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
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.
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.
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.
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.
There's that isolated score I rambled on about a paragraph or two up, along with...drum roll!...
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.