Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New on Blu: "National Lampoon's Animal House"

“Faber College, 1962” reads the opening caption of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which begins with solemn opening credits and a proper, dignified score. Freshmen Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) are looking for a fraternity to pledge; they go to the mixer at Omega house, but the big-haired blondes and stiff-jawed jocks are somewhat less than welcoming. They leave, and Kent suggests they stop in at Delta House. Larry protests: “I hear Delta’s the worst house on campus!”

It is. From the moment they arrive at the house, greeted by a half-mannequin crashing through the window and the strains of “Louie Louie” wafting out from within, the gears have shifted on Animal House, which moves quickly from polite collegiate comedy to a broad, rude, vulgar slice of post-Marx cinematic anarchy. Nowadays, home video writers approaching the picture anew wonder what all of the fuss is about; the Internet is awash with “it’s not really all that funny” reviews, few of them ill-intentioned. But Animal House is still funny in the same way that Halloween is still scary—with the implicit understanding that it set a template, and that it was imitated and replicated with such frequency that its value, within its original context, is somewhat difficult to fully comprehend.

For Animal House was the first of the “slobs vs. snobs” comedies that dominated the 1980s (beginning with Caddyshack, which shared much of the same personnel); it was also the first real hint of what a Saturday Night Live star could do in a feature comedy. The late 1970s were not a great time for film humor—Mel Brooks was fading, Woody Allen was getting serious, and the multiplexes were dominated by car-chase vehicles and Bad News Bears sequels. The hard R-rated Animal House was like a dirty bomb; it crashed into theaters like those mannequin legs smashing through the window.

And it made John Belushi a star. From his first appearance, pissing on Larry and Kent’s shoes on the front lawn, Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky dominates the ensemble cast; he’s a full-on tornado onscreen, a Harpo-style whirling dervish in the school cafeteria, a deliciously naughty boy casting sidelong glances at the camera as he peeps in a sorority window. Even in big group scenes—like the sing-along of “Shout” at the toga party—our eyes instinctively go to him.

But his fellow players make fine impressions as well. The role of Otter is a perfect vehicle for Tim Matheson’s smarmy charm; Peter Reigert is both an ace straight man to him and a charming opposite for Karen Allen, whose warmth and good cheer does wonders with a potential wet blanket of a role. Bruce McGill’s D-Day roars through the picture with an energy that matches Belushi’s perfectly, while John Vernon’s Dean Wormer is a wonderfully despicable antagonist.

Director John Landis—following up the uproarious Kentucky Fried Movie—seems to have primarily focused on casting the film well, making sure his actors were in frame, and keeping things moving; his crude visual style tends to favor looking the gags right in the eye, but who watches a film like this one for visual inventiveness? Some of the gags don’t work: the bit with the horse mostly falls apart because of the terrible freeze frame, the road trip doesn’t really pay off like you’re hoping it will, and the business with underage, hard-drinking Clorette DePasto (played by Sarah Holcomb, also remembered as Danny’s girlfriend with the inexplicable accent in Caddyshack) has, to put it charitably, not aged well. But Landis’s pacing is brisk, so for every joke that doesn’t land, there’s three that do—most of them eminently quotable. “My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.” “I’m a zit, get it?” “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” “I, state your name…” “Seven years of college down the drain.” And, of course, “Food fight!”

Five years before it released Animal House, Universal put out American Graffiti
—another coming-of-age comedy set in 1962, the year (as the cliché goes) before America lost its innocence. Animal House is like that picture’s dirty-talking little brother; heh, heh, we weren’t always all that innocent, it assures us, and combines the conventions of the old campus comedies like Good News and College Swing with the new permissiveness of language and content to create, in effect, the first comedy of the 1980s. Animal House paved the way, with its anything-goes spirit and free-for-all atmosphere. And, in spite of what you might’ve heard, it’s still awfully funny.

"Animal House" makes its Blu-ray debut this week. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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