If for no other reason, Young Frankenstein is a classic because, since its release in 1974, filmgoers have been unable to get some of the movie's scenes out of their heads. You can check it out at the Garland at midnight on Friday and Saturday.
That makes the movie sound like a bad horror film, but nothing could be further from the truth. It only looks like a bad horror film; the rest of Young Frankenstein is pure lunacy. The easily frightened needn't worry about unnatural acts, unless you count Gene Hackman doing comedy. And most of the activity in the movie seems to be based on nothing more volatile than sex and mispronunciation.
But there is a monster in the Frankenstein tradition. He's made of reanimated portions of dead people. An accident at the brain depository makes sure that he's strange. He's afraid of fire. And it goes without saying that he has an enormous scwansctuker.
It's that last detail that gives Young Frankenstein away as a Mel Brooks film. In much the same way that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas mined the movie-theater serials of their youth for ideas nearly a decade later, Brooks has drawn on the films of his youth -- westerns, musicals and classic horror -- to use as frameworks for his comedies.
And it would be wrong to dismiss the horror-movie roots of Young Frankenstein entirely. (It certainly has more to do with classic horror than Van Helsing.) The genre allows Mel Brooks to indulge in his darker side without giving up his sense of humor. At one point, the monster, accompanied by a rosy-faced, blonde-haired girl, tosses petals down a well. When they've all been sent to their watery grave, she looks up at the monster -- whom, Brooks has made sure, we don't really know at all -- and chirps innocently "What should we throw in now?" It's a dark joke, and Brooks only gets away with it under cover of Frankenstein.
This is nothing new from Brooks. In Blazing Saddles, he deftly linked that sacred symbol of Americana -- the western -- to racism and vulgarity. But here, Brooks' integration of comedy into the movie is seamless. He's helped, as he often has been, by Gene Wilder, who co-wrote the film. With nothing more than a semi-funny phrase and impeccable timing, Wilder takes charge of the onscreen mayhem, delivering several epic, all-encompassing freak-outs.
This frees Brooks to deal with the subtler parts of comedy -- the parts that too often go neglected by directors. In an early scene in which Wilder says goodbye to his fianc & eacute;e (Madeline Kahn) at a train station, the romantic dialogue gradually becomes more absurd, culminating with a passionate farewell elbow-rub. While this is going on, Brooks gradually cuts from a wide-angle shot to a close-up. As a result, the intimacy we feel with the couple increases as the jokes grow. Before you know it, there are characters -- albeit clowns -- onscreen. The better we know them, the easier it is for us to laugh at them for two hours -- or three decades.