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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » High Anxiety (Blu-ray)
High Anxiety (Blu-ray)
Fox // PG // May 11, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 15, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Westerns...? Yup. Silent cinema...? Mmm-hmm. Vintage Universal fright flicks and pulpy spy movies...? Check and check. After hammering out all those wildly successful genre riffs, Mel Brooks turned his sights to Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense and a director whose fiftysomething films are practically a genre unto themselves. Look, I'm a frothing-at-the-mouth Hitchcock fanatic, and I'd chalk myself up as a fan of Mel Brooks too. Mel paying homage to-slash-spoofing Hitch...it's like some kind of cinematic Reese's Peanut Butter Cup with two really amazing things smashing head-on into each other.

That's the idea, at least. High Anxiety is one of those movies that's kind of slogged its way into the back of Mel Brooks' filmography, and whenever I stumble onto chatter about Brooks' films, it's either mentioned in passing or ignored completely. It's not a classic in the same league as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, it's not a train wreck like Life Stinks, and it's not divisive like History of the World, Part I or Silent Movie; High Anxiety is just kind of...there. I have to admit that I didn't even know it existed until I was channel-surfing a few years back and spotted it on cable. With so few of Hitchcock's actual movies on Blu-ray at the moment, I figured an homage like High Anxiety might help tide me over, kind of like a movie version of Methadone or something. No, not really.

...but anyway, I think this is the part where I'm supposed to yammer on about the story for a paragraph or two. Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is tormented by a paralyzing fear of heights, but...hey! Hasn't stopped the guy from cementing himself as one of the most honored psychiatrists the world over. Doc Thorndyke's just set up shop at The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, even. It's supposed to be a prestigious gig, but things aren't all bright and shiny at the institute: that ball-busting Nurse Ratchet type (Cloris Leachman), a jealous, preening backstabber on-staff (Harvey Korman), a jittery guy who
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desperately wants to tell Thorndyke something but can't quite spit it out (Dick Van Patten), and...oh! A gaggle of inmates that seem like they'd all been rehabilated months and months ago, and yet they're all still locked up. The other kicker...? These supposed nutjobs are all multimillionaires whose stint at the institute runs a little over ten grand per month a pop. Thorndyke seems as if he's getting close to stumbling onto the truth, and if you've devoured enough Hitchcock, you can probably see where this is going: murder! A man wrongly accused! An icy blonde swooping in to play the love interest!

As an homage to Hitchcock's films, High Anxiety is outstanding. The movie's teeming with nods to a good bit of Hitchcock's work, most heavily Vertigo, Spellbound, and North by Northwest while also dropping in references to Psycho, The Birds, and probably a few others I forgot to jot down in my notes. High Anxiety reproduces Hitchcock's immediately distinctive camerawork startlingly well, and the production design is almost slavishly faithful, down to Madeline Kahn decked out in a gray suit that could've been nicked straight out of Eva Marie Saint's or Kim Novak's closet. Heck, High Anxiety even takes the time to marvel over brandy, one of my all-time favorite Hitchcockisms.

So,
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again, as an homage...? Great. As a comedy, though...? High Anxiety lumbers around slowly and is surprisingly laughless. I had a really tough time slogging through the first twenty or thirty minutes. The pace is glacial, it seems like the flick's heaping on entirely too much setup, Mel Brooks is awfully bland playing it straight as the Cary Grant leading man type, and so many of the gags feel stale and shopworn. I don't know if it's because Silent Movie wasn't as staggeringly enormous a hit at the box office as Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, but here it feels as if Brooks is playing it safe...repeating himself...sticking with the sorts of gags people would expect out of a movie with his name on the marquee. Sometimes High Anxiety's sense of humor really does connect. There are a few meta-gags -- like a camera that, near the end of a long tracking shot, smashes through a dining room window -- that stand out more than just about anything else.

Harvey Korman predictably scores some of the movie's biggest laughs with his impossibly brilliant comic timing, most memorably tormenting a patient with a set of plastic werewolf fangs just an inch or two behind Doc Thorndyke. The dick and fart jokes are pretty great straight across the board too: Thorndyke being drenched in bird poop, an inmate who thinks he's a cocker spaniel humping legs and peeing, and the good doctor dancing around more clinical terms and talking about "cocky-doo-doo" and womens' "woo-woo"s after some kids stroll into a psychiatry conference. There's a lot of dead air between the jokes, though, and it doesn't help that so many of them flop and flounder around aimlessly. Anchoring the flick around someone as bland and boring as Dr. Thorndyke doesn't exactly send High Anxiety screaming ahead for ninetysomething minutes either. The ensemble cast salvages what they can, and the pace does pick up in its second half, but overall, I found High Anxiety pretty tedious to watch. There are brief glimmers of inspiration, sure, but I'd still have a tough time recommending High Anxiety with any enthusiasm to Hitchcock completists or to Mel Brooks fans. 'Sides, if you're that into Mel Brooks, you probably already picked up the Blu-ray boxed set from a while back that has this disc tucked inside. Rent It.


