***½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring John Belushi, Tim Matheson, John Vernon, Verna Bloom
screenplay by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenny & Chris Miller
directed by John Landis
by Walter Chaw Films that spawn genres are unusual, and if twenty-five years and dozens of imitators have diluted the sex and scatology formula of John Landis's National Lampoon's Animal House a bit, nothing touches the tightness of an enterprise that finds a golf ball hit into cafeteria stew in one scene and John Belushi casually eating that golf ball a few minutes later. The picture doesn't so much cover the bases as draw the diamond, casting the evil dean of a small college, Wormer (John Vernon), against a band of fun-loving frat boys led by smooth Otter (Tim Matheson), animalistic Bluto (Belushi), hapless Flounder (Stephen Furst), and audience surrogate Pinto (Tom Hulce). What distinguishes Animal House's irreverence from feckless anarchy is the same thing that distinguishes the films of the Farrelly Brothers, the true inheritors of the picture's legacy: a strong feeling for character and a congenial willingness to transgress that rings as honest even as it tickles at inappropriate.
For a six year period (1978-83), Landis was building a portfolio of films that challenged genre structure in ways that were daring and, occasionally, seismic: the teen sex comedy (Animal House); the road trip musical (The Blues Brothers); the horror film (An American Werewolf in London); the music video (Michael Jackson's "Thriller"); the mainstream caste/race comedy (Trading Places); and the anthology picture (Twilight Zone: The Movie). With Animal House, released the same year as John Carpenter's Halloween, Richard Donner's Superman, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and Michael Cimino's The Dear Hunter, Landis hit upon a film every bit as dangerous as its contemporaries, addressing issues of binge-drinking, statutory rape, race and privilege, drug abuse, and the suddenly-topical question of hazing with the same sort of acerbic intelligence that indicated the writing style of the NATIONAL LAMPOON. While I'm of a mind that films are always at some level sociology, there was a time when they were consciously so--and so while Animal House is surprisingly fresh on its silver anniversary, it is also an interesting time capsule tipped towards the end of the best period of American cinema.
There is fruit in a discussion of the ways that each character represents a different aspect of middle-class malaise, Donald Sutherland's deadpan brilliant English professor ("Look, I'm not kidding here, this is my job") the most obvious locus for study, made thorny by the comparison to his performance in Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (another 1978 counter-cultural masterpiece). In Animal House, Sutherland smokes pot and sleeps with his students while dissing Milton to a class full of disinterested freshmen; in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sutherland, as a different sort of authority figure, woos another dark-haired beauty against a backdrop of fast culture and facile cultism. In both, he finds himself incapable of escaping the fast-approaching tide of languor, spectres of outrage haunting the fantastically mundane. Meanwhile, Bluto--a voracious lout who has as his shining moment a motivational speech laden with hysterical inaccuracies ("Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!")--made a star of John Belushi. The character is, in fact, the embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson (at least until Johnny Depp's turn in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)--Gonzo made manifest, aided by massive amounts of alcohol and an astringent stupidity too calculated to be stupid.
Animal House is so wise about its oafishness that at a certain point it becomes a commentary on a national oafishness. When Bluto peeps a sorority full of nubile young things engaged in a topless pillow fight before repositioning his ladder with all of Belushi's thumbs-and-elbows grace, there is a moment where Belushi shares a conspiratorial glance with an audience of voyeurs. It is a gesture that is extra-filmic, suggesting a kind of canny post-modernism (and repeated in the backseat with Otter and a girl more empowered than first appearances would suggest) that lays waste descriptions of the film as just infantile. A classic of the genre for whatever it's worth, Animal House endures because it's a smarter beast than first impressions would suggest--allaying itself in my mind with a film like Evil Dead II more comfortably than, say, American Pie, in that there are certain films in devalued genres that deserve to be entered into a larger dialogue. Oh, and it's funny.
Universal gives Animal House a worthy DVD transfer in what it calls a "Double Secret Probation Edition," which makes the bygone pan-and-scan version an even bigger candidate for "Shiniest, Least Absorbent Coaster." Available in both remastered full-frame and 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfers, FILM FREAK CENTRAL was given the much-preferred latter and the picture, folks, looks fabulous. Colours are muted by design, edge enhancement is minimal and not distracting, and black/shadow levels are satisfying. An admittedly overkill Dolby Digital 5.1 remix takes good advantage of the party sequences and, especially, the climactic parade.
A "making of" docu called "The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion" (42 mins.) is fairly standard interview stuff, but fascinating for revealing exactly how little I knew about the production of the picture. A staggering array of behind-the-scenes talent has been assembled for their recollections--the piece is, frankly, invaluable. Less successful is a 24-minute featurette--"Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update"--that goes the Spinal Tap route in positing that Animal House was a documentary and, 21 Up-like, seeks to catch up with the principals in the modern day. A Kevin Bacon narration the highlight of the bit (his "Chip" seeing Christ in a plate of eggs over clips from a few of his more forgettable films), notable omissions include Sutherland and Tom Hulce, who, well...someone really should put out an APB. Points for originality--but it's not nearly so funny as it is irritating. A music video of some band called MxPx doing "Shout" is fine but to what end, and a "pop up" subtitle track offers "fun" trivia in the shrug-worthy vein. A theatrical trailer, DVD-ROM screensavers, and a "recommendations" page with cover photos of other Universal/Landis films on DVD round out the disc.Originally published: November 20, 2003.