Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Ron Carey, Howard Morris, Dick Van Patten, Barry Levinson
Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, Barry Levinson
An homage to, and parody of, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this Mel Brooks comedy is about Richard H. Thorndyke (Brooks), a famous psychiatrist with a fear of heights who finds himself knee-deep in murder and deception as chief of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
Runtime: 94 min.
Release Date: 12/15/2009
Available Only As Part of “The Mel Brooks Collection”
• “Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense” Featurette
• “The ‘Am I Very, Very Nervous?’” Test
• “Don’t Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock”
• Isolated Score Track
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High Anxiety (Mel Brooks Collection) [Blu-Ray] (1977)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 14, 2009)
Who says I don’t take care of my friends? My pal Kevin absolutely adores Mel Brooks’ 1977 flick High Anxiety, so when I heard it’d come out on DVD, that meant I needed to nab it so I could bequeath the disc to him when I finished. Even though this meant I’d need to screen seven other Brooks films since Anxiety originally came only as part of an eight-disc “Mel Brooks Collection”, the tug of friendship meant I’d take one for my buddy!
Frankly, I was never been able to figure out why Kevin so loves Anxiety, but I tried to keep an open mind. That DVD became my fourth or fifth time through the film. I hadn’t liked it much on the earlier occasions, but the fifth or sixth time was the charm.
Anxiety offers Brooks’ parody of Hitchcock. Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) takes over as the head of the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous when Dr. Ashley dies. His chauffeur/sidekick Brophy (Ron Clark) feels this came as a result of foul play. An outsider from Harvard, Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) resents Thorndyke’s presence since he craved the job.
The plot thickens when we learn how Dr. Ashley planned big changes around the Institute, another factor that contributes to the sense that he died at someone else’s hands. It seems likely that those same parties will come after Thorndyke. How will they do it? They probably will exploit his “high anxiety” – Thorndyke’s paralyzing fear of heights. The movie follows all the various twists and turns related to Thorndyke’s disorder and attempts to send him over the edge – literally.
At his best, Brooks provided clever spoofs of other filmmakers. This was why Young Frankenstein worked; he took specifics of prior films and twisted them in amusing ways. If he got too broad, he lost his touch. That was the problem with the moronic Spaceballs and the idiotic History of the World Part I.
In Anxiety, though, Brooks manages to stay on the subtle side of the street. Not that the film doesn’t include some broad laughs, but Brooks keeps things more subdued than usual. For instance, when Thorndyke first comes to the Institute, we see a “Keep In” sign on the front gate. That acts as a play on the usual “Keep Out” warnings. In his lesser films, Brooks would zoom in to accentuate this joke, but here he maintains restraint
The movie works better due to that factor, as the almost throwaway nature of many gags makes them more effective. I like movies that don’t stress jokes. They reward us for attention and don’t beat us over the head with their comedy. As I mentioned, Anxiety includes plenty of over the top moments – how else to view a scene in which a man who believes he’s a dog humps Thorndyke’s leg and then pees on Montague? - but it also makes sure that it features more subtle bits.
I probably like Anxiety more now than in the past since I’m much better acquainted with the work of Hitchcock. Prior to the 2006 DVD, I think I last saw Anxiety back in the mid-Nineties, and I watched many Hitchcock films during the intervening period. Brooks doesn’t usually directly spoof specific Hitchcock flicks; some clear references to Psycho, Vertigo and a few others appear, but Brooks mostly keeps things less obvious. That’s fine with me, as the movie draws much of its humor from the general reflection of a Hitchcockian tone. Anxiety absorbs the Hitchcock feel but doesn’t just re-enact specific sequences.
That works for me, as I don’t think much of movies that simply recreate existing references with little cleverness. Even when Anxiety goes for the obvious – such as the shower scene from Psycho - it adds enough distinctiveness to ensure it doesn’t suffer from the moronic mimicry of something like Scary Movie. There’s a wit at hand that I appreciate, and there’s also a subtle adherence to the source. For instance, when Anxiety spoofs The Birds, the film uses similar sound design and omits music.
Much of the charm comes from the cinematography. Brooks ensures that shots strongly evoke the Hitchcock style. That means elements such as the one in which a character states he feels caught in a web while shadows create that sort of look around him. The movie doesn’t over-stress these shots; instead, it lets us enjoy them on our own.
Another positive also relates to Brooks’ subdued tone. In crummier films like History of the World or Spaceballs, Brooks doesn’t trust himself enough to let the jokes sit. Those films pour on the gags without pause, and that just accentuates the crappy quality of the bits.
In Anxiety, Brooks allows himself to take breaks, and this allows the comedic segments to prosper. They don’t battle against themselves for prominence, and they come from a more natural place. The humor stems from the story and characters, not the reverse.
A significant difference between Anxiety and Brooks’ lesser works stems from his obvious affection for the source material. That warmth permeated Young Frankenstein as well but was absent from trash like Spaceballs. It’s obvious he did the latter just to make a buck, while he shows a greater affinity for Hitchcock here. That helps allow the movie to prosper, as it doesn’t simply capitalize on a popular trend.
