Animal House (1978) is the pioneer of mainstream gross-out comedies, featuring a classic battle between the snobs and the slobs that takes the form of an escalating prank war, culminating in a memorable parade of devilment. It is a film that spawned countless toga-themed college parties and was the inspiration for any number of cafeteria food fights. Spawned by the malcontents at the popular humor magazine National Lampoon, Animal House was an ideal combination of the right elements, from the hilarious screenplay by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller and Harold Ramis to an ensemble cast that featured veteran character actors (John Vernon) and up-and-comers (Tim Matheson), all anchored by larger than life comedian John Belushi of Saturday Night Live fame. The end result was nothing short of cinematic lightning in a bottle with a film that delighted in thumbing its nose at any notion of good taste.
We meet two aspiring college freshmen – Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) – attempting to pledge a fraternity. They are played to dweebie perfection by Tom Hulce, as the goofy square-peg, and Stephen Furst; the pudgy, baby-faced legacy. They are immediately dismissed as a “wimp and a blimp” by a sorority girl working the welcome table at the Omega House party. Right from the get-go, director John Landis makes it clear what the Omegas are – boring, stuffy and elitist. Everyone is in suit and tie with someone playing insipid dinner music on the piano. Host Douglas Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) oozes faux sincerity as he repeatedly gets Larry’s name wrong and quickly shepherds him and Kent over to the party’s anti-VIP section whose guests already include an African, an Indian, a nerd, and a physically handicapped student.
Kent tries to mingle with the senior Omegas and is quickly steered back to the “undesirables” corner of the party by frat president Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) (in a nice touch he always gets Larry’s name wrong). Larry and Kent then try their luck at the Delta House – the latter’s brother was once a member. However, Larry says that he heard the Deltas were the worst house on campus. As if to prove his point, a naked mannequin hurtles out a window as they first approach the house. The boys are immediately introduced to one of its longstanding members, Bluto (John Belushi) already so hammered that he inadvertently pees on them.
Entering Delta House is like entering another world – one in which you must dodge flying beer bottles and drunken co-eds as both can be hazardous to your health. To say that casual dress is the norm would be a gross understatement. While the Omegas represent order, the Deltas are all about chaos. They are everything Omega House is not – noise, dirt, drunken debauchery, and colorful characters living the fun life. There’s the aforementioned Bluto who sits off in the corner, crushing beer cans on his forehead; D-Day (Bruce McGill) makes a dramatic entrance bursting through the front door on his hog before driving up the stairs (where he proceeds to play the William Tell Overture on his throat) and there’s Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boon (Peter Riegert), the leaders of Delta House. As they bemusedly work the room of prospective pledges, Otter turns on the fake charm, dazzling men and women alike. There’s a memorable bit where he and Boon, his deadpan sidekick, meet the wide-eyed Kent, taking an unusual interest in his tie (“90% rayon – very nice.” Boon notes dryly.) The Delta initiation’s goal: to get their pledges drunk off their asses while the Omegas’ is a solemn ritual wherein the pledges are repeatedly paddled (“Thank you sir, may I have another!”). It is hedonistic pleasures vs. fascist cruelty – to which house would you rather belong?
Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert play off each other as if they’d been a comedy duo for years. In yet another classic scene, Otter and Boon talk about improving the latter’s golf swing. “Don’t think of it as work. The whole point is just to enjoy yourself.” Otter tells him as Neidermeyer is dragged away behind his newly spooked horse. Matheson’s strength lies in his ability to deliver rousing monologues of complete bullshit that is intended to rally both his frat brothers and the viewer. Early on, Otter convinces the house to accept Kent, whom the rest initially dismiss as a loser (“Well, let me tell you the story of another loser,” he says before being pelted with beer cans). Matheson’s finest moment, however, is when he defends Delta’s crazy antics in front of Faber College Dean Wormer (John Vernon) and the student disciplinary council, which, incidentally, is made up of Omegas and their sister sorority (“I’m in pre-law, man,” Otter tells a nervous frat brother to which Boon, without missing a beat replies, “I thought you were pre-med,” to which Otter counters, “What’s the difference?”) It is one of the best speeches delivered in a comedy, whose inspiration can be seen a few years later in Bill Murray’s rally to his fellow troops in Stripes (1981).
And let’s not forget John Belushi. Animal House was initially seen as a vehicle for the comedian and is definitely tailor-made for his considerable comedic talents. This film is a potent reminder of his comic genius. He has few lines but makes such a memorable impression through his knack for physical comedy, whether it was the arch of an eyebrow as a declaration of war (or at least the start of a food fight) or Bluto on lookout to make sure the coast is clear for Kent and D-Day to smuggle Neidermeyer’s prized horse into Wormer’s office. The way Belushi takes a pratfall (only to get right back up) is a marvel of silent comedy. He does this again when spying on the girls’ scantily clad pillow fight at the sorority house. Belushi’s expressive face was a potent comedic weapon, like the way his eyes bulged in surprise or the mischievous twinkle in them as he saunters impishly past the Omegas in the cafeteria. Bluto is the catalyst for much of the anarchy in the film; from the food fight to the ending showdown, he plays key roles in both. Belushi was one of those fearless performers not afraid to look silly, stupid or gross, all