National Lampoon's Animal House Reviews
National Lampoon's Animal House is the first, best and perhaps only good film to carry the National Lampoon brand. Its combination of bad taste humour, top-notch performances and countercultural undercurrents has ensured its place in the history of American comedies. It remains one of the highest-grossing American films of all time, and the standard to which all subsequent gross-out comedies aspire. Not everything about it works after 36 years, but its importance cannot be underestimated.
Together with John Landis' previous film, the TV parody Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House created the majority of the clichés and conventions which we now associate with gross-out comedies. There is the emphasis on physical comedy, which extends into jokes about bodily fluids and human anatomy. There is the utter contempt for authority, civility or maturity, with the protagonists showing no respect or ambition towards people with short hair in suits. There is the raucous, energetic storytelling, with boisterous acting and big emotions from all the cast. And, most of all, there are those difficult moments in which you're either laughing your face off or covering your eyes, feeling really quite ashamed at what just happened on screen.
It's very difficult to review a gross-out comedy without simply listing all the individual gags and commenting on how outré or disgusting they are. Subsequent gross-out efforts like Porky's often resorted to taking similar gags and either seeing just how far they could push them or just cutting to the chase a lot quicker. An example would be the scene where Bluto sneaks over to the Omega House to watch the girls undress from the top of a ladder. While in Animal House he makes the effort to watch them for a while, even shuffling the ladder along to see into the next room, in Porky's the girls are shoved straight into the shower and the boys look on with little effort to withhold themselves.
While you have to keep reminding yourself to see the film as a product of its time, many of the jokes in Animal House are still hilarious today. The accidental killing of Neidermeyer's horse is very well done, with John Belushi's widening eyes and repeated utterance of "Ho-ly shit!". Most of the best jokes are at Neidermeyer's expense, whether it's being dragged along the football field by his horse or being trampled during the food fight. The quick sight gags are also well-assembled, such as Dean Wormer reading Bluto his grades, only to find Bluto has put two pencils up his nose, preceding Rowan Atkinson's famous ploy in Blackadder Goes Forth.
When Animal House was first released, it was accused by large sections of the press of being mean-spirited. In fact, what has made the film last so long, and age so relatively well, is the amount of heart that it has. We have genuine affection for the characters even at their most outrageous, and we have a stake in their actions because we are always rooting for the underdogs. Dorfman and Kroger (a.k.a. Flounder and Pinto) are the heart and soul of the film, being every bit as socially awkward and inept as we were in our first years of university.
The film is constructed in a way which betrays not only the upstart nature of the magazine, but Landis' love for old comedies. The film opens with our two protagonists going to the Omega fraternity welcome party, and promptly being shoved into a quiet corner with the other outcasts, out of the way of the snooty, 'clever' people. The trappings and sense of humour aside, it's not so different from what Charlie Chaplin used to do, putting the Tramp around 'respectable' people in authority and then bursting their egos to either win the day or get the girl (sometimes both).
The other big reason for Animal House's endearing popularity is its countercultural subtext. While the magazine was very much a product of the 1970s, Animal House is set in 1962, dubbed by co-writer Douglas Kenney as "the last innocent year... in America". What appears on the surface to be a bunch of overgrown teenagers fooling around and being idiots becomes something of a harbinger for the youth-led revolution that would sweep America as the decade went on. The film doesn't go into any great detail on this, let alone become political, but it is important not to overlook this setting.
Viewed through this kind of prism, it isn't hard to see why the film became such a big hit with young audiences. While the hippie rebellions of the 1960s were long dead by the time of its release, it epitomised and captured the fantasy of so many young people, to fight against the established order and eschew the values of their parents. Most of the 'adult' characters - Dean Wormer, Greg, the vast majority of Omega house - are characterised as complete squares, who deserve to be run out of town for being so boringly pro-establishment. Only Donald Sutherland's pot-smoking English professor is spared the rod, being down with the kids enough to get Karen Allen to sleep with him.
This brings us on to a further asset of the film, namely the relatively decent way in which it treats its female characters. It's hardly going to win any prizes for equal opportunities, but neither is it as openly leering or sleazy as one might expect. Some of this is down simply to period details - girls' underwear was more complicated in the 1960s and there was a lot more of it. But Landis is careful to give a couple of his actresses room for manoeuvre, with Karen Allen making the very most of her role. She's neither a self-obsessed, pulchritudinous cheerleader like Kim Cattrall in Porky's or a bookish nerd who couldn't buy a boyfriend.
The performances in Animal House are of a very good standard given the inexperience of both the cast and the director. Landis' biggest coup is being able (for the most part) to rein in John Belushi, getting him to focus his energy where Steven Spielberg let him flounder in 1941. He's not entirely in control, particularly during the final set-piece, but there are hints in the performance he gets from Belushi of the great work they would do in The Blues Brothers.
