National Lampoons is known for producing its share of raunchy comedies, and the 1978 “Animal House” is no exception. It’s a college movie through and through, and a celebration of that side of college life sandwiched between sleep and good grades – parties, drinking, girls…fraternities. The film follows the exploits of a rowdy and black sheep of a fraternity, introducing a group of guys who you start to love by the end of this film. It harkens back to 1962 and is just tremendous fun to watch.
The fraternity in this film is named Delta Tau Chi, and we quickly see the difference between theirs and other fraternities on campus. The film introduces us to two freshmen, Kent and Larry (Stephen Furst, Tom Hulce) who get rejected from one high maintenance fraternity only to be referred to Delta by Kent, whose brother was once upon a time a member. Where casual conversation, judgement, and classy dress outlined the first fraternity, lewd behavior, heavy drinking, and raucous sex outline this one. More noise is made and more glass is broken in the first 20 minutes of this film than in Marvel’s “The Avengers” keystone battle scene amid skyscrapers in Manhattan.
The film then outlines its thin plot: a trouble-making dean (John Vernon) is intent on kicking the Delta fraternity off campus, putting them on ‘double secret probation,’ telling them he’s gunning for them, and just hoping they slip up.
“Animal House” has a wide array of characters, who, while one sided, aren’t overly flat or draped in convention. There’s a chairman of the Delta fraternity, Eric Stratton (Tim Matheson), who’s pre med but is sort of a womanizer despite his charm. We also meet John Blutarsky, played perfectly by Jim Belushi, who is a suck-a-botte-of-Jack-Daniels-in-one-gulp type alcoholic whose behavior is both rash and outrageous. Some other players line the cast, such as a biker wannabe named D-Day (Bruce McGill), fraternity spokesperson Robert Hoover (James Widdoes), and a Katy (Karen Allen), who’s dating fraternity member Donald Schoenstein (nicknamed ‘Boon’).
What works about “Animal House” is the zany way these characters come together and stick up for each other throughout. There’s Kent, nicknamed ‘Flounder,’ who becomes the victim of a rival frat’s obnoxious member named Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf). Neidermeyer puts him through a series of tortures such a cleaning out stables and doing pushups over horse dung before being showed a lesson by Stratton and Boon.
There’s also a loose relationship between Stratton and a girl named Mandy (Mary Louis Weller) whom is now going out with Neidermeyer. In one of the film’s most hysterical sequences, Blutarsky loads up on an obscene amount of food in the cafeteria; when called out on it by friends of Mandy’s, he spits a mouthful of mashed potatoes at the group. And while this should come off as just plain gross, in Belushi’s hands the scene is laugh out loud funny.
The movie suffers a bit in its too-wide lens and multitude of characters, which sometimes pull the film in too many different directions. We get to know Stratton, Boon, and Larry quite well, but know less about other members such as Blutarsky, Kent, or Boon’s girlfriend Katy. Katy is brushed especially thin, reduced to the girl who just wants her boyfriend to change stereotype, who doesn’t really grow throughout. Blutarsky, who prances around drinking and wearing shirts that say, simply, ‘College,’ is also painted thin, more or less appearing for straight comic relief. The film cuts back and forth from its multitude of characters, and we don’t center on any one long enough to know too much about them.
The movie is, however, hysterically funny, and its shortcomings are ultimately forgivable. It’s aim is small, focused on just the fraternity (parties, hookups, drinking, and its rivalry with Neidermeyer’s fraternity and the school’s dean) and comes at audiences with one fun scene after another. The acting is good all around, and we like the members of Delta individually and as a cohesive unit. Matheson especially does a good job in this film, and becomes quasi leader of a film that is frequently zany but never becomes offensive or mean.
It’s hard to find much fault with “Animal House.” It’s sequences are lighthearted and comedic, its cast likeable, its experience authentic and lively. It harkens back to the 1960’s with a dated soundtrack that places it well and wardrobe and speech that immerses you fully in this world. “Animal House” is a classic college comedy, and holds up over time with an experience as complete as in the decade it was released.
– by Mark Ziobro