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American Graffiti (1973) used the tagline "Where were you in '62?". If you were in high school then, apparently, you cruised the streets of your hometown hoping to pick up chicks. But if you happened to be in college at the time, Animal House provides an alternative answer to the question.
While American Graffiti is better in reputation than in fact, the opposite is true for Animal House. The riotous comedy is sometimes sneered at for its 'inconsistency' and its lowbrow humor. But there were some great characters defined amid the young ensemble cast, and the script is always funny even when the scenes don't completely work.
Director John Landis would later be known for overpraised comedies aimed at teenagers. In 1978, however, he was known for Kentucky Fried Movie, a raunchy, edgy independent film. "National Lampoon" writers Douglas Kenney and Harold Ramis, along with author Chris Miller, wrote the screenplay for Animal House. They were talented writers who lacked experience with Hollywood films. This meant that they hadn't yet learned how to ruin their script and characters by conforming to tried and true comedy formulas.
The film begins with Faber College freshmen Kent (Stephen Furst) and Larry (Tom Hulce) trying to pledge fraternity. The preppy jocks at Omega, led by smarmy, impotent Marmalard (James Daughton) and sadistic Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf), turn them away in favor of Chip Diller (Kevin Bacon). But Kent and Larry, now known as Flounder and Pinto, find a home at Delta, known as 'the worst fraternity on campus'.
Delta has a wimpy president, Hoover (James Widdoes). But the rest of the fraternity is composed of social outcasts, for whom college life is merely an excuse for drinking, partying, and chasing women.
Bluto (John Belushi) is a crazy, overgrown child. After seven years of college, all he's learned is that the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. Otter (Tim Matheson) is an accomplished seducer of women, while Boon (Peter Riegert) has a rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen). D-Day (Bruce McGill) is a greaser mechanic, whose talent is that he can perform the "Lone Ranger" theme by drumming his fingers on his throat with his mouth open.
The dean of Faber College is Dean Wormer (John Vernon). He despises the underachieving Deltas, and conspires with the Omegas to shut down Delta House. But the Deltas get their revenge, by transforming the annual College-sponsored parade into an anarchic mob scene.
The first half of Animal House is nearly perfect, without a single scene that doesn't work. This is very unusual for even the best comedies. The loosely related sketches falter a bit during the film's second half, beginning with the Dean's wife (Verna Bloom) showing up drunk at a Delta toga party. One has to wonder how Pinto's statutory rape of a thirteen year old girl would play in today's atmosphere of political correctness.
Still, there are so many hilarious scenes that it would take pages of text to list them all. My favorite gag is probably Belushi having a long take, smashing the folk singer's guitar, then meekly apologizing. Bluto is a great character that was ideal for Belushi. You never know what he'll do next, or where he'll turn up.
Animal House was the first screenplay for "National Lampoon" writer Douglas Kenney. He also played Stork in the film (He was the goofy-looking Delta member who led the band into the alley during the parade). Kenney followed his success by writing another teen comedy megahit, Caddyshack. However, his career ended abruptly while on vacation in Hawaii in August 1980. He was admiring the view from the edge of a cliff, when the ground caved in from under his feet.
Top billed John Belushi would also die tragically a few years later, of a heroin overdose. Belushi was the charismatic wild man of "Saturday Night Live", with a gift for crazed facial expressions and physical humor. He received the highest salary, just $40,000. However, it was the signing of Donald Sutherland that convinced Universal Studios to make the film. Sutherland added some prestige to the film, and added to the appeal for older demographics.
National Lampoon tried to capitalize on Animal House with a long series of really bad films. Only Vacation and Christmas Vacation were watchable. Animal House also inspired the short-lived television series "Delta House", with Furst once again cast as Flounder.
Although obscure at the time, many cast members would become stars through future films: Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce (Amadeus), Karen Allen (The Raiders of the Lost Ark), Peter Riegert (Local Hero), Tim Matheson. (83/100)
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