Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when a horror movie spoof seemed novel. Seemingly endless Scary Movie sequels and other efforts such as A Haunted House are about as tired and unfunny as you could imagine. Thankfully, 1974 was that time, and Young Frankenstein was that spoof. But, while Young Frankenstein is very funny, what truly makes it stand out even today is its faithfulness to its source material. Although it is very much a riff on Mary Shelley’s classic monster story, it’s also, ironically, probably the best adaptation of the story ever filmed (even while it’s not really the story at all).
That might sound confusing, but seeing Mel Brooks’ follow-up to Blazing Saddles is believing. Brooks wisely re-casts Gene Wilder, this time as the main character, the titular Dr. Frankenstein. But he is not Victor Frankenstein but rather his grandson, Frederick, a well-respected neuroscientist. Frederick is living in the shadow of his infamous grandfather, who he tells people was a crackpot for believing dead tissue could become living matter and creating an abomination in the process. He attempts to disassociate himself from his troubled legacy by insisting people call him FRONK-EN-STEEN. But, after he inherits his grandad’s Transylvanian estate, he finds himself drawn to Victor’s research and becomes obsessed with recreating his experiments. He enlists the hunchbacked grandson of Igor, Frankenstein’s infamous assistant (Marty Feldman), who insists he be called EYE-GOR and an impossibly attractive “assistant” Inga (Terri Garr).
More than most Brooks films, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of puns (an infamous knock about “knockers” comes to mind), but thankfully this was a time when Brooks puns were still funny. Really funny. The film’s first half contains so much rapid-fire wordplay that it’s hard to take a breath between jokes. Many of them are courtesy of the brilliant Feldman, who plays Igor as an ultra-literalist who has a tough time understanding double meanings. His trademark enormous eyes are so expressive he gets a laugh just by looking at the camera.
The visuals also stand out here. Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography perfectly matches the style of old monster movies. This is, I suppose, a more professionally made and polished movie than Blazing Saddles, though it never quite reaches that film’s comedic heights. This, along with the quality of the story (kind of a given, considering the original story’s tremendous staying power) probably make this the most accessible of all Brooks’ films, and, therefore, probably the one most widely viewed (it also helps that, as with The Producers, Brooks adapted the movie into a recent Broadway smash musical).
Young Frankenstein’s second half is perhaps less funny, but also more memorable. Although Wilder is brilliant in the title role, the film’s lasting brilliance is primarily due to two performances. The bumbling, Clouseau-style Inspector Kemp, played by Kenneth Mars, gets a lot of laughs with his fake wooden arm. It’s one of the funniest, most physical performances in any Brooks film. Kemp leads the Transylvanian townspeople against Frankenstein when they realize he has created another monster with the potential to further terrorize their small town. Speaking of the monster, Peter Boyle is beyond amazing as the misunderstood creature, who was designed to be a genius but, through a hilarious mix-up, receives an “abnormal” brain instead. He has his moments of rage, but his tender moments, where he is simply seeking to understand and be understood, make him an incredibly sympathetic figure. It would have been easy for Boyle and Brooks to make the monster an extended punchline, but he is instead a flesh-and-blood character (just don’t ask whose flesh or whose blood). In some ways, Boyle is the best actor to every play the infamous monster.
Young Frankenstein is a consistently surprising delight, not because it’s funny (though it certainly is), but because it’s such a well-made adaptation of a classic story. Although it doesn’t follow the plot of the original monster tale, it does share its thought-provoking themes and beating heart. You could put it in any dug-up graveyard corpse and it would beat just as heartily.