Animal House

Animal HouseSynopsis: One of the most popular movie comedies of all time is also the film that made food fights an art form and John Belushi a star. This raunchy, screwball comedy offers a relentless spoof of 1960’s college life by following the hilarious adventures of the Delta fraternity. There’s nothing this motley collection of students won’t do to get the best of Dean Wormer who secretly conspires to revoke Delta’s charter. In addition to Belushi as the guitar bashing, beer can smashing, garbage eating Bluto Blutarsky, the outstanding cast includes head skirtchaser Tim Matheson, innocent Thomas Hulce and Stephen “Flounder” Furst, and Otis Day and the Knights with their show-stopping performance of “Shout.”

Toga! Toga! Toga!
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Animal House 8.0

eyelights: John Belushi. its inspired sophomoric humour.
eyesores: its (mercifully rare) racial humour.

“Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the fucking Peace Corps.”

When I was a kid, ‘National Lampoon’ was a thing. I didn’t know what the heck it was, truth be told, but there were magazines on the out-of-reach-of-my-tiny-hands of store shelves, and there were VHS tapes in video and corner stores. I always wondered about them, but it wasn’t until many years later that, when a rental shop sold off its collection, I finally got to watch one.

That movie was 1982’s ‘Class Reunion’.

Wow. It was dreadfully unfunny, a misfire on so many counts that it was beyond words. It was so bad, in fact, that it took me years before I finally dared to give ‘Animal House’ a chance – and that may have been only due to having rented ‘The Blues Brothers’ and loved every second of it. Until then, for me ‘National Lampoon’ had been forever tainted by ‘Class Reunion’.

‘Animal House’, however, was a completely different beast. Inspired by co-writer Chris Miller’s own experiences in college, the screenplay was further fleshed out by Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney’s own college tales. Together they brought to the comedy a familiarity and realism that was missing from other films of its ilk; though sophomoric, it wasn’t entirely moronic.

The picture then benefitted from the addition of John Landis as director, who decided to reshape the film in a less cartoony mode, hiring dramatic actors and even instructing Elmer Bernstein to write a serious theme for the picture instead of a more traditionally comical one. Since the material was already outrageous enough, this choice lent the picture much more credibility.

It worked: ‘Animal House’ was a smash hit right out of the starting gate, making 120 million dollars on its first run! It was also re-released the following year, netting yet another 21 million, generated a stream of imitators (and inspired such films as ‘Porky’s‘) and even spawned a spin-off television series, ‘Delta House’, in 1979, starring many of the original cast members.

Not bad for a low budget picture with no-name leads.

‘Animal House’ was originally supposed to star many of the original SNL cast, but only John Belushi wound up in the picture, doing double-duty recording his SNL skits and his scenes in this, his first feature film. Aside for Donald Sutherland, John Vernon and Verna Bloom, who got bit parts as a teacher and Mr. and Mrs. Wormer, Belushi was the biggest name on the bill.

But look at the pedigree: Karen Allen (‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), Kevin Bacon (‘Apollo 13’), Stephen Furst (‘St. Elsewhere’), Thomas Hulce (‘Amadeus’), Tim Matheson (‘The West Wing’), Bruce McGill (‘Collateral’) , Peter Riegert (‘The Sopranos’), James Widdoes (‘Two and a Half Men’). ‘Animal House’, surprisingly enough, was the launching pad for many lengthy careers.

Though it came out nearly forty years ago, it’s a picture that still entertains today. Set in 1962, it follows the antics of the members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity through the eyes of freshmen Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman. Over the course of a few weeks, these irresponsible party animals will cause trouble for and draw the ire of the Dean as well as rivals Omega Theta Pi.

But that won’t stop them.

Admittedly, the humour tends to be juvenile, but what makes it work is that no one is actively trying to get the laughs: the gags are merely reflections of what a bunch of goofballs would do for kicks together. And the actors play it as straight as it’s possible to, which adds to this sense of watching a bunch of real people just being jack-$$es, instead actors trying to be funny.

Nuance.

The sole exception here is John Belushi, and this is what makes him stand out from the rest, punching up the select scenes that he’s in. One moment he’s sneaking around risibly on Faber College grounds, another he’s hopping to move his ladder from one window to the next to get a better view of topless sorority girls (and winking at us for effect!). He steals the show.

But it’s no individual actors that make the movie, much like there are no individual scenes that stand out  by design; separately, they amount to minor gags that are merely chuckle-friendly. It’s collectively that they work best, because there are so many chuckles woven together that you end up building to bigger laughs. The sum here is much greater than its parts.

And this might explain why ‘Delta House’ (and its many copycats), as well as future teen/college comedies, typically don’t deliver the goods; you can try to recreate a formula, but you can’t recapture the magic. And, though it has many imitators (including tons of failed National Lampoon picture, including ‘Van Wilder‘), ‘Animal House’ really is a one-of-a-kind picture.

I’m a huge fan. Though I’ve never been part of a fraternity, have never been the party animal type, and feel no affinity with any of the characters portrayed here (except maybe Pinto) (maybe), I have a terrific time whenever I watch this picture. It’s pure escapism, a trip back to that carefree time before adulthood, when you could toss it all and pick up the pieces later.

And no one tosses everything to the four winds better than the gang in Delta House.

Date of viewings: September 26, 2016

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