“High Anxiety”: Suspense and Silliness By Mel Brooks

“High Anxiety”—as in intense fear-ridden anticipation? As in what many felt recently as the powerful storm Sandy approached? As in what many feel about the upcoming elections?

Or how about, as in an old movie? High Anxietya 1977 comedy directed by and starring Mel Brooks, parodies the genre of suspense films made by Alfred Hitchcock and takes place mainly in a mental hospital. Although back in the day it wasn’t highly rated by the critics, many viewers over the years have disagreed.

What we know at the start is that the head of a psychiatric facility has gone missing. Wikipedia describes the rest of the plot: “Brooks’ character, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, arrives as new administrator of The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous to discover some suspicious happenings. When he’s framed for murder, Dr. Thorndyke must confront his own anxiety disorder, ‘high anxiety,’ in order to prove his innocence.”

What exactly is this high anxiety that afflicts the esteemed psychiatrist? Exactly how it sounds—he has a fear of heights.

Who frames him for murder? Dr. Montague, a psychiatrist played by Harvey Korman, who’s in cahoots with Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman).

I saw High Anxiety when it was playing in theaters, and what stays with me the most, you ask? In the words of Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman:

When High Anxiety was released, viewers were familiar enough with the babble and buzzwords of psychoanalysis to respond instinctively to the film’s wittiest sequence, when Brooks’s speech at a psychiatric conference has to be spontaneously modified so as not to impinge upon the innocence of two young children who have joined the audience. ‘Penis envy’ becomes ‘pee-pee envy’; the womb is temporarily rechristened ‘the woo-woo.’

Pure silliness.

I won’t give it all away, but Dr. Thorndyke does eventually achieve insight regarding his high anxiety—and said insight is faux-psychoanalytically oriented, of course.

The trailer’s below:

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