Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is a master class in movie parody. If you want to know how to make a parody movie, watch it and do everything it does. It bears as much resemblance to today's Not Another... Movies as Aretha Franklin does to Miley Cyrus.
The key to Young Frankenstein is the look. While Brooks could not use the original makeup from the Universal movie, he managed to ape the sets, costumes and even borrow props from the James Whale classic, and fought to shoot the movie in black and white. It's a principle Mad Magazine used to good effect: the closer you get to looking like the original, the funnier the gags.
Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein ("it's pronounced Froderick Fronkensteen!"), a neuroscientist who reluctantly inherits his grandfather's castle in Transylvania. Travelling from the US (by train!) Frederick finds that he has also inherited a hunchbacked assistant Igor ("it's pronounced Eye-gor," played by Marty Feldman) and the laboratory where his grandfather attempted to reanimate a dead body. Frederick considers his grandfather's work insane, but he begins to feel the pull of the family business...
Mel Brooks made Young Frankenstein in 1974, his annus mirabilus. He had just made Blazing Saddles, a huge hit that did pretty much the same thing Young Frankenstein does but for westerns. On that movie, Wilder had stepped into the supporting role of the Waco Kid at the last minute, and on set he told Brooks about his idea for a horror comedy. Brooks jumped at the chance, and Young Frankenstein was written, shot, and released in the same calendar year.
The movie closely follows the original James Whale movie and its sequel Bride Of Frankenstein. It makes much of the fact that in the original movies "Transylvania" is probably the vaguest "European" country ever depicted (it comes off as pretty much Bavaria) and that somehow modernity has missed this particular village. The villagers, led by the wooden-armed Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) have just the right pitchforks and torches. Yet the movie wouldn't work without its near-perfect performances.
As anyone who has seen Willie Wonka can attest, Gene Wilder is very good at being manic. Frederick is Colin Clive by way of Harpo Marx, and Wilder's delivery is spot on. Feldman's bugeyed look combined with his incongruous cockney accent is also hilarious. Peter Boyle's imposing frame would be enough for the monster, but when he finally speaks he has a gentle pathos.
Unlike his fellow male comedians, Brooks has never had a problem with funny women. Here, he cast three of them. Madeline Kahn steals every scene as Frederick's vain, sex-starved fiancee Elizabeth. Cloris Leachman is brilliant as Frau Blucher, a woman so sinister the horses whinny at her name. Teri Garr has less to do as Inga, but she gets in a great line about the monster's anatomy.
But the best performance is a simple cameo. Taking off from a scene in Bride Of Frankenstein in which the monster befriends a blind man, Boyle's monster finds himself in the house of a sad old blind hermit played by an unrecognizable Gene Hackman. Hackman's comic timing is so perfect - and his delivery so gentle - that the scene kills right up until the brilliant last line ("I was gonna make espresso!")
Oh, and then there's this:
Some of the gags haven't aged well: Elizabeth first encounter with the monster is kind of rapey (although even there, Kahn gets in a zinger: "Oh. Where you going?... Oh, you men are all alike. Seven or eight quick ones and then you're out with the boys to boast and brag. YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.") and the hunchback and blind jokes might be offensive. But what comes through is that Brooks and Wilder have a real love for the material.