usually not one of them.
Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs tend to immediately spring from the lips of others when this subject comes up, and with good reason. Those are three of Brooks’ most popular films and, in case you’re wondering, I have precisely and scientifically ranked them in order of funny (you’re welcome). But when you look at Brooks’ lesser-known titles, you’ll find names that only come up between dedicated movie geeks. Sandwiched between the relatively obscure Silent Movie and the seldom-mentioned History of the World, Part I, High Anxiety doesn’t get a lot of love.
I know very few people who’ve actually seen it, and those who say they have are usually lying because they feel embarrassed. The rest simply say, “I hear it’s pretty good, though,” as if that is somehow the same thing. I can confess to having lied about many things, and I’m here to tell you that Pretending and Doing are not, in fact, the same thing. I’m a pretty solid Mel Brooks fan, but I’m not too big to admit that I hadn’t seen High Anxiety either, until now (although I’ve always heard it’s pretty good). I’m not sure what happened; maybe I saw Dracula: Dead and Loving It and just...snapped.
Walked away. Went off the Grid. Grew a beard and was forced to fight a clone of myself, because my life plays out like a Marvel feature. Nonetheless I finally came back around to Mr. Brooks, and after recently revisiting Young Frankenstein, I decided to venture into uncharted waters. It’s a good thing I did, because High Anxiety is not quite the movie I was expecting. That’s weird, too, because I knew exactly what it was going in - a love letter to Alfred Hitchcock. High Anxiety lovingly parodies the Master of Suspense from beginning to end, and it leaves very few stones unturned.
I’d forgotten this, and was at first a little put off by the idea. Brooks has made some of my favorite movies, but the few bad ones he’s made were bad in ways that I’d forgotten a story COULD be bad (RIP, Leslie Nielsen). Even way back in 1977, Mel Brooks would already have been the 348th filmmaker to parody or pay homage to “Hitch,” and we all know that 75 percent of all satire is brain meltingly bad. Sure, Brooks has a great batting average, but when you look at the industry as a whole, for every Blazing Saddles, there’s at least ten Meet the Spartans. Thankfully, another universal truth on which I can hang my hat is that the best satire often comes from a place of love, rather than hatred.
If that’s the case with High Anxiety, Mel Brooks has a serious man-crush on Big Al.
Brooks himself plays lead in this one, speaking of anxiety. Part of me loves seeing the man in his own films but unfortunately, his appearances are distracting and awkward as often as they’re hilarious. When they don’t work, they’re often the weakest parts of the film. I was pleased to find out that as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, Brooks’ performance is as restrained as the story itself, which is less over the top than History of the World, if slightly less ambitious than Silent Movie. But let’s get back to Dr. Thorndyke.