After striking out with Silent Movie (1976), which was a moderate success but still a huge comedown commercially and critically from the twin 1974 hits Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, comedy auteur Brooks drifted back to the sweet spot, more or less, for High Anxiety, a send-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classics. Though High Anxiety has some terrific moments, and despite Brooks’ obvious affection and respect for Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety lacks both the manic energy of Saddles and the sweetness of Frankenstein. Plus, by this point in Brooks’ career, the feces jokes were starting to get out of hand, which is indicative that the creative well was starting to run dry.
The picture’s biggest minus is the presence of Brooks in the leading role as a shrink who must overcome his personal phobias in order to expose corruption at a psychiatric hospital. For although High Anxiety actually has a strong narrative, comparatively speaking, Brooks’ tendency toward overacting makes it hard to develop the emotional investment a subtler actor could engender. It’s true that Brooks gives a much better performance in High Anxiety than he did in Silent Movie, but he’s still the weakest link in terms of onscreen talent.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, High Anxiety has many bright spots, including the delightful scene of corrupt psychiatrist Harvey Korman torturing a patient by pretending to be a werewolf, Cloris Leachman’s go-for-broke performance as a nutjob nurse with a bullet bra and a mustache, and Brooks’ lounge-lizard rendition of the movie’s ridiculous theme song (classic line: “Oh—‘xiety!”). For movie buffs, it’s also a hoot to see future director Barry Levinson (who co-wrote this movie) acting in the film’s requisite homage to Psycho’s shower scene. Brooks regular Madeline Kahn is mostly wasted, although she gets to look gorgeous in the thankless role of a seductive/troubled blonde in the Hitchock mode.
Had this movie been made by anyone else, and had it featured a proper actor in the leading role, High Anxiety might have been embraced by audiences for its easygoing silliness. But since it represents such a big comedown from its predecessors, and since Brooks’ front-and-center role screams of megalomania, it’s merely an enjoyable but minor entry in an important filmography.
High Anxiety: FUNKY