The high quality of the film’s cast certainly helps. Ron Carey and Howard Morris offer the most memorable work in their supporting roles, and a young Barry Levinson pops up in a terrific turn as a high-strung bellboy. Korman provides a favorite moment with his foiled attempt to eat a fruit cup; his anticipatory joy and subsequent disappointment are brilliant to see. Cloris Leachman’s cold, stern Nurse Diesel also offers many fun moments.
Maybe I’ll have to apologize to my friend Kevin. For years, I gave him a hard time about his adoration of High Anxiety, as I thought the film was lackluster at best. However, I now can appreciate the film’s charms and see it as a consistently amusing and clever piece of work.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-
High Anxiety appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was a decent presentation but not one that excelled.
Sharpness varied. I thought most of the movie demonstrated adequate definition, though the flick never quite became truly crisp or detailed. It rarely looked fuzzy, but it also failed to display a very tight presence. The film lacked jagged edges or shimmering, and no enhancement appeared. Source flaws weren’t much of a problem. I saw a few specks and not much else to distract me.
Colors stayed on the bland side of the street. Granted, this wasn’t a movie that boasted a wide palette, but I still thought the tones came across as flat and brown. Even shots with the potential to blossom looked somewhat indistinct. Blacks were fairly well-defined, though, and shadows looked reasonably concise. This was an acceptable transfer but it never became particularly strong.
While the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of High Anxiety didn’t dazzle me with its soundscape, it provided better than expected audio quality given its age. The score offered particularly solid material. The music consistently seemed distinctive and vibrant, with surprisingly full and deep low-end. Effects played a small role, but they came across as reasonably concise and accurate. Speech was fairly natural and lacked problems with intelligibility, though some edginess occasionally interfered.
As noted, the soundfield wasn’t particularly impressive. Music showed moderate stereo imaging, though the score often essentially reverted to mono. Effects also stayed pretty much in the center, though they occasionally spread mildly to the sides. There wasn’t much to the track, but the quality of the audio was enough to make this a “B-” mix, largely because the music sounded so good.
How do the picture and audio of this Blu-ray compare to the prior DVD? Both offered improvements, though don’t expect miracles. The sound was a bit more dynamic and full, while the visuals appeared tighter and more concise. Neither area blew away the DVD, though I did notice more picture detail. For instance, during the scenes at the psychiatric convention, I was able to read the nametags. This wasn’t a dazzling presentation, but it looked fine given the restrictions of the source material.
While the DVD included virtually no extras, we get a smattering of elements on the Blu-ray. First comes a featurette called Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense. In this 29-minute, 20-second show, we hear from writer/director Mel Brooks, Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter Mary Stone, Hitchcock’s Notebooks author Dan Auiler, writer/actors Ron Clark and Rudy De Luca, Brooks’ assistant Stuart Cornfeld, Sledge Hammer! producer/creator Alan Spencer, film historian/actor Tony Maietta, production designer Peter Wooley, and actors Dick Van Patten, Cloris Leachman, Jack Riley, Dom Deluise, and David Deluise. “Master” covers the project’s origins and influences, consulting with Hitchcock and references to his films, story and characters, cast and performances, music, stunts and effects, and a few other production topics.
It’s too bad Anxiety doesn’t get a commentary, but “Master” offers a decent little overview. It’s nice to hear from so many main contributors to the flick, and it gives us a good take on the Hitchcock influences. This turns into a likable, informative show.
The next three components run along with the film. The “Am I Very, Very Nervous?” Test uses the subtitle track to quiz you as you watch the flick. It offers wacky psychological questions and “scores” you on them. It’s all silly and fairly pointless, but it can be a passable diversion.
A subtitle track comes next. Don’t Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock gives us factoids that tell us about references to various Hitchcock movies as well as cast, crew and production elements related to High Anxiety. Many fans will get a lot of the movie influences, but it’s still cool to see them listed in this way, and even serious film buffs will pick up on some that they missed. The addition of the Anxiety info adds value to the track as well. “Anxious” embellishes the movie but doesn’t interfere; check it out while you watch the flick and you can still enjoy the comedy.
Movie music fans will be happy to find an Isolated Score Track. This presents the music in DTS-HD MA 5.1. If you dig film scores, you’ll be interested in this bonus.
Finally, we get a collection of trailers. The DVD includes ads for High Anxiety, History of the World Part I, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Silent Movie, To Be Or Not to Be and Young Frankenstein.
One of Mel Brooks’ best films, High Anxiety provides a solid spoof of Hitchcock. The movie plays off the master director’s tendencies and hits the mark quite frequently. The Blu-ray provides decent to good picture and audio; it also features a few interesting supplements. At no point does this become a killer disc, but it’s the best release of High Anxiety on home video.
Note that this version comes as part of the nine-movie “Mel Brooks Collection”. It also includes The Twelve Chairs, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, Silent Movie, History of the World Part I, Blazing Saddles, To Be or Not to Be, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. The “Mel Brooks Collection” packages all nine movies together with a hardcover book for a list price of $139.99.
To rate this film, visit the Mel Brooks Collection (SD) review of HIGH ANXIETY