Young Frankenstein: Comedy Born From Horror

Young Frankenstein posterIf you haven’t seen Young Frankenstein, you’re missing one of Mel Brooks’ greatest comedies. A good deal of that greatness rests on the shoulders of co-writer and star Gene Wilder… and the rest of the fantastic cast.

This is one of those films that wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the original Universal Studios series of Frankenstein films. It is, effectively, if not quite canonically, a further sequel to the original–making clear and distinct references to that original and the films that came after. It is a tongue-in-cheek love letter to those classic horror films. And it nails so much perfectly. (Heck, even the equipment in the lab is the actual equipment from the original film.)

The Plot

Frederick is a scientist who happens to be descended from the infamous Frankenstein family. He has tried very hard to divest himself of that legacy, going so far as to “correct” the pronunciation of his name. When he inherits the family castle and stumbles upon his great grandfather’s notes of how be brought life to dead tissue, the pull of destiny is more than Freddy can resist.

Hilarity ensues.

The Laughs

This is a case where the actual details of the plot don’t matter anywhere near as much as the sweep of the story. Everything is a series of comedy bits–plays on words, slapstick, allusions and euphemisms, and straight up hilarious acting (and reacting) from the cast. Elements of the original Frankenstein are definitely used, as are the general structure and look of the classic Universal pictures.

Thanks in no small part to a vicious editing process (according to some, the original cut of the film was twice as long, with a lot of stuff that didn’t quite work), the film as it exists provides a regular stream of absolute humor. (Especially for those who know the source material.)

Both Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder have listed this as one of their favorite films–if not their most favorite. That love shows through if you’ve ever seen either of them talk about the making of the film. And that joy is something that just oozes from the screen when you watch it.

There’s actually a new book coming out shortly about the making of this film. It’s bound to be enlightening and entertaining.

The Verdict

There is very little (if any) horror in this film. But without the history of horror behind the Frankenstein name, there wouldn’t have been anything to poke fun at.

This is the typical progression of horror. What was once terrifying, becomes common, then it becomes a joke. This wasn’t the first project to poke fun at the Frankenstein idea. Ten years earlier, The Munsters had hit TV, and, among all the sequels, reboots, riffs, and whatnot of the original film, more than a few were satire or comedy.

What makes Young Frankenstein stand out from all of those is the near perfection to which it apes the style of the original while adding more modern (for 1974) touches here and there (like the whole “Putting on the Ritz” number, which itself has gone on to inspire parody and re-use).

If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Even if you don’t like it as a whole, there will be at least one or two bits that bring you joy. More importantly, if you really watch it, you’ll see where so much that’s come after it–regardless of the subject–still draws inspiration from.

This is rightfully regularly listed as “one of the [some number] of films you have to see.”

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