National Lampoon didn’t start life as a movie production studio, although internationally their films have always been the most famous part of their organisation, they began life as a satirical magazine, which developed a cult following in the US. But after one of the key funnymen at the magazine – Doug Kenney - decided to quit, his bosses decided to produce a film to persuade him to stay, as showbiz had always been his dream. Thus National Lampoon’s Animal House was born, and with the help of an up and coming director (John Landis – An American Werewolf In London) – and a soon to be famous writer (Harold Ramis – Ghostbusters) a film was crafted that struck the funny bone of a generation.
The story sounds clichéd by modern standards, but this was the film where those standards were set. It’s 1962, the country barely out of the rock and roll ‘50s and with the typical student stoner lifestyle still a few years from becoming the norm, parties are fuelled by nothing more than alcohol. Well, alcohol and mischief. The Delta house is the worst fraternity at Faber college, its brothers living the ideal college life or drinking, partying and never going to class. Their awful grades and juvenile pranks have left the Delta house on probation, with alcohol now banned from their parties, and their grades under extreme scrutiny by the college’s miserable Dean Wormer (John Vernon), and not only is the house on the verge of closure, but all the members are one step short of being throw out of school entirely. Naturally you’d expect them to acknowledge that their parting days have to be put on hold, for the sake of their futures, right? Well you couldn’t be more wrong, as rush week brings new pledges and, of course, initiation rituals and celebratory parties, the Deltas seem to be wanting to take a running start at their last chance.
Amongst the worst offenders are Otter (Tim Matheson); a man so devoted to the ladies he’ll even shirk his responsibilities as rush chairman – organising parties and tormenting the pledges – for the prospect of a fresh conquest, Bluto (John Belushi); who’s appetite for partying is only eclipse by his appetite for food – there just isn’t time to even think of going to class, and Boon (Peter Reigert) who’s academic potential is obvious, but he simply doesn’t have the inclination to study.
Animal House has become a phenomenal cult success over the years, in its original theatrical run alone it grossed more than thirty times its meagre budget, and has become a template for every college movie since, there are few comedies of its vintage that come with such a reputation, so my expectations for the film were high. Maybe that is why it came as such a disappointment. Despite being one of the originators (if not the originator) of the juvenile comedy, Animal House is remarkably tame by modern standards. There are the obligatory scenes of gratuitous nudity, as Bluto scales the walls of a sorority house to stare at the girls preparing for bed, along with grade-school humour, Bluto again with his famous zit impression, but while such things may have been pushing the boundaries back in ’78 they simply can’t compete with the tasteless, childish laughs of Road Trip, American Pie, Old School – which is the closest thing to an Animal House remake yet seen – or anything touched by the Farrelly brothers.
That’s not to say the film is totally devoid of laughs, but they seemed to come more frequently from witty one-liners than the set pieces that made the film famous originally. The best performances come not from the future stars John Belushi (The Blues Brothers) and Tom Hulce (Amadeus) but from the ones that never ‘made it’. Tim Matheson as Otter has an air of Fletch-era Chevy Chase about him, as he womanises and pulls out some of the best one liners, and Karen Allen – who seemed to disappear after her role in Raiders of the Lost Ark – provides solid support as Boon’s girlfriend. The two scene stealers though are John Vernon as Dean Wormer and Donald Sutherland as the hippie professor that introduces some of Delta house to pot smoking, and he was only included in the cast after the executives at Universal became nervous about the lack of ‘faces’ in the film. But even his role feels somewhat out of place, seeming like a character more suited to a film set a decade later, as all the students here would have graduated – or been thrown out – before being disillusioned by Watergate and the Vietnam ‘conflict’, it seems the professor dropped out a little early.
