There is a term in the world of movies that designates a film as a sleeper. This is not to say that the movie will induce sleep in the audience. Quite the contrary it is one that winds up being a pleasant surprise to critics, audiences and most importantly in some ways, the studio. Such a movie starts out small with humble expectations but begins to pick up speed and popularity often due to word of mouth. A sleeper film frequently becomes a cult classic, a movie that retains a loyal core audience throughout the years. Very rarely a film like this will migrate over the line of cult and become a true cinematic classic. Such a film is ‘Animal House.’ Back in 1978 when it was released most people didn’t give much of a thought to a gross, crass flick about out of control fraternity guys. It was made with a tiny budget even by the standards of the late seventies, about $2.7 million. To the delight of studio executives and investors it would have a cash return over $141 million. Just do the math and wish you have a property like that in your retirement portfolio. ‘Animal House’ is rude, crude and socially unacceptable. It is full of gross often scatological humor that causes more than a very groan along with the many, many laughs. Now, an ‘R’ rated comedy with such attributes is commonplace but this is the grandfather of them all. There would not be movies like ‘America Pie’ without this one blazing the way. For most looking back at this film set it as one of the funniest movies ever made. As is the case with many ‘best of the genre’ movies this one broke new ground yet has remained as fresh today as it did thirty years ago. No one had ever seen a movie like this before and it is very doubtful that despite the many contenders to its throne, and will replace it. To honor its thirtieth anniversary Universal Studios has re-released it in a fresh DVD edition. If you have never seen this film the question has to be raised ‘where have you been all your life?’
When I was a much younger man thirty years ago, I had one guilty pleasure that confounded my wife. I loved the magazine ‘National Lampoon.’ To her it was just a comic book but after I got her to read a few of the stories she came around and saw that this was a brilliant satire magazine. One of our favorite contributors was Chris Miller. He had a strange, offbeat style of writing that was incredibly well done. Many of his stories were about his time in the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at Dartmouth University. They told of the wild high jinx that he and his frat brothers would get into regularly. These stories would become the basis for the screenplay for this film. Joining him in creating the script were Douglas Kenney and Harold Ramis. For Miller this was the first of only three scripts to his credit.
Kennedy previous wrote material for the National Lampoon stage show ‘Lemmings.’ My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing this off-Broadway and we still reference jokes that were in it. Kennedy would then go on to write another classic comedy, ‘Caddyshack’ and its lamentable sequel. Ramis went on to become a comic legend. He was a regular member of the famous ‘Second City TV series and wrote screenplays for such amazing comedy movies as ‘Meatballs,’ ‘Back to School’ ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Ghostbusters.’ This may have been the start of most of the careers here but considering what this cast and crew went on to achieve it is proven to be a collection of unparallel talent. There is actually a storyline embedded in the film but most fans remember this as a sort of free association romp through insanity. If asked most fans can recant scene after scene but maybe a bit fuzzy on the details of the plot. In short that story is concerned with an uptight Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) trying to remove the outrageous Delta House Fraternity from campus. He enlists the help of the straight-arrow Omega House to do his dirty work. The boys of Delta are not willing to go quietly into that good night and do everything in their power to wreak havoc along the way.
Another newbie that made his name with this film was director John Landis. Afterward, he went on to helm ‘American Werewolf in London,’ ‘Innocent Night’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’. While best known as one of the masters of horror he showed his stuff as a comic director here. Many of his horror films would infuse Landis’ offbeat sense of humor which is part of his trademark style. His role as the director for this film must have been akin to a ringmaster at the circus or perhaps the warden at an insane asylum. This was one of the most talented young casts imaginable and it was up to Landis not so much to rein them in but rather point them in the right direction. According to some reports he had many of the lines of dialogue for John Belushi removed from the script. It was not that this first-time actor couldn’t handle them it was just funnier without them, Belushi was one of the all-time great physical comedians in history and combined with a rubber face he could invoke more laughs with a look or movement than most comedians can do with a finely honed script.
As mentioned, the genius of this movie is the way the vignettes flow from one to another. After you watch this film some shots will become so vivid that they will be clearer than many personal memories. There is the dead horse in the Dean’s office or the imitation of a zit by Belushi. Then there is the scene that started a fad in colleges that has lasted to this day, the toga party. Even the main adversary of the Deltas, Doug Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) is hysterical. He is such an uptight and self-righteous jerk that you can’t wait to see what the boys do to him. This is a film that will keep you laughing from start to finish. Just be careful taking a drink; it most likely will wind up shooting through your nose.
Universal has released this film in two editions. The first is a two-disc set; the next is the two-disc gift set edition. All are mastered to perfection with one of the best audio and video transfers for this movie to date. There are plenty of extras included that will keep the fun going after you are through watching the film. The gift set Collectible Faber College Yearbook.
Posted 10/12/08 Posted 07/29/2019