Elsewhere John Vernon is brilliantly intimidating as Dean Wormer, using his distinctive voice and uptight physique to be both threatening and spineless. Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert are a perfect team as Otter and Boon respectively, with the golf scene summing up their endearing kinship. Donald Sutherland makes the most of his brief appearance (which includes a shot of his backside) and Karen Allen holds her own against the male cast, just as she would do in Starman or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The problems with Animal House can be divided into two camps. The first, and more forgivable, are the technical shortcomings, which can be largely put down to Landis' lack of experience. The ramming of the parade stand is poorly edited, with the Deltas' car taking an awfully long time to cover two yards, and the payoff of the Dean and other dignitaries leaping into shot isn't really worth the effort. We could put much of the final sequence into this camp, with underwhelming crowd choreography and poor timing on a couple of gags.
The second camp concerns the moments when the film oversteps the mark. There's not much point getting offended by Animal House, since it exists to provoke an emotional response that will separate those who get it from those who are too old or dull to understand. Nevertheless, the subplot about Pinto supposedly molesting a young girl really shouldn't be there: it's not narratively integral, as well as not being pretty.
National Lampoon's Animal House remains the benchmark for the gross-out comedy genre it helped to create. Landis' later comedies like Trading Places would be more technically proficient, and not all of its material holds up to present-day scrutiny. But the anarchic spirit and enjoyably bad taste remains intact, making it essential viewing for comedy fans - even those who are on double secret probation.
There are a few films that are ensconced in the American film lexicon yet that I haven't seen, and when i finally do see them, I'm embarrassed to write a review as an admission that I hadn't seen the film until now. Such is the case with Animal House. But there is something quite specific that kept me away: spending much of my life on college campuses in one form or another, how could I avoid seeing the poster of John Belushi that adorns many dorm room walls? You know the one: he is haggard and unshaven, slack-jawed and looking away from the camera, yet he wears a blue sweatshirt that reads in white letters, "College." This poster has come to represent everything that most good college educators resist and an even more concerning cultural issue. What the poster communicates is that college is a place to finally be young and free. Free from parents, college kids can, in Bluto's words, "drink heavily" and have consequence-free sex. Additionally, what the poster communicates is a prevailing sense of anti-intellectualism in America. As many of my fellow educators can testify, the standards for college entrance have been lowered just as professors have been pressured to pass students under the veil of something called a retention rate, which suggests that if a student fails or withdrawals, it is the teacher's fault. And Belushi's haggard appearance in the poster, juxtaposed with the word "College" suggests that, in the words of George Carlin, "Pretty soon the only thing you'll need to get in to college is a fucking pencil. You got a pencil? Get the fuck in there - it's physics."
The problem with the impression this poster creates is that it is terribly myopic. First, yes, many students finally get to be free of their parents and drink and fuck for the first time. But they also get to define themselves in positive ways once free from parental influences. Second, yes, there is a prevailing sense of anti-intellectualism in America and this anti-intellectualism has invaded university administrations. But in theory the university is the last bastion in our culture of pure research. No other institution in our nation asks and answers questions just for the fuck of it.
So, all of this is the aura, the impression I had about Animal House before I saw it - that this film celebrates a myopic view of college, one that I've actively resisted embracing. How did the film stack up against my impressions? Warning: Spoilers to follow.
First, the film sets up two villains, the rival fraternity and the dean. Both are pretentious and power-hungry. Thus, the film wants us to believe that the Deltas' actions are about subverting the dominant order. Their shenanigans then become a leveling, a reduction of forces that have either out-lived their usefulness or become over-blown with a sense of self-importance. Set in 1962, during the students' rights movements, the Deltas raze the ivory tower. This is laudable.
However, second, the final moments of the film freeze on each of the characters and white text tells us what has become of them. For example, Bluto, we learn, has become a senator, and one of the rival frat brothers is serving time after working in the Nixon administration. There could be no greater celebration of anti-intellectualism in a film than to see that students who cheat on tests and haven't utilized an iota of the university's resources are nonetheless successful.
Animal House is a hugely successful film, I argue, because it taps in to parts of college life that seem fun and easy. But it celebrates values that aren't going to bring us out of the morass in which we find ourselves. And before I see "It's just a fun movie; you're reading to much in to it" on my Flixster talk board, let me counter by saying that "No, it's not 'just a movie.' The minute you start to believe that it's just a movie, you can be sure that you've bought in to the film's values."
