With the relatively recent death of Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein has been getting a lot of renewed attention, and I was a little worried that I'd find it disappointing when watching it again, many years after first seeing it. Honestly, I am not much of a Mel Brooks fan, and while I have a soft spot for Spaceballs because I saw it so many times (mostly in bits and pieces on TV) as a kid, for the most part his humor just doesn't work for me. Blazing Saddles and The Producers both disappointed me when I finally caught up with them as an adult, so I wondered if nostalgia was the only thing behind my enjoyment of Brooks' movies.
But Young Frankenstein holds up remarkably well, and although it's been a while since I last saw Spaceballs, I think I can call Young Frankenstein Brooks' best film. Aside from the clever writing (far less reliant on lowbrow humor and manic desperation than Brooks' other work) and the consistently strong performances, what impressed me most this time around was the direction, something Brooks (like most comedy filmmakers) doesn't get enough credit for. Having watched all the Universal Frankenstein movies so recently, I was really impressed with how Brooks mimics their look and style, in addition to the characters and plot elements he parodies. Brooks actually enlisted the help of set designer Ken Strickfaden, who worked on the original James Whale Frankenstein and brought along many of the original pieces of the set, giving Young Frankenstein an extra level of authenticity.
It's that level of authenticity that really makes the movie work; although it's full of jokes, the story and setting are played straight, and the actors walk a fine line between mocking and respecting their characters. Wilder, who came up with the initial idea and co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks, is fantastic as Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the original Victor Frankenstein and a fellow scientist who at first wants to disavow his ancestor's work. Frederick's evolution from shame over his family name (even changing the pronunciation) to completely embracing his grandfather's legacy is actually pretty compelling, with Wilder conveying real depth along with all of the ridiculous humor. Wilder's steadily rising mania as Frederick becomes more and more caught up in the project of resurrecting the monster (Peter Boyle) never gets old, and it has a certain emotional power to it amid the absurdity.
Wilder gives just one of the movie's numerous great comedic performances; Marty Feldman as overeager hunchbacked assistant Igor, Teri Garr as sexpot Inga and Madeline Khan as Frederick's indifferent fiancee Elizabeth are all excellent, and there are comic gems in many of the smaller roles. Brooks really nails the heightened gothic tone of the Universal Frankenstein movies (particularly the first three), and he parodies iconic elements including the monster's encounters with a little girl and a lonely blind man (played here by Gene Hackman), the intense creation sequence, the town meetings of angry villagers (who later wield torches and pitchforks), and even a very specific parody of Lionel Atwill's one-armed inspector character from Son of Frankenstein. The parody is clearly loving, and it pays tribute to the classic movies without pulling any punches. It's also consistently funny, something that Brooks had trouble with in his later parodies. The combination of style and humor elevates it above a mere spoof into a real cinematic achievement.