|National Lampoon's Animal House (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 24 February 1998|
Often imitated but never bettered, 1978’s ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’ is not only one of the most successful film comedies ever made but also one of the most influential. Pretty much every rowdy teen comedy made since has attempted to either copy outright or somehow improve upon ‘Animal’s mixture of outrageous pranks, irreverence, anarchic high spirits and palpable camaraderie.
Some of ‘Animal’s thematic children are perfectly sound; more of them are completely lame. The imitators often pick up on the most obvious elements – rebellion, raunch, wreckage – and miss both the high-wire sweetness and small grace notes that are present throughout, courtesy of the tone set by director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney & Chris Miller. It also helps that ‘Animal House’ was already a period film when it was made: set in 1962, it takes place in a universe where real-life (as opposed to virtual) discovery is still prevalent and the military draft is a serious threat.
At Faber College, freshmen roommates Larry (Thomas Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst) are immediately branded geeks, unlikely to be accepted into any fraternity. They find their way to Delta, which Larry darkly notes has a reputation as "the worst house on campus." Among Delta’s inhabitants: ladies’ man Otter (Tim Matheson), low-key sarcasm king Boon (Peter Riegert), nervous spokesman Hoover (James Widdoes), motorcycle-riding (through the halls and up stairs) D-Day (Bruce McGill) and unpredictable, unstoppable force Bluto (John Belushi). The school’s apoplectic Dean Wormer (John Vernon) and fascistic ROTC Capt. Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf) want to shut down Delta House – which turns out to be perfectly feasible – but they reckon without Delta’s gift for lunacy.
It would be unwise to judge ‘Animal House’ by the standards of later ‘National Lampoon’ movies. This film treads a magical fine line of mischief, where later ‘Lampoon’ features are simply outright mean-spirited. Some of the material here is questionable by the year 2000 standards, but on reflection, the bits of racial humor are based on black/white mistrust (which fits the 1962 segregated milieu) rather than negative traits on either side; the sexual humor is about surprising consent rather than assault or female credulity; the bad guys are shown to be truly vicious – in filmic terms, begging for a comeuppance – rather than simply pompous.
Belushi’s turn as Bluto here is rightly the stuff of legend, but if the other actors weren't in buoyant sync, Bluto couldn’t shine as he does – he needs the context provided by the rest of the cast. Matheson and Riegert make a great razor-tongued double act, McGill has his own brand of eye-widening insanity, and Hulce and Furst are both endearing as newcomers to the kingdom of madness. Donald Sutherland is very funny as a reasonably hip professor and Vernon, Metcalf, James Daughton and Kevin Bacon all manage to be hilarious as the smarmy fascists theoretically running the show.
The soundtrack for ‘Animal House’ is an unqualified treat. Most of the songs are ones to be savored over and over; all are expertly chosen to steer the mood and tempo of specific scenes. In Chapter 3, our first sight of Delta is accompanied by an energetic cover of "Louie, Louie," shortly echoed in Chapter 5 by a raucous but agreeable live chorus from the Deltas. Chapter 12 has Sam Cooke’s spritely romantic college ode "Wonderful World" setting the stage for a food fight. Lloyd Williams and his musical cohorts, playing onscreen band Otis Day and the Knights, deliver a burn-the-house-down rendition of "Shout" that captures the energy and exuberance of Delta life.
The collector’s edition disk comes with a number of goodies, the most impressive being a 45-minute long documentary, ‘The Yearbook,’ in which filmmaker Joseph "J.M." Kenny seems to have rounded up all living participants in ‘Animal House,’ who speak of their experiences over 20 years later with tremendous affection. Along with clips filmed during the making of ‘Animal House’ – there’s a very funny bit of Landis getting Belushi to express various emotions with his eyebrows – there are fond reminiscences of Belushi and writer Doug Kenney by their friends. There are also a plethora of stories. Arguably the most startling of these, related by cast members who were there, tells of the actors playing Deltas going to a real frat party two days before filming began and getting stomped by the irate frat brothers.
For anyone who wants to see the roots of the last 20 years of teen film comedy or just have a good laugh with good tunes, ‘Animal House’ is indispensable. For those who know this already, ‘The Yearbook’ is a most welcome bonus.