Thursday, April 16, 2015

National Lampoon's Animal House


"Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."  That line, aside from being pretty sound advice that many in our society have not exactly taken to heart, perhaps gave birth to the modern gross out/slob/underachiever comedy.  Prior to 1978's NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, audiences weren't accustomed to seeing gags involving vomit, urination, rubber glove masturbation, dildos, dead horses, and wayward golf balls in a Hollywood feature.  Yes, Mel Brooks had been around to fill the bad taste quota, but most mainstream comedies were fairly button downed and restrained.  ANIMAL HOUSE announced, with great vulgarity, that a new sort of comedy, perhaps a bit dangerous, was now here to stay.  A comedy of considerable gall and brio, yet with a certain degree of craft and even (gasp!) sophistication.

Immediately, the imitators raced to film their own juvenile epics.  Films like THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS, UP THE ACADEMY, MEATBALLS, STRIPES (the latter two made by ANIMAL HOUSE producer Ivan Reitman) and countless others.  And those were the OK to good ones.   There were also true grade Z knock-offs like FRAT HOUSE that exhibited no apparent purpose other than to fill an hour and a half with as many boobs and flatulence gags as possible.  Truly reptilian brained entertainments that sometimes flirted with the softcore.  But ANIMAL HOUSE, for all of its deviance, is actually a really good movie.  A skillfully made, well acted, and sometimes even inspiring underdog comedy that may have no other real purpose than to celebrate bad behavior, but underneath the lasciviousness there may be a life lesson or two.

1962. The Deltas are the worst fraternity on campus.  Their grades are the lowest in Faber College's history.  Every Halloween they fill the trees with underwear.  Every Spring, they cause toilets to explode. They instigate food fights, climb ladders to peek at topless sorority girls, and have liaisons with underage girls, dead girls' roommates, and even the Dean's wife.  They have raucous parties and destroy the homecoming parade.  Freshmen Larry (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst) are would-be pledges who wind up in the filthy Delta House populated by Casanova "Otter" (Tim Matheson), wise guy "Boon" (Peter Riegert), motorcyclist "D-Day" (Bruce McGill), and all-around animal "Bluto" (John Belushi).

Hardass Dean Wormer (John Vernon) desperately wants to kick the Deltas off campus.  Revoke their charter.  He enlists the Omega fraternity: hissable, clean cut fascists led by Greg (James Daughton) and Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf).  It doesn't go well for any of them, to say the least.  Check the film's prologue and/or the special edition "Where Are They Now?" segment on the DVD.

ANIMAL HOUSE became a cultural phenomenon.  The famous toga party sequence inspired many colleges to engage in what had been previously a rather obscure practice.  Fictional party band Otis Day and the Knights went on tour.  I remember a teacher's aide for my 4th grade class telling us about the movie at lunch one day.  What a scene: an attractive 20 something blonde, who might've been right at home in the movie as one of the sorority girls, describing this forbidden piece of cinema to a group of prepubescent boys.  Eyes were wide and our lust thick.  Our imaginations conjured wilder imagery than the movie allowed, though surprisingly not by much!

We were all frustrated that we were too young to see ANIMAL HOUSE in the theater.  Though, as I wrote in an earlier post, one afternoon at a multiplex, my father went to the restroom and I wandered in to watch about twenty seconds of it.  I caught the scene as Bluto loads his tray in a cafeteria with pretty much everything he can grab.  I can still hear some of the laughter in the audience, like it was yesterday.  I saw the edited version on network TV a few years later, and then the real thing a few years after that.  It managed to live up to an impossible legacy, fueled by classmate whispers and their excited recreations of scenes.

The film would be a breakout for director John Landis, who only had two low budget comedies under his belt.  He created a perfect look and tone for the picture, even with a somewhat out of place marijuana scene.  His assurance and sense of timing are surprising and his leering, winking sensibility was a perfect fit for this material, written by Harold Ramis (who would go on to direct his own slobs versus snobs comedy, CADDYSHACK), Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, who based the screenplay on their experiences.  According to Landis, their original screenplay was even more socially irresponsible and gross.  What ended up on screen is just the right balance of naughty and good hearted, though you could charge the picture with racism at times.  Had Landis himself gone to college, I imagine he would've been just like Otter or Boone.

Does ANIMAL HOUSE have any sort of worthwhile message beyond "it's OK to screw up"?  That bad behavior and incompetence may even be rewarded? If you dig deeply you might find a political thesis, explorations of anarchy and extreme conservatism.  Class struggle.  That maybe the whole "college is necessary for success in life" may be a royal scam.  Especially given what we learn of each character's fate, that even someone who's spent seven years in undergrad with a 0.0 GPA can become a Senator. 
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