Animal House (1978) ****
Directed by John Landis
Maybe with the exception of This Is Spinal Tap, I have or have had concerns watching each of the films on my Iconic Irreverent Comedies Marathon. This Is Spinal Tap is a Christopher Guest movie, and I’ve seen and enjoyed many other films of his such as Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. My concern going into Animal House was that I feared the film might simply be mean. The story is about a rowdy frat house, and when I think of fraternities in film, I think of pledges being laughed at and humiliated. Also, there seems to be this clear line between those who make fun of others and those who get made fun of. If Animal House was going to make fun of outcasts for an hour and fifty minutes, then I am sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.
The first sequence of Animal House takes place at a fraternity referred to as the Omegas. We see two freshmen, impeccably dressed, enter into a weekend party. Inside the house, they are mocked behind their backs, shoved into a corner with foreign students and a blind guy in a wheelchair. When one of them attempts to talk to the head of the Omegas, he is immediately sent back to sit with the misfits.
There was a part of me that wanted to turn the film off at that point, but I’m very glad that I didn’t. You see, I thought that the film was going to be all about the Omegas. I guessed that the seriousness of the party was a prank that was going to be pulled on the freshmen. I thought John Belushi was going to jump out of a wall or something and yell, “Toga! Toga! Toga!” In no way did I want to spend time with this fraternity. Many people know how much it hurts to be made fun of and be laughed at by others. Why in the world would I find that kind of psychological torture enjoyable as comedic entertainment?
Let me tell you how relieved I was to see the freshmen leave the party and proceed to the dilapidated fraternity house owned by the Deltas. The party, similar to every other element in this movie, is completely overblown so much that you have to laugh out loud. The two are urinated on before they get inside, and things aren’t much better when beer bottles are thrown and shattered next to their heads—repeatedly. Amongst the barbaric antics which take place inside Delta’s house, there’s a definite sense that everyone is welcome. For the Deltas, the more the rowdier! The members of the Delta fraternity are subversive, irresponsible and immature, that’s for sure! Yet, they’re extremely likeable, looking out for each other and always willing to share in the fun. I was looking forward to spending some time in their world.
The two freshmen are given Delta names. One is called Pinto, played by the great Amadeus star Tom Hulce, and the other is called Flounder, played by Stephen Furst. The film moves quickly away from their acceptance into the fraternity to the office of Faber College Dean Wormer who decides to put the Delta house on double secret probation, which pretty much means that one more screw up and the house will be disbanded. The secret part is that the Delta guys aren’t told which sets Wormer up to be a victim of their shenanigans later on. The Deltas can be spiteful, but only to the mean and the unjust.
The rest of Animal House plays like an anti-Huckleberry Finn, containing vignettes that work autonomously just as much as they fit into the film’s broader narrative. One of these snippets includes a famous toga party, which accounts for the great line which I mentioned before. Other yarns include a stint at a grocery store, a late night prank involving a horse with cardiac problems, an evening in a tough all-black bar, a gathering in a professor’s house, played by Donald Sutherland, where they all smoke pot and finally, a float parade in town.
Each member of the fraternity has his own set of circumstances to deal with. Otter, played by Tim Matheson, is a womanizer who uses a college student’s death in order to sleep with her roommate. He also seduces Dean Wormer’s wife. Boon, played by Peter Reigart, has a steady girlfriend that’s getting a little bit tired of his immature ways, encouraging him to spend less time with the Deltas. Flounder must endure a sadistic ROTC superior who treats him like dirt and forces him to land face down in a pile of horse dung. Also, his older brother has entrusted him with an expensive car which the other Deltas trash for many different reasons. Pinto has to deal with a new girlfriend and her father. While that’s bad enough, things get even worse for him when she tells him her real age.
There are other members of Delta, but the most important one wasn’t mentioned in the last paragraph listing each character’s concerns. The reason is because Bluto (John Belushi) doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s a man of few words, often evoking comedy by using physical gags such as when he crushes a beer can on his forehead and when he falls while on a ladder looking at female students undressing through their window. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil, not saying much but causing quite a bit of destruction and mayhem. Of course, there’s a bittersweet element while watching Belushi on screen. He’s an exceptional comedian and as such, his performance saddened me since his early death robbed the world of his unique talent.
Animal House was recently chosen as the funniest film ever made by the Bravo Network’s countdown of the funniest movies. Do I agree? Well, no, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, but yes, it is very funny. It’s also smart about how it showcases its villains by making them caricatures that can be universally and justifiably hated. The same goes for the Deltas themselves. They’re so broadly characterized and acted that it’s impossible not to like them from the start and root for them when they’re in trouble.
The film’s final chunk involves an elaborate parade where the Deltas get their revenge on both Wormer and the Omegas. Personally, I didn’t find that sequence all that funny, with the exception of a boy who says, “Thank you, God,” and I think it’s what holds this film back from being in the same league as films like Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Also, the film is poorly edited, which is surprising considering how talented John Landis is as a director. Still, though, for all of the chaos, insubordination and nuisance that exists in Animal House, there’s an equal amount of heart and charm which I think counts just as much as its comedy does for the film’s revered place in pop culture history.