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

Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

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three star

I’m usually pretty harsh on the kind of computer-animated children’s features that’re flimsy excuses for ensemble casts to earn a relatively easy paycheck doing voiceover work. I am, however, also very weak to the powers of pandering. For all of the Madagascar 2‘s, Angry Birds: The Movie‘s, and Minions films I’ve skipped (and will be skipping) over there’s always one or two CGI animations that drag me to the theater. I checked out Pixar’s Inside Out earlier this year, for instance, because its inner-world design looked fascinating in a dream-logic kind of way. That, however, was actually a pretty good movie. What’s much more shameful is that I couldn’t resist the recent Adam Sandler cartoon Hotel Transylvania 2. By all accounts Hotel Transylvania 2 is the exact kind of hokey CGI ensemble cast animation dreck I typically avoid. Still, I was too weak-willed to pass up a famous monsters-themed comedy featuring several SNL alumni, not to mention Steve Buscemi as a werewolf & Mel Brooks as an aging Borscht Belt Dracula. I am admittedly powerless against that formula, regardless of the film’s quality.

It’s hard to say for sure if Hotel Transylvania 2 is better or worse than its predecessor. Its lack of ambition in terms of storytelling are pretty much on par with the first film, which was centered on a *gasp* human being winning his way into the heart of Dracula’s daughter & finding his place in a social circle consisting entirely of famous monsters. That small bit of world-building already taken care of, the second film at least has a lot less leg work to do, which is a blessing. There are some interesting ideas at play here about how the young lovebirds are treated as a “mixed couple” in both of human & monster societies (despite both being blindingly white) and the ways their first child together struggles to find a sense of identity in one of the two worlds. The rest of the film is sort of a loose jumble of disconnected thoughts on gentrification, social media addiction, a Luddite’s place in the modern world, and so on. The race metaphor in the human-monster relations is half-cooked at best and doesn’t amount to much more than ludicrous statements like, “Maybe you’ve let humans into your hotel, Dad, but I don’t think you’ve let them into your heart.” Whatever. Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the former SNL staff & the monster-themed puns, something that the film was obviously also more invested in as well.

As far as former-SNL cast members go, Hotel Transylvania 2 hosts voice performances from the likes of Adam Sandler (duh), Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, Dana Carvey, Chris Katan, David Spade, Chris Parnell, and Jon Lovitz. The movie was also co-written by TV Funhouse creator/all-around comedy genius Robert Smigel (not putting in his best work, but still). That’s not even mentioning contributions from non-SNL comedians Nick Offerman, Megan Mullalley, Rob Riggle, Keegan-Michael Key, Steve Buscemi, and, of course, Mel Brooks. As these things generally go, it’s a fantastic cast put to minimally effective use. The movie may be monster-themed, but it definitely tends more towards cute than scary. The bats look like kittens & a baby vampire with bright red curls for hair isn’t likely to appear in any child’s nightmares. The most horrific the film gets is in the (humorously) blank expressions of the hotel’s zombie staff. I appreciated a couple of the film’s isolated punchlines, like a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that goes, “Suffer, suffer, scream in pain. You will never breathe again,” calling back to the first film’s “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna bite the head off a bird.” For the most part, though, the jokes are worth maybe an occasional light chuckle (whenever they’re not vaguely homophobic, an unsavory line of humor Sandler can’t seem to resist even in his children’s media). Even the decades-old Al Lewis travesty Grampire: My Grandpa is a Vampire has a better grasp on portmanteau than this film’s less satisfying concoction “Vampa”. It’s no matter. I got what I wanted out of Hotel Transylvania 2: former SNL staff, hokey monster puns, and a werewolf Steve Buscemi. If that’s not enough to hold your interest for a feature (and it really shouldn’t be; I’m weak), I highly recommend instead tracking down the much-superior-in-every-way 2012 Laika production ParaNorman for all of your animated monster movie needs.

-Brandon Ledet