Animal House (1978)
Dir. John Landis
Written by: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller
Starring: John Belushi, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf
Animal House is, without question, one of the most influential and best comedies of all time. An entire subgenre of comedy that dominates the cinema to this day was largely born from the DNA of this seminal classic. Animal House is the first film from the National Lampoon, the humor magazine that would go on to expand into a media empire throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, and it is the distillation of the brand of humor that that magazine would come to represent over its first decade of existence. The film’s creators were already stars in the niche world of underground comedy, but Animal House launched the careers of Harold Ramis and John Landis who would go on to make some of the most iconic comedies in the history of film in the next decade. It also marks the first feature film performance by the great John Belushi. All that being said, I never watch Animal House anymore, and I don’t think I have sat down to watch the whole movie in nearly two decades.
It isn’t that I ever disliked Animal House. It was a staple of a mine and my friends’ movie rotation during high school, along with other classic teen movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Say Anything. Back then I could quote the movie from memory, and I aspired to party as hard and be as cool as Bluto (Belushi) and the Deltas. I also appreciated the movie for its historical importance. I was (and am) a big fan of raunchy comedies, and I knew that without Animal House, there would be no P.C.U., Dirty Work, or Road Trip. The Deltas sticking it to the system at Faber College through partying and pranking is a familiar trope in comedy now, and Animal House may not have completely invented the format, but it certainly crystallized and advanced it. As perfect a comedy as it may be, however, Animal House loses its punch the further away from adolescence one becomes. I will never not laugh at Bluto’s impression of a zit, or at Neidermayer’s (Metcalf) over the top sadism, but I don’t ever feel the need to watch the whole movie anymore.
That’s probably because, as a movie centered on adolescent hijinks, Animal House is designed to primarily appeal to a certain demographic of the general public. More than its sophomoric sense of humor, however, it’s the period setting of Animal House that I really have trouble relating to anymore. Though it came out in the late 1970s, the movie is set in 1962, when college men were expected to wear blazers and pledging a fraternity was the pinnacle of social networking. The period setting doesn’t at all hinder the humor in Animal House, which is commendable. So often, humor can be topical or not translate from one generation to the next, but Animal House could really be transposed to just about any era, largely keep the same jokes, and it would be a successful comedy. There’s just something about the film that doesn’t really resonate with me the way that it used to. I can recognize its importance in the genre, but actually sitting down and watching the film for this post was a bit of a chore. I laughed like I always have, but over the years my desire to watch a full length feature that is so focused on physical comedy and gross-out humor has diminished greatly.
For me, Animal House and films of its ilk work best in little pieces. The film is somewhat elliptical, with many scenes simply existing to highlight one joke, and I think some of the film’s best moments are just as funny when taken out of the context of the larger film. My very favorite scene in the film is the scene in which Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) convince Flounder (Stephen Furst) to put Neidermayer’s horse in Dean Wormer’s (John Vernon) office. After locking the horse in the office, the three are having a laugh when D-Day hands Flounder a pistol and tells him to “finish the job.” Though he doesn’t know the gun was loaded with blanks, Flounder can’t bring himself to kill the horse, so he fires into the air. Of course, the horse drops dead of a heart attack anyway, and the reaction shot of D-Day and Bluto is priceless. Later in the film, a worker is briefly shown measuring the door to the office and measuring the space between the dead horses upturned legs before revving up a chainsaw. It’s honestly a fairly one-note joke, but the absurdity of the situation has always stuck with me and the idea of sawing a dead horse in half to get it out of an office never fails to crack me up, no matter how many times I see the scene.
Animal House is full of scenes just like that one. Hilariously absurd situations and non sequiturs that don’t advance the film’s plot but provide some of the most memorable jokes and the biggest laughs. Think about Bluto casually spying on the sorority girls’ topless pillow fight and then winking at the camera, or about the record scratch moment when the Deltas walk in to the Dexter Lake Club. These are the scenes that make the film the classic that it is, so when I think back about Animal House I almost think of it more as a sketch comedy than as a feature film. Its roots in the short form satire of the National Lampoon are obvious. Undeniably, the film is a comedy classic, and as I mentioned, was hugely influential in shaping the direction of mainstream comedy filmmaking, but as a film it leaves something to be desired. Landis and Belushi would team up again in 1980 to bring Belushi and Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Brothers” characters to the big screen, in a film that works much better on the whole, for me. With Animal House, however, the whole does not always equal the sum of its parts.