There is no doubt that the film has made an indelible mark on cinema, John Vernon’s excellent performance as the uptight Dean is the basis for every overbearing scholarly authority figure since, though it’s hard to think of one that is as gleefully over the top as his portrayal. It also paved the way for other childish and risqué comedies such as Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds, in fact every one of the recent ‘gross out’ comedies can probably be traced directly to Animal House, so we have much to thank it for, or blame it for, depending on your feelings on such films. Not only that but the films success is, in large part, the reason John Landis and Harold Ramis managed to make films such as The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, but the doubtless comedic talent here seems all to raw. With a little refinement their skills were put to great use, here though, while they managed to capture the spirit of the times, they failed to make a comedy that will last forever, winning new fans with every viewing.
Animal House seems to be a film that will be remembered as long as those that saw it the first time around can still remember things, they have remained vocal supporters of the film for 25 years, and I can’t see them being dissuaded any time soon, but those who’s teenage viewing was filled with pastry based intercourse and biodegradable hair gels – or even the simpler pleasures of a John Hughes movie – are unlikely to be won over by its basic approach.
For a 25 year old film, with a relatively small budget, Animal House looks rather good in its presentation here, which is in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, but there are still some problems. The image is a little dark, and blacks are never really black, and given that large parts of the film take place at night this is a disappointment, but the print is very clean and some effort has clearly been put into restoration, so this may be as good as Animal House will ever look.
Whilst presented as Dolby Digital 5.1 there is little in this mix to distinguish it from a stereo track, and often sounding more like a simple mono mix. Whilst this is to be expected to some extent it seems like it was simply encoded that way so they could proclaim a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix on the box, rather than an effort to greatly improve the listening experience. Though it is clear some effort was put into the sound quality, with there being a lack of hiss or crackles so often found on inferior versions of films this age.
Where Are They Now? A Delta House Update
Under the pretence that Animal House was in fact a documentary this feature sees John Landis travelling the country to interview the Deltas, find out how their lives are going, and reminisce about those heady college days. Find out how many times Boon was married, which celebrities Flounder has been counselling in Cleveland, and just how much Otter enjoys being an OB/GYN. I can only hope that those that enjoyed the film will find more to laugh at than I did, as the attempts here at a mockumentary seem unscripted and unfunny, that is apart from Landis’ encounter with D-Day, which required some assistance from Interpol to arrange.
Music Video, MXPX: Shout
Not a track from the original film, but a cover by a fashionably angry guitar band, and not a very good one at that.
Did You Know That, Universal’s Anecdotes
While there is no commentary on the disc Universal have provided this fact track to accompany the film, which for a change seems to be both full of information not found elsewhere on the special features and relevant to the film. Information such as possible alternate castings (Chevy Chase turned the film down, Dan Aykroyd was unable to break his contract on Saturday Night Live, Harold Ramis was told he was too old to play the part he’d written for himself and Meat Loaf was second choice for John Belushi’s role) and that Donald Sutherland turned down a profit percentage for a $50,000 fee - the percentage deal would have netted him over $17,000,000. Fans of the film should really enjoy this track, though I would say that the information is too sporadic, wit some very long pauses between flourishes of facts.
The Yearbook, An Animal House Reunion
This collection of talking heads makes for a much better companion to the movie than the Where Are They Now? documentary. The documentary pretence is dropped and the cast get to tell some great stories about shooting the film, including the bonding experience of going to an actual frat party, and having the living daylights beaten out of them, and Kevin Bacon gets to vent about being excluded from all the late night parties, as the Deltas and Omegas were not allowed to fraternise off screen. Running for about 45 minutes, I actually found this more entertaining than the feature itself, being full of amusing anecdotes that prove much funnier than the scripted gags in the film.
An odd trailer that reveals much of the films finale and shows how Universal were eager to make Donald Sutherland’s involvement know, despite him appearing in only three scenes.
For my money the National Lampoon films peaked in the ‘80s with Chevy Chase’s Vacation series (we’ll overlook the ‘90s entry, Vegas Vacation), and while this earlier effort failed to make me a fan, it has received a decent, if unspectacular, transfer onto DVD and comes complete with a reasonable array of extra features, though some kind of reunion commentary would have been a nice touch. Doubtless though the film’s treatment will please its legion of fans, who can be safe in the knowledge that this is an edition worth adding to their collections.