High Anxiety (1977)

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fourhalfstar

My first experience with Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t actually with the work of the man himself. When I was a child, my grandparents lived in Waukegan, a suburb of Chicago, and I would often spend a month or two with them every summer. There was a station they received that would show the same movie every day for a week, perhaps longer, and it was on this station that I first watched Back to the Future II (at least a dozen times) and often-overlooked Joe Dante flick Explorers, both of which I loved. The best movie shown on this repeating station, however, was Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety. Although not as well known or beloved as pictures like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or Spaceballs, High Anxiety remains, to this day, my favorite of the entire Brooks oeuvre. It’s a pastiche homage to the films of the Master of Suspense, and, as with Head Over Heels, I couldn’t stop thinking about it during and after watching Dario Argento’s Do You Like Hitchcock? I didn’t understand the references when I was a child, but every time my grandmother would laugh out loud, she would explain which of Hitchcock’s films was being parodied, and why the joke worked. I recently rewatched the film and was worried it would pale in comparison to my memory of it, but I’m delighted to say it’s only gotten better with time.

Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks), a Harvard professor, has just flown to California to take over as the director of the Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. After making his way through a notably dramatic airport, he is greeted by his driver, Brophy (Ron Carey), a motormouth shutterbug who exposits about the institute and its staff, whom Thorndyke meets upon arrival. Many of them are played by part of Brooks’s recurring stable of actors: Cloris Leachman plays Nurse Diesel, a parody of Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers; Harvey Corman is Dr. Montague, who is engaged in a scheme and a BDSM relationship, both with Diesel; and Dick Van Patten portrays Dr. Wentworth, who tries to warn Thorndyke that something is amiss. Thorndyke is eventually led to investigate the institute’s violent ward, where he is introduced to the very wealthy patient Arthur Brisbane, now suffering under the belief that he is a dog, the result of a nervous breakdown. On a business trip to San Francisco, Thorndyke meets Brisbane’s daughter, Victoria (longterm Brooks collaborator and one of the greatest comediennes of all time, Madeline Kahn), with whom he discovers that Diesel and Montague are attempting to steal the Brisbane fortune and that the man Thorndyke met was a random patient. The dastardly duo hire a hitman to frame Thorndyke for murder, causing the good doctor and Victoria to flee the city while Brophy works to prove Thorndyke’s innocence. And, as with most Hitchcock homages, there’s a climactic altercation at a great height waiting at the end.

The above plot summary outlines the larger elements of the Hitchcockian thriller narrative but belies just how funny this movie is. Film comedy, by its nature, does not demand that its plot be tightly structured in order to be successful; many comedies have only the barest of plots, which exist only to be a skeleton upon which jokes and gags are hung. I’m always more impressed when a comedy takes the time to construct an intricate plot that would stand alone as a decent mystery without comic elements, which is probably why I love Clue (also starring Madeline Kahn) and Hot Fuzz (which is basically the apotheosis of mystery comedy) so much. While High Anxiety‘s plot isn’t as airtight as it could be, it does stand out as part of what makes the movie work.

The homages run fast and heavy, and they work much better here than they did in Argento’s film. The overall plot about a scheme within a mental institution that is brought to light by the newly arrived overseer is taken from Spellbound, my second favorite Hitchcock (side note: Salvador Dali was an art director on Spellbound, which makes it an absolute must-see for any fan of art and cinema). The finale, like Do You Like Hitchcock?’s, borrows most heavily from Vertigo. But there’s also the scene in which Thorndyke tries to escape from a huge flock of birds, or Birds, and the scene in the hotel which presents Thorndyke’s framing for murder is evocative of the similar scene in North by Northwest. Meanwhile, the gags range from broad (wealthy heiress Victoria Brisbane drives a car that is covered in Louis Vuitton leather—not upholstered, covering the outside) to the specific (future Good Morning, Vietnam director Barry Levinson plays an uptight bellboy who attacks Thorndyke with a newspaper in the shower, causing gray newsprint to funnel into the drain, just like Marion Crane’s B&W blood in Psycho) and some fall all over the spectrum.

