Horror movies are wondrous things. With a horror movie, one can confront their deepest darkest fears and survive them. The rush of adrenaline at the sight of danger gives way to the sigh of relief and chuckle of amusement when that danger is revealed to be harmless. Audiences don’t go to horror movies for terror but to laugh in its face. 

But not everyone can handle things that go bump in the night. For these viewers, it is better to skip the scares and dive headfirst into the giggles, and that was Mel Brooks’ thinking when he set James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in his sights. Both movies are classics and gave rise to the horror genre, but Brook’s comedic send-up, Young Frankenstein, is timeless.

The year is 1974, and Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is a young neurosurgeon trying desperately to distance himself from his infamous grandfather: the one who had a thing for bringing corpses back to life. However, Dr. Frankenstein—or as he insists it is pronounced, “Dr. Fronkensteen”—is drawn back to Transylvania when he learns that he has inherited his grandfather’s castle.

Coming with the castle are a hunchbacked manservant, Igor (Marty Feldman in all his bug-eyed glory), a voluptuous laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr), and the demented mistress of the manor, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). Blücher lures Dr. Frankenstein to his grandfather’s lair, where he discovers a step-by-step manual for reanimating a corpse.

Playing God is what the Frankensteins are good at, and Frederick follows in his grandpa’s shoes. In no time at all, the good doctor has his own creature (Peter Boyle), but this is no ordinary monster, as Dr. Frankenstein tells an eager audience of onlookers, “From what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured, sophisticated, man about town.” Cue, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Young Frankenstein is one glorious set-piece after another, with each one building set-ups and payoffs in just a few minutes. It helps that Brooks is working with a murder’s row of comic talent: Boyle, Feldman, Garr, Madeline Kahn (as Frankenstein’s reluctant fiancé), Leachman, and Wilder, who also co-wrote the script with Brooks. They all manage to walk a fine line between overt silliness and subtlety to balance that tricky comedic equation.

The talent is good, the material is ripe, but what separates Young Frankenstein from the chaff is the spot-on imagery. Even casual viewers will recognize these shadowy streets, this dungeon laboratory—the actual set from Whale’s movies—and this gothic castle, all proof that Brooks loves the material he mocks. Like Brooks’ other parodies (Spaceballs, High Anxiety, Blazing Saddles, etc.), the humor comes from an appreciation of genre and style, not denigration.

A trend that continues to this day with Todd Strauss-Schulson’s riff on 1980s slasher movies in The Final Girls and Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s take on the zombie milieu with Cooties, both released in the last month.

Time will tell if we are still discussing The Final Girls or Cooties in 40 years, but funny is timeless. And Young Frankenstein is funny.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Young Frankenstein (1974)
Directed by Mel Brooks
Written by Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder
Based on characters in the novel Frankenstein by Mary W. Shelley
Produced by Michael Gruskoff
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn
20th Century Fox, Rated PG, Running time 106 minutes, Opened Dec. 15, 1974.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 11, “Puttin’ on the ritz.”