Young Frankenstein is a high-water mark in the career of Mel Brooks, both as a writer and a director. With the help of co-writer and star Gene Wilder, Brooks builds on the strengths of The Producers and Blazing Saddles to deliver a hilarious and warmly affectionate parody of old horror films. The laughs are frequent, the jokes are intelligent, the script tightly written, and the characters are immensely likeable.
Much of the appeal of Young Frankenstein lies in the fact that the parody is so affectionate. In his later films, like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, you felt that Brooks was simply picking on what was popular for the sake of a fast buck; while the former has its moments, you never get the sense that Brooks is a Star Wars fan. Here, though, his love for old-fashioned Gothic horror is clear, both in the jokes and the sets in which they play out. Many of the props in the laboratory scenes are borrowed from the original Frankenstein movies of the 1930s, and the dark lighting both in the castle and on the streets are a clear nod to those works.
Above all, the humour derives from poking fun at the conventions of a genre, rather than simply borrowing the look of a film and then layering contemporary humour on top. So many modern parodies like Meet The Spartans use their source material as mere artifice; the look of 300 is captured in the initial scenes, but nothing interesting is done with them and the film quickly degenerates into a soulless sausage machine of celebrity put-downs. To an extent, this awkward juxtaposition of old visuals and new humour is also a problem in Blazing Saddles; think of the scene of the cowboys continuously farting round the campfire.
But here, all is well, as one convention is sent up after another. The jokes typically take one of the serious and unchallengeable motifs of these films ? like the secret passage to the laboratory ? and then show how they are simultaneously purposeful and ridiculous. The scene with the bookcase, in which Gene Wilder and Teri Garr discover said passageway, treads a fine line between subtle humour and slightly camp melodrama. Similarly, when Cloris Leachman plays frantic violin chords and shouts ?Yes!? as the plot revelations unfold, she is being immensely funny and yet strangely believable. The great success of Young Frankenstein is that is manages to be very funny without any of the characters ever thinking or knowing that what they are doing is funny. It manages to parody horror clichés, without seeming to realise that these clichés exist.
Gene Wilder anchors the film in a brilliant central performance. It?s far superior to his turn in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which he was playing himself and clearly having a ball doing so. His Wonka had his angry and frightening moments, but they were cast unto the wind in a flurry of whimsy and slightly misplaced, generic charm. In this, he channels his anger into the character, making the transformation from ?Fronkensteen? to Frankenstein so much more believable. The intensity with which he delivers his lines is again simultaneously scary and funny, to the point at which the term ?horror comedy? seems strangely apt. It is hard to imagine Kenneth Branagh?s equally intense yet completely serious turn, in his own version of Frankenstein, without the existence of this performance.
Surrounding Wilder is a strong cast of talented comedic actors. Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman raise many a titter as Inga and Frau Blücher (neigh); the latter is especially good when her character is in a state of frenzy. Peter Boyle brings a layer of serene menace to the Monster; he can be frightening when he needs to, but most of the time he is adorably childlike. His best scenes are the ?catching of buttleflies? sequence as Blücher plays the violin, and his scene with the blind priest played by Gene Hackman. And Madeleine Kahn comes good once again, playing Wilder?s chaste and uptight fiancée who eventually becomes the Bride of the Monster. She may have less to play with here than in Blazing Saddles, both in terms of screen time and sex appeal, but that doesn?t stop her holding her own against mot of the others on screen.
The film is stolen, however, by the dual forces of Marty Feldman as Igor and Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp. Both are essentially playing freaks of nature ? the former a hunchback, the latter an amputee ? and so you would expect the jokes to be cheap and not-so-cheerful. But by and large Brooks resists this, relying instead on Feldman?s immense capacity for physical humour to carry the film. He?s a great foil to the nervous Wilder, while Mars is a great vocal comedian, twisting his mouth and voice into the most brilliantly ridiculous of German accents.
Young Frankenstein is not flawless, at last not in the way that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is. Some of the jokes have either dated or don?t scan as well so more, and the opening fifteen minutes are creaky without real signs of this being deliberate. Nevertheless it remains Brooks? finest achievement, if nothing else because it is funnier than most of his later films put together. The film is the ideal length for both tension and comedy to thrive, and the ending is both a solid resolution and a pleasant surprise, unlike the endings to his early work. It?s a must-see for horror fans or anyone who wants to laugh solidly for 90 minutes, not a masterpiece, definitely a classic.