Hollywood legend says that the Master of Suspense himself sent Brooks six bottles of 1961 Château Haut-Brion to express his appreciation for the thorough and engaging send-up of the British director’s body of work. That alone speaks volumes about just how much love and effort went into crafting High Anxiety‘s homages. It’s reflective of the amount of adoring attention that went into, say, Argento’s adaptation of Poe’s “The Black Cat,” but not his more metatextual and by-the-numbers Hitchcock piece. High Anxiety is a movie that anyone who loves comedy, or classics, or Hitchcock should watch and watch again.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

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three star
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“Alright, scouts. Let’s kick some zombie ass.”

Man, these zombie horror comedies really do seem to write themselves. Here’s the basic premise of Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (as if you couldn’t infer it from the title alone): three teenage boy scouts try to get laid while the world (or at least their small town) crumbles around them into zombie mayhem. You can pretty much tell from there whether or not you’re on board with the movie’s grossout gore gags & sexual bro humor, which for better or for worse plays out exactly as you’d expect it to.  Imagine Superbad with extras from the “Thriller” video eating half the cast & you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. All its genre faithfulness aside, at least Scouts Guide doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of films like this: wimping out on the gore & sex jokes. It’s a very raunchy teen sex comedy & a very gory zombie flick, both elements over the top in their crassness. Fans of bro humor & disgusting splatter fests may know what they’re getting ahead of time, but are likely to leave somewhat satisfied.

Despite what you may assume from the title, Scouts Guide never provides a list of rules on how to survive the zombie apocalypse like the one Jesse Eisenberg reads off in Zombieland. The plot is much more straightforward in structure. After establishing that teenage boy scouts are unsexy nerds who can’t get laid, the film stages a 28 Days Later-type viral outbreak that shakes up their world enough to allow rites of passage like squeezing their first breasts, viewing their first strip tease, and (on a sweeter note) receiving their first kiss, all on the same night. And because they’re hormone-addled teenage boys, it just barely bothers them that these moments of intimacy are soaked in gore & viscera. Even though that gore is pretty standard in terms of zombie movie mayhem, it is at least enthusiastic enough in its details to make the effort worthwhile. If nothing else, I’m pretty sure it was the first time I had ever seen zombie cats, zombie deer, zombie scientists, zombie scout leaders, zombie cops, and zombie strippers all in the same film, And true to form, in terms of teenage boy sex humor, the movie also makes time to include zombie hand jobs, zombie rim jobs, and zombie cunnilingus while it was at it. It’s all very tasteless,  but it’s also just silly enough to work.

Even though I enjoyed Scouts Guide for what it was, I’m struggling to recall details that distinguish it from its zombie comedy peers. The reason I watched the film in the first place was that the star role was filled by the incredibly gifted Tye Sheridan. It was nice to see him have fun for a change, since most of his work to this point has been in grim dramas like Mud & Joe. Other supporting roles from familiar faces like David Koechner, Blake Anderson, and Cloris Leachman were wall pretty much on par with their previous comedy work, but nothing out of the ordinary. Only the strip club cocktail waitress played by Sarah Dumont stood out as a particularly bad performance, but what’s the point of a zombie movie if you don’t sneak at least one of those in there?

The rest of the film’s charms are a stray sly joke or two, like a strip club named Lawrence of Alabia, a zombie wearing a “YOLO” shirt, a pissant dude bro taking selfies with corpses, a grown man’s beyond-obsessive shrine to the fabulous Dolly Parton, etc. You’ve more or less seen everything else before: the chest-caving moment from The Thing, the landscaping equipment brutality of Dead Alive, you know the drill. If you can deal with a couple stray poop jokes, gratuitits nudity, and bros being bros (often with resulting punishment), Scouts Guide is an amusing, low stakes horror comedy. It also gets instant bonus points for valuing practical effects over CGI. It could’ve easily substituted details like zombie cat puppets & elastic zombie dicks with computer graphics, but instead they for the most part took the time to mimic the golden era of the genre in its gore effects, a dedication to the (admittedly trashy) craft that I truly appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet