Movie Review: Animal House (1978)
“Relive the best 7 years of your college education.”
Animal House (1978)
Director: John Landis
Cast: John Belushi, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce
Synopsis: 1962: Vernon Wormer, the Dean of Faber College, is determined to expel the entire Delta Tau Chi Fraternity, but those trouble-makers also have plans for him.
It’s funny how the movies that come to define a generation are rarely the heavyweights acclaimed by critics, but the artistically redundant celebrations of hedonism which exemplify the kind of lives we like to believe we led even if we didn’t. Back in the late 1970s, Animal House was the anti-authoritarian comedy everyone was itching to see. Its anarchic irreverence for… well, everything… proved irresistible to its teenage target audience – and hugely worrying for all those who fell outside of its target demographic. At every party you would find some young twerp bruising their forehead in a drunken attempt to emulate the stunt performed by John Belushi’s near-feral Bluto, or initiating chants of Toga! Toga! Toga! before lying on their back and waving their feet in the air like a dying fly. Animal House was a delirious overdose of gross jokes, high-spirited riotousness, and naked young women. Needless to say, teenage boys flocked to cinemas like flies to a cow pat.
So, how does Animal House hold up more than thirty years later, now that the excitable teens at which it was aimed are well into their fifties, and more inclined to put their feet up in front of the TV than participate in a beer-drenched toga party? Well, like the rest of us, it’s showing its age a little, and, thanks to the countless hundreds of copies that followed in its wake, it’s easy to lose sight of just how ground-breaking it was back in 1978. To be honest, revisiting Animal House is a little like discovering that the flawless looks of the girl you worshipped as a teen have all but disappeared under the burden of age: you can still glimpse fleeting traces of the things that enthralled you – but the encounter inevitably proves to be something of a let-down…
The plot of Animal House is an arbitrary device on which is strung a sequence of largely unrelated incidents sharing the timeless themes of the teenage male’s quest for sex and alcohol. Centred mostly around the exploits of the members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity house, the rowdiest fraternity at Faber College (motto: “knowledge is good”), the film first introduces us to Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce – Amadeus) and his nerdy, overweight friend Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst), who become the fraternity’s newest members after being shunned by the elitist Omega House. Renamed Pinto and Flounder, the boys fall under the dubious influence of Delta’s senior members, the womanising Eric ‘Otter’ Stratton (Tim Matheson – 1941), his best friend, Boone (Peter Riegert – White Irish Drinkers), fraternity President, Hoover (James Widdoes), D-Day (Bruce McGill – Ali, The Lookout) who can play a mean Lone Ranger on his throat, and Bluto (John Belushi – Goin’ South, 1941), an animal with dancing eyebrows and a taste for bourbon.
Animal House boasts a cast that was as fresh as its material, with most of its members just embarking on their screen careers. In addition to the members of Delta Tau Chi, there’s screen debutante Kevin Bacon (JFK, Super) as a pipsqueak member of the Omega fraternity, and Karen Allen, whose career would hit its peak a few years later as Indiana Jones’ love interest in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s Belushi who makes the biggest impact in a role that mirrors his own off-screen reputation. Belushi would die just four years after making Animal House – and he might well have burned himself out quickly anyway had he not died so young – but in Bluto he created a memorable alter ego that struck a chord with moviegoers, and it’s his character that most people remember if asked to recall the movie. His impression of a zit – another exploit re-enacted by many impressionable teens – and his energetic participation at the toga party staged to take his housemates’ minds off being placed under ‘double secret probation’ remain two of the movie’s highlights.
Time, and the toll of too many imitations, might have blunted the impact of Animal House, but the weight of its influence shouldn’t be forgotten. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends, of course, on your opinion of juvenile comedies revolving largely around sex and alcohol. Movies like Animal House are certainly of their time – it’s unlikely that we’ll ever again see the making of movies that so gratuitously glorify debauchery and objectify women in – and what was funny thirty years ago isn’t necessarily so today, but its undeniably one of those films which is made up of nothing but memorable moments and scenes.
(Reviewed 3rd April 2016)
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