This review was originally published on Aug. 5, 1978.
Animal House is the sort of film you hate yourself for laughing at. It is so gross and tasteless you feel you should be disgusted but it’s hard to be offended by something that is so sidesplittingly funny.
The film which opened yesterday at the Hyland and other theatres is formally called National Lampoon’s Animal House because it was written by three of the American adult humour magazine’s staff members, Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, and publisher Matty Simmons wants a plug.
Because you can’t get away with as much on the screen as you can in a magazine, the material in Animal House isn’t quite as rancid as that found in National Lampoon. You can open your mouth to laugh without fear of throwing up.
Animal House is devastatingly funny because its characters remind you of people you knew in university or high school, almost anywhere organized education rears its head. Chief among these is John Belushi who gives the definitive performance as the resident animal. The animal is the guy who can be depended upon to be wildly drunk and lewdly obnoxious on every possible social occasion. He was the guy who started spaghetti fights and panty raids and was always the anchor man in beer-guzzling contests.
Belushi’s maniac style of comedy, formed in National Lampoons’ stage show, Lemmings, and honed on Saturday Night Live, is perfect for Animal House. Not since Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou has there been such a thoroughly reprehensible and lovable drunk. From urinating on people’s shoes to crushing empty beer cans against his forehead, Belushi is a true grotesque.
I left a recent screening chuckling over the memories Animal House evoked of friends who could have stepped out of the film. Many of them are pillars of the community now, but for a few years there they existed in an atmosphere of cogenial anarchy. It is this attitude of immature and undirected rebellion that Animal House captures exquisitely. The guys who used to ride motorcycles naked up and down fraternity row on St. George St. were giving society and its conventions the finger but they never really meant it any harm. Still, it’s no wonder the University of Toronto expropriated and tore down most of the houses. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. It’s so much closer to the reality of graduation.
John Vernon wants to do the same thing to the Delta fraternity in Animal House, the worst frat on campus and the home of Belushi and friends. Vernon plays the dean with just the right amount of cold fury and comic bluster. He is ably assisted by James Daughton as the sycophantic president of the good frat and Mark Metcalf as an ROTC commander who rides around on a white horse emulating Gen. George Patton.
The continuing battle between the dean and his cohorts and the Deltas provides the only continuity in the episodically structured Animal House. Producer Ivan Reitman said in an interview recently that the film as originally edited ran a tight three hours. Since the final version is one hour and 49 minutes, it’s obvious that things get choppy in places. It is,however, easy to be forgiving because what remains is both very fast and very funny.
Highlights include Thomas Hulce seducing a girl who passes out and leaves him holding the tissue with which she stuffed her bra, Mary Louise Weller and Martha Smith playing cheerleaders trying to stimulate sexually the impotent president of the good frat and Stephen Furst playing a pledge who is supposed to shoot a horse in the dean’s office.
The cast is huge but gives the impression of an ensemble that works well together. Director John Landis, whose other films are Kentucky Fried Movie and Schlock, has refined his previous crude techniques and inspired his actors to greatness. Donald Sutherland, for instance, has a three-scene supporting role as an avant-garde professor who turns on his students to pot and admits that he hates Milton too. Verna Bloom appears briefly as the dean’s wife who willingly goes to bed with the frat’s resident Lothario.
You might well ask if it is worth the effort to elicit great performances for a gross comedy about a bunch of immature misfits. In fact, there is some serious worth to Animal House in that it accurately reflects what might be called a fin de siecle in universities both in the United States and Canada. The film is set in 1962, just before John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the rest of the decade blew up in the face of American youth.
The Vietnam war and coast-to-coast campus violence that followed profoundly changed the nature of higher education. Although it is claimed that contemporary students are reverting to modes of behaviour familiar in the fifties, the truth is that the true innocence of that era can never be recreated. Today’s youth knows too much. But if Animal House is an obituary, at least it remembers the past with affection and humour.