EMPIRE ESSAY: National Lampoon’s Animal House Review

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At a 1962 College, Dean Vernon Wormer is determined to expel the Delta House Fraternity, but those roughhousers have other plans for him.


At the time, Animal House was the most successful comedy ever, proving that belly laughs could be just as good for box office as rubber sharks and space opera. And yet, just as Jaws and Star Wars paved the way for legions of lame-brained, effects-driven blockbusters, so too did Animal House give birth to a veritable universe of appallingly unfunny movies, most of them starring Steve Guttenberg. Perhaps even more significantly, the movie marked a symbolic demise of the radicalism that had gripped America in the 60s and 70s. According to one critic, Animal House "heralded the return of rampant conservatism to US campuses."

Certainly, Animal House is a guilty pleasure. Although it's the ultimate teenage boy movie (or was until the arrival of American
Pie 20 years later), to anyone with a modicum of social responsibility it's all a bit horrific. Indeed, the anarchic antics — beer blasts, food fights, toga parties — tend to leave grown-ups feeling sorry for whichever poor unseen minimum wage slaves are left to clear up all the mess.

The action takes place in 1962, mere months before the assassination of President Kennedy is due to bequeath the US an extraordinary decade of national self-examination, political turmoil and war, both internal and external. Coincidentally, this is also the year that A Clockwork Orange was published — albeit not yet in America — and, in common with that classic tome of unruly youth, Animal House isn't a particularly pretty or encouraging portrait of young manhood but, like a wild party veering dangerously out of control, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Some scant knowledge of the bizarre nature of stateside further education is perhaps necessary for an enhanced appreciation of Animal House. When you attend a US university (or "school" as they insist on terming it), you enter into a degrading scramble to gain admittance to the best fraternities: student clubs, some of which are powerful enough to strongly influence your future life and career. The girls, meanwhile, have their sororities, but they don't feature much here.

In the movie, Omega House are the elite of the student body at Faber College, set in an obscure ail-American backwater town. Arrogant, white and upper class, they are manifest destiny at its nastiest — militantly square, scarily conservative and, naturally, sexually repressed. Led by the slimy Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) and the blatantly fascist Neidermeyer (a superbly psychopathic Mark Metcalf), Omega house are the future ruling elite of the good old US of A. Over at Delta house, meanwhile, things are rather different. Rejected by Omega as "a wimp and a blimp", new boys Larry Kroger (Future Amadeus Oscar-winner Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (career tubby Furst) fall in with the rag-tag bag of non-conformists, led by Eric "Otter" Stratton (TimMatheson), and epitomised by the vulgar vitality of one-offs like D-Day (the superbly-moustached Bruce McGill) and John "Bluto" Blutarsky (Belushi).
Director Landis uses this simple premise as the launch-pad for a fusillade of comic set-pieces. Bluto avoids a beating from Neidermeyer's thugs (including a young Kevin Bacon) by causing a food-fight in the canteen; Neidermeyer's beloved horse is abducted and secreted in Dean Wormer's office, where it promptly suffers a fatal heart attack; virginal Larry, agonising over whether he should have his way with a comatose cutie, is harangued by miniature angel and devil advocates (when he elects to do the decent thing and take her home, the outraged imp hisses, "Youhomo!").

Hectored by Cesare Danova's Mafioso town mayor, the malevolent Dean Wormer (John Vernon) resolves to have the Delta mob thrown off-campus. "Get Neidermeyer onto it," he orders Marmalard. "He's a sneaky little shit, just like you, right?" The Delta boys face up to their threatened expulsion as you'd expect — spying on the girls' dorms (Bluto); making out with a dead fiancee's roomie (Otter), and smoking pot with the disillusioned Professor Jennings (played by an anachronistically-haired Sutherland). When they finally do get expelled, Bluto and co. decide to go out in style. In what proves to be a demented parody of the Kennedy assassination, they sabotage the college's annual parade through Faber with predictably chaotic results.

With the collegiate setting's suitably sprawling cast, virtually all the speaking parts amount to little more than glorified cameos. Only the innocent Hulce, the lovably hapless Furst and the sensible, long-suffering Katy (Karen Allen's memorable portrayal of the kind of modern woman poised to out-evolve these Neanderthal males in the 60s) are anything like sympathetic. But John Belushi's performance — and remember, he died a drug-addled wreck a mere three years later — is one of wonderfully vital physical comedy. Whether he's crushing beer cans on his forehead, blithely smashing a folk singer's guitar into matchwood, or nonchalantly pissing on Kent and Larry's shoes, Bluto is the movie's enduring magic ingredient. And that includes the toga.

John Belushi - we hardly knew ye. It's a one man film, but it's also hilarious.