James Whale’s original version of Frankenstein defined not only our pop cultural image of the story, but also many of the standards of horror cinema.
…because how many other movies dare us to laugh at our fears? Mel Brooks and co-writer/star Gene Wilder re-imagined the Frankenstein story as a comedic saga about the family’s dark past. Going to great lengths to capture the look of vintage horror cinema, Brooks carefully modeled the film’s cinematography, art design and sound on the 1931 version, even using the same black-and-white film stock and some of the actual sets. In fact, much of the humor in "Young Frankenstein" works because the actors portray their characters as authentic to the world of the story, such as Gene Hackman’s brilliant cameo as a blind hermit.
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While parodies have been Mel Brooks’s signature style for pretty much his entire filmmaking career, "Young Frankenstein" perhaps stands apart from even "Blazing Saddles" in one regard: it’s such a perfect parody that it might actually be a continuation of the original story. For starters, a standard parody references the characteristics of the works being satirized – yes, "Young Frankenstein" obviously does this. However, the story of "Young Frankenstein" relies on the events in the original film, whereas a run-of-the-mill parody (or even a brilliant parody like Edgar Wright’s "Shaun of the Dead") simply winks at the existence of the earlier works. Frederick Frankenstein is a relative of the Dr. Frankenstein; the film creates a running gag that he changes the pronunciation of his name to avoid any associations with his family legacy. In that sense, the film functions like more of a sequel set in a different time period from the original film. If James Whale’s "Frankenstein" asks philosophical questions about man’s capabilities, "Young Frankenstein" asks a different philosophical question about whether we can escape our own histories. By recapturing so much of the original spirit, the film even suggests an alternate course, embracing the past as a guide for the future.
When Mel Brooks sets out to imitate a genre, he doesn’t half-ass it. "Young Frankenstein" is a flawless replication of classic horror style, from the black-and-white cinematography to the scene transitions to the antiquated Foley effects. The production used the same type of film stock as the original, right down to the aspect ratio. Brooks and his team carefully studied the lighting and art direction, even locating props and sets from the original film to use. Brooks stuck to his guns on the film’s budget even though the original studio declined to produce it at that level. He understood that his vision for the film, and ultimately the film’s success, relied on creating the same cinematic qualities as the original version. In this sense, "Young Frankenstein" really is a horror film that functions as a comedy, using all the same devices and effects as the classic Universal horror films to drive the story and create the comedy.
And about that comedy...while some of the humor in "Young Frankenstein" revolves around Brooks’s standard one-liners, non sequiturs and puns, it’s grounded by the characters playing their roles within the world of the story. For instance, when Frederick Frankenstein takes a literal interpretation of Igor’s telling him to “walk this way,” it’s a classic gag that also happens to reflect his scientific mindset. In another great example, rather than continuing the word play of realizing that “Abby Normal” means an abnormal brain, Frankenstein reacts the way a crazed scientist actually would, horrified that his carefully designed experiment now has a gaping flaw. The actors play their characters straight, albeit in a world that’s ridiculous and absurd. Gene Hackman’s famous cameo as the blind hermit is perhaps the best illustration of this. His character is a lonely blind man, just happy to have a friend; yet because the Monster can’t speak, he’s unaware that everything he does to the Monster causes extreme pain. At the same time, the Monster is new to the world, so he also is unaware that things like fire and scalding soup are painful. Both Peter Boyle and Hackman play this scene much the same way as the actors in "Bride of Frankenstein." However, it’s only the results that are different.
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