At a 1962 College, Dean Vernon Wormer is determined to expel the entire Delta Tau Chi Fraternity, but those troublemakers have other plans for him.
Classic comedy about college life circa 1960s that made Belushi a superstar in his most memorable and iconic role: 'professional' undergrad/uberslob frat pig Bluto Blutarsky, the hard-drinking, frantic and fun-loving heart and soul of Delta House, a broken-down fringe fraternity sect out to make Dean Wormer (Vernon perfectly square-jawed authoritarian s.o.b.) resort to placing them under "double secret probation" resulting in their ultimate retribution: TOGA! TOGA! TOGA! Fast and furiously funny and directed with breakneck elan by John Landis, nostalgic and crazy with some memorable moments including: shooting an R.O.T.C. horse in the dean's office; Hulce's angel and devil arguing over a drunken opportunity; Belushi's advice to Furst after his frat brothers demolish his older sibling's prized car: "My advice to you is...start drinking heavily"; Belushi's film vault moment: the food fight of cinema history; the dean's credo: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life"; and my personal favorite lines: "And For God's sake tuck in those pajamas!" by the neo-Nazi Niedermeyer to Flounder and "Nothing's over! Was it over when the German's bombed Pearl Harbor?!" by Bluto in his rousing the frat rats to war with Omega!
Boon: Face it, Kent. You threw up *on* Dean Wormer.
Somehow I spent four years at college without watching this movie. I've seen it a number of times before, but realizing this after having graduated, I decided to immediately purchase and watch it again, and boy was I glad. This movie is wonderfully rich with its deadpan deliveries of very funny lines, gross out gags, and a mix of subtle and over-the-top performances.
Bluto: They took the bar! The whole fucking bar!
For those who don't at least know the basic premise, this movie is set at the fictional Faber College during 1962. Despite being hated by the other frats and especially the Dean of the school, Delta House continues to be the wildest and most profane frat house in probably the country.
Doug Neidermeyer: And most recently of all, a "Roman Toga Party" was held from which we have received more than two dozen reports of individual acts of perversion SO profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits listing them here.
Due to this, the Dean decides to start of the semester by placing the Delta's on probation. With the lack of knowledge concerning this, the Delta's continue their wild ways.
Greg Marmalard: But Delta's already on probation.
Dean Vernon Wormer: They are? Well, as of this moment, they're on DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION!
The members include Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert as Otter and Boone, two of the main household members, working at either causing mischief or sleeping with women.
Otter: Ah, she broke our date.
Boon: Washing her hair?
Otter: Dead mother.
D-Day, played by Bruce McGill, a motorcycle, mustachio'd man who seems to possess no reason to be in college except to destroy things.
D-Day: We have an old saying in Delta House: don't get mad, get even.
Two new pledges, Flounder and Pinto, easily destroying their college careers early on.
Bluto: Kroger, your Delta Tau Chi name is Pinto.
Pinto: Why "Pinto"?
Bluto: [belches] Why not?
And of course, John Belushi as Bluto, a disgrace to most, working at holding onto the longest alcohol binge every, as well as eating all he can, and finding some personal time to spy on women.
D-Day: War's over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.
Bluto: Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.
Bluto: And it ain't over now. 'Cause when the goin' gets tough...
Bluto: the tough get goin'! Who's with me? Let's go!
Next to this you have the Omega frat consisting of a number of uptight bastards that includes young Kevin Bacon.
Chip: [being spanked as part of Omega's initiation] Thank you, sir! May I have another?
My favorite character however, is the Dean, played by John Vernon. He delivers all of his dialog in such a perfect manner and does it with such a hilarious hatred towards the Delta's and I love it.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Greg, what is the worst fraternity on this campus?
Greg Marmalard: Well that would be hard to say, sir. They're each outstanding in their own way.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Cut the horseshit, son. I've got their disciplinary files right here. Who dropped a whole truckload of fizzies into the swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.
Greg Marmalard: You're talking about Delta, sir.
Dean Vernon Wormer: Of course I'm talking about Delta, you TWERP!
The work by director John "Blues Brothers" Landis and writer Harold "Egon from Ghostbusters" Ramis is pitch perfect. Combining wonderful dialog with gag humor, and a great soundtrack that infuses classical music into such a raunchy comedy.
Hoover: They confiscated everything, even the stuff we didn't steal!
It could be the magic of John Belushi's eyebrows, the constant abuse of alcohol, the "anarchy over submission" sensibilities of Delta House vs. Dean Wormer, or the brilliance of an extended music/dance sequence to Otis Redding and the Knights' "Shout," but whatever it is, it all makes this a classic comedy.
[the Deltas have been expelled]
Bluto: Christ. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the fucking Peace Corps.