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National Lampoon's Animal House Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007

Image “Saturday Night Live” superstar John Belushi stepped onto the silver screen with this National Lampoon produced opus of college days, a perennial favorite. The movie was actually an ensemble piece, but Belushi he stole the show so successfully that most people who have seen the movie remember him and the things he did better than they do the movie overall.

First released in 1978 to an unsuspecting audience, “National Lampoon’s Animal House” quickly became the battle cry for a nation of rabble-rousers and introduced the idea of toga parties to the public at large. The movie set the style for most of the college films made since’ generally they all feature at least some of the same kinds of characters, problems, and situations. Without this film, we wouldn’t have “Van Wilder”; “Accepted”, or any of the “American Pie” movies. It opened up a whole new world to the moviegoing audience.

“National Lampoon’s Animal House” set the tone for John Landis’ career for a while. He worked with several “Saturday Night Live” alums after this one, with Belushi again on “The Blues Brothers”. He also directed Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in “Trading Places”, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase in “Spies Like Us”, Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Coming To America”, and Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in “¡Three Amigos!” (which included Second City TV alum Martin Short).

A lot of young actors show up in the film. Kevin Bacon (Chip Diller) had his first film role here. Stephen Furst (Kent Dorfman, Flounder) co-starred as one of the pledges and went on to other things, including “Babylon 5”. Bruce McGill (D-Day), a wonderful character actor, got his first Hollywood role here. Tim Matheson (Otter) has been in television since he was a child, when he did the voice of Jonny Quest in the original television series. Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer) was the villain, then went on to other villainous roles in “Seinfield” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. The pacing in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” is slow for the most part when contrasted with recent movies. The writers and actors take their time introducing the characters, but all of them become distinct and get the chance to be introduced in their element. If Otter hadn’t gotten his first screen shot in his private room mixing a drink and standing there in a robe, later donning pants a la commando, he just wouldn’t have been Otter. Likewise if D-Day hadn’t driven his motorcycle into the frat house and played the “William Tell Overture” on his throat.

The main impetus of the movie is the ongoing fight between fraternity Delta House and Dean Wormer at Faber College. The dean doesn’t like them because they’re slackers and ne’er do wells—hence, “animal house.” During the course of the movie, the animosity escalates on both sides. This too has become a standard in the college comedy.

Otter is the slick, woman-chasing mouthpiece of Delta House. As such, he’s the one that everyone runs to when something has gone wrong. Unfortunately, he’s often one who initiates problems and flaunts authority as well. But he’s definitely the prototype for films like “Van Wilder” and “P.U.” Everyone wants to be Otter while they’re in college. When he romances the dean’s wife, Marion Wormer (Verna Bloom), later in the movie it’s almost like a nod to “The Graduate”.

The story loosely follows two new pledges to Delta House: Pinto and Flounder. They apply at the house next door, Omega House, but quickly get the boot and keep moving. Flounder’s brother was a pledge at Delta and he says he’ll be able to get in there without a problem. He promises to put in a good word for Pinto. As they arrive, a mannequin shatters a window and lands on the ground in front of them.

Around the back of the house, they run into Bluto Blutarski (John Belushi), drinking beer and urinating in the yard. He pees on them too, then leads them into the house. Once inside, they see that the fraternity is filthy, disgusting, and a total madhouse.

The other characters get introduced in short order, but in a way that’s memorable. Katy (Karen Allen) and Boon’s (Peter Riegert) feisty relationship is quickly set up while she’s sitting at the bar frustrated as the pledges drop by for a beer and Boon is upstairs talking to Otter. D-Day’s arrival on the motorcycle and subsequent “William Tell Overture” thumped on his neck sets him for the rest of the movie.

It becomes immediately apparent that Dean Wormer (John Vernon) hates the Delta House and plans to close it down. After that the movie fills the rest of the near-two hour presentation with glimpses behind “real” collegiate life of 1962, although there are a number of anachronisms throughout the movie despite the best of intentions. One of them is the 1964 Lincoln Continental that Flounder borrows from his uncle.

If the movie had simply concentrated on the main plot line, it probably would have collapsed as there wasn’t enough to support it. But it spread out into Boon and Katy’s relationship, including a pot-smoking bit with English Professor Jennings (Donald Sutherland) and Katy’s later affair with Jennings. Pinto’s near-miss with the store clerk who ends up with her clothes off during a frat party is classic but actually comes back around to touch on the main plot when it’s discovered that she’s the daughter of the mayor (Cesare Danova), who’s putting pressure on Dean Wormer. (Interestingly enough, Pinto’s girlfriend turns out to be 13, way underage, and the storyline probably wouldn’t make it past the Powers-That-Be in Hollywood these days.)

The collection of interesting stories play off the different characters, loosely threaded by Pinto’s presence. Otter’s decision to take a road trip to a girls’ college to get action is rolling on the floor funny. He picks the name of a dead girl from the local paper, then shows up claiming to be her fiancé. Almost immediately he’s in the arms of her room mate. Their mistake is in stopping at an all-black club where they get intimidated.

Finally, though, the mid-term grades arrive and Dean Wormer tosses them all out. He closes down their fraternity and lists their names with the draft board for the Vietnam War. But by then, it’s time for a lesson in vengeance.

The special features include a “Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update” (which is a fun romp revisiting some of the characters after all these years), “Did You Know That? Universal Animated Anecdotes” that relate to the original filming, and “The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion”. There’s also a music video, “Shout”, that delivers one of the best-remembered songs from the movie.

The HD DVD is coupled with the DVD version as well, although the thinking behind this is bizarre. People who have an HD DVD player don’t need the DVD version, and those who have the film on DVD won’t need another copy, especially if they haven’t upgraded to an HD DVD player. This has been before; I thought maybe it was just so you could share your DVDs with other family members that haven’t got HD DVD players yet.

One of the sadder aspects of the HD DVD version is that the film stock just didn’t stand up to the passage of time. The video looks a little soft and faded, not much better than the DVD version. The audio fares even worse. Although the disc claims to be presented in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, it doesn’t hit the surround sound system that way. Most of the audio comes from the center and front speakers and hardly makes a dent in the listening experience, much less when compared to the DVD version. This package lacks in extras that haven’t already been shipped and seen, and just doesn’t deliver the HD DVD experience people want and are prepared to pay for.

Still, it’s a fun romp down memory lane to a, surprisingly, gentler time.

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