Video
Eh. High Anxiety isn't gonna curl any toes or anything in high-def. For one, the photography is extremely soft and grainy. There's a bit more definition and texture than I'd expect a DVD to be able to lob out -- I wouldn't be surprised if that wispy moustache of Nurse Diesel's wound up being more of a muddy smear in standard-def -- but it's nothing jaw-dropping or earth-shatteringly revelatory or whatever. Considering how many startlingly gorgeous Technicolor marvels Hitchcock had under his belt, it's kind of a drag that this homage to his films sports such a lackluster palette, heavy on grays and browns that root it pretty firmly in the mid-'70s. I don't have any trouble buying that this is just the way High Anxiety was originally shot and that it'll never look too much better than this, no matter how much time and money gets chucked in its general direction. The remastering job seems to be solid enough, and the image isn't marred by any distracting specks or nicks. The only hiccup that leaps out at me is a sporadically edgy, oversharpened appearance, presumably an attempt to try to compensate for the soft cinematography, but at least it's not too excessive. Pretty drab and bland all around, though.

High Anxiety's AVC encode is given plenty of room to stretch out on this BD-50 disc, and the image is very slightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.


Audio
High
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Anxiety
serves up a six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and it's not bad at all. The sound design for this remix prefers to mill around the center channel, so it doesn't take all that many liberties with the original audio. There aren't any forced, gimmicky sound effects to awkwardly take advantage of all the different channels it has at its fingertips either. The original score -- inspired heavily by Hitchcock mainstay Bernard Herrmann and even slathering on some theremin a la Spellbound -- comes through particularly well. Dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, not dragged down by the thin, muffled quality I'm kind of used to hearing on flicks of this vintage. The sound effects are reasonably full-bodied too, again packing more of a wallop than I waltzed in expecting to hear. High Anxiety isn't going to push some overpriced home theater rig to the breaking point or anything, but as remixes of modestly budgeted, thirtysomething-year-old comedies go, this one's ranking pretty high up there.

Oh, and there's one more 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track on here too: an isolated score. It's not just the same track with the dialogue and effects stems dialed down: you actually get to hear direction and outtakes from the original recording sessions. As terrific as I thought the score sounded in the primary mix, it sounds so much better here. The soundscape is far wider and more expansive, and it just snarls with more ferocity than the other lossless track does.

High Anxiety also sports a Dolby Digital stereo track (224kbps) along with DD 5.1 dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Subtitles are piled on in English (SDH), Spanish, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, and Portuguese.


Extras
There's that isolated score I rambled on about a paragraph or two up, along with...drum roll!...
  • Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense (29 min.; HD): The best thing for me about this Blu-ray disc...? Breathtakingly gorgeous snippets of Spellbound and Notorious in high definition. Those -- and, well, everything else with Hitchcock's name stamped on it -- can't hit Blu-ray quickly enough.

    Oh, and this half-hour retrospective ain't bad either. Pretty much all the surviving talent, Mel Brooks chief among 'em, hops in front of the camera to chat about High Anxiety. Brooks talks a good bit about his lunches with Hitchcock and how keen Hitch was on the making of this homage, even suggesting a few gags himself. Among the other highlights are the term 'high anxiety' that Brooks coined winding
    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
    up in proper psychology, Brooks casting himself -- a schlubby guy in his '50s -- as the Cary Grant leading man type, Cloris Leachman putting together her own look for the ridden-hard-and-put-up-wet Nurse Diesel, the extended Sinatra riff, and running through some of the specific Hitchcock homages. Stills from a deleted scene are also served up here too. An audio commentary would've been nice, sure, but "Hitchcock and Mel" stands in pretty well as the next best thing.

  • Don't Get Anxious! The Trivia of Hitchcock: High Anxiety also features a subtitle trivia track. Some of the notes, like the recipe for stage bird poop, were lobbed out in the half-hour featurette, but there's very little overlap overall. "Don't Get Anxious!" points out some of the deliberate and kinda tenuous connections to Hitchcock's massive filmography, points out which actors had worked with Mel Brooks on some of his other projects, and notes that more than a couple of the folks who worked behind the scenes on on High Anxiety were alums of Hitchcock's films themselves. I kind of like that this track has a slightly sarcastic sense of humor instead of just spouting off cold, sterile facts every 45 seconds.

  • The "Am I Very, Very Nervous?" Test: I didn't goof around too much with this BD-J game that runs during the movie. The idea's that you're periodically probed with psychological questions, and the system tells you afterwards just how nuts you are. Again, there's a pretty sharp sense of humor, but that screeching buzzing sound and the fact that I couldn't skip chapters or fast-forward kinda killed it for me. The ability to play the game on its own without having devote nearly a hundred minutes to it would've been nice.

  • Trailers (HD): Last up are a bunch of high-def trailers. There's one for High Anxiety, natch, along with the original trailers for History of the World, Part I, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Silent Movie, To Be or Not to Be, and Young Frankenstein.

The Final Word
Hitch and Mel -- two great tastes that taste great together, right? Well, not so much. As an homage to one of the most colossal talents that cinema's ever hammered out, High Anxiety is terrific, but as a comedy...? Not really. Worthwhile as a rental for Hitchcock completists, I guess, but High Anxiety is pretty tough to recommend on its own. If you're enough of a fan of Mel Brooks to want to snag this, you're probably better off with the boxed set of all of his Fox stuff instead. Rent It.
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