Movie Review – Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Written by Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks
Directed by Mel Brooks

Comedy films aren’t really known for their cinematography. Typically they are notable for set pieces or dialogue, which does make sense. Comedy is an intricately constructed thing when done right. However, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder didn’t just want to make another comedy. They specifically wanted to make a comedy and an authentic tribute to a film from their childhoods that they loved. The result is one of the best-looking comedies ever made with a mix of techniques found in the 1930s and what would have been more contemporary blocking from the 1970s. Young Frankenstein may be the best comedy ever because it nails the visuals and is still uproariously funny.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen”) is a lecturer in the States who has his life upended when informed that the estate in Transylvania is now his. Frederick is reluctant but leaves behind his fiancee, Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), to see what awaits him there. He’s met by the bug-eyed henchman Igor (Marty Feldman) and taken to the estate. He meets Inga (Teri Garr), meant to be his assistant, despite Frederick insisting he wants to avoid carrying on his grandfather’s work. Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) *horses neigh*, the intimidating housekeeper, seems to know more than she lets on. Frederick eventually discovers his grandfather’s secret library and resumes the quest to reanimate the dead starting with Igor snatching a brain from a laboratory. An accident occurs, leading Igor to take what is labeled as “abnormal,” but he mistakes it for the name “Abby Normal.” A monster (Peter Boyle) does rise, and the townsfolk dispatch an officer of the law, Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), to investigate what this young Frankenstein is up to.

Young Frankenstein may very well be a perfect comedy, including almost every form of humor you can think of. On the surface level, it is a parody film. But we also get screwball comedy, wordplay, slapstick, musical comedy, sex comedy, Yiddish humor, dark comedy, and more. Brooks & Wilder wrote the script, which was clearly during a time when they were firing on every cylinder they had. Every joke hits; even the dumb ones are hilarious because of how dumb they are. It also has to be said this came out at the end of the same year Blazing Saddles was released, showcasing just how at his peak Brooks was then. I also argue that every Brooks movie after this one is clearly chasing the magic of Young Frankenstein, with Brooks leaning into parody-type films for many years after. 

Young Frankenstein works so well because of how seriously the production design takes things. While the dialogue and performances are incredibly comedic, the set decoration, costuming, make-up, and cinematography all come from an earnest view of the material. That balance between humor and a straightforward Universal horror picture elevates this film above your standard comedy fare. The filmmakers’ genuine love of the Frankenstein film means they can go deeper than most lazy parody films and hone in on specific details that show their appreciation. No performer overshadows another, and everyone has scenes that play to their particular talents.

This wasn’t my first viewing; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Young Frankenstein at this point. However, this was the viewing where I came to appreciate the craftsmanship in the cinematography. Over the last year, I’ve become more attuned to camerawork and able to differentiate between what looks good, what looks okay, and what comes across as dreadful. I guess I’ll credit the psychedelics I’ve done, but I feel like I’m able to see films I’ve watched many times before, like this one and Fellini’s 8 ½ with brand new eyes. I was seriously impressed with the camera movement in some of the scenes in Young Frankenstein. The camera is relatively static for many shots or uses simple movements meant to hold true to the Universal style of their monster films. However, there are some scenes where the blocking & movement appears to me to be in line with contemporary (circa 1974) techniques, and it doesn’t clash. Instead, these scenes really popped for me and helped reinforce the idea that Young Frankenstein is both an homage to a type of film that was a bygone and also a modern comedy with the sensibilities of a more mature audience.

My favorite scene is when Frederick insists upon being locked in the cell with the monster, and under no circumstances will he be allowed out. Then, almost as soon as the door is shut and locked, he begins begging & cursing at his assistants to release him. It’s the perfect frenzied performance Wilder was always so talented at, and it is the note I will end this review on:


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