Young Frankenstein (1974)
Director: Mel Brooks
Screenwriters: Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder
Starring: Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachmann, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Gene Hackman
While there have been a fair share of horror spoofs over the years, it is a somewhat mixed bag in terms of genuine laugh out loud takes that stand separate from what they are satirising – for every Shaun Of The Dead, there is a Scary Movie. Mel Brooks, in 1974, with the assistance of the late Gene Wilder, created a horror comedy for the ages in Young Frankenstein. The film takes influence from Mary Shelley’s original work “Frankenstein”, and more frequent and obvious inspiration from the numerous film adaptations released in the 1930s and 40s. The film was a critical and commercial hit, and even got Brooks and Wilder nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Mel Brooks has since stated that he thinks it’s the best of the films he has directed, which is high praise considering that his catalogue also includes The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993), and while he concedes it may not be his funniest, he may just be right about it being at the very top of his legendary filmography.
Young Frankenstein is often cited as one of the funniest films from the past 50 years, with Empire placing it 19th in their list of the 50 Funniest Films of All Time and Bravo placing it at number 56 on their equivalent list. Adam Smith’s 2006 retrospective on the film was a glowing one: “Young Frankenstein is a marvelously crafted, beautifully shot comedic homage to James Whale’s 1931 classic, with the sheer craft of the production and performances contrasting brilliantly with the low-down and dirty obviousness of many of the gags”. This review acknowledged the film to be one of Brooks’ finest spoofs with subsequent efforts such as High Anxiety and The History of The World Part 1 struggling to match its tone and runaway success. It is remarkable that Brooks managed to release two of his finest directorial efforts in the same year, 1974, releasing Young Frankenstein on the back of the hugely successful Blazing Saddles.
Brooks cleverly employed many tropes from the 1930s films in Young Frankenstein, with the use of scene transitions and in-film credits, with fades to black and wipes employed throughout. Filming in black and white also helped to evoke the atmosphere of the much earlier, classic monster films. While Young Frankenstein is often laugh out loud hilarious, it is the reverence for its source material that helps elevate it above other horror spoofs that can feel laboured. Brooks and Wilder are both clearly fans of the horror genre and do justice to their influences whilst also creating something that can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with what exactly their work is paying homage to, much as Edgar Wright managed to achieve with Shaun Of The Dead.
The cast are one of the clear highlights of this film, with Gene Wilder superb as this iteration’s mad scientist, the grandson of the original Frankenstein. He brings his trademark brand of quirkiness and physical comedy, and once again proves a valuable asset to Brooks following acclaimed collaborations on Blazing Saddles and The Producers. There is some great support for Wilder from Peter Boyle as The Monster, who is so convincing it’s like he came from the 1930s. Additionally Marty Feldman as Igor is clearly having fun, and the two leading ladies Cloris Leachman and American Graffiti star Teri Garr offer fine contrasts and plenty of comedic moments. There is also a hilarious brief cameo from an almost unrecognisable Gene Hackman in a scene with The Monster.
There is one scene in which Frankenstein and The Monster sing “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, which continues to stand out as one of Young Frankenstein’s most fun moments, the scene itself harking back to the collaboration of Wilder and Brooks on The Producers seven years earlier. It may be a far cry from traditional horror cinema, but it’s a moment that suits the whimsical tone of Brooks’ work, and has since become something of a signature trademark.
Young Frankenstein is worth seeking out for fans of vintage horror and Mel Brooks comedies. It stands apart as a great film in its own right, separate from its influences, striking a near perfect balance between homage and send up. Often proving hilarious with some superb performances and a witty script, this comedy still holds up close to 50 years removed from its release, and remains a fantastic showcase for Brooks’ unique brand of humour. A fine companion piece to Brooks’ Western send up Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein is also a first indicator of Gene Wilder’s talents away from the camera ahead of his directorial debut The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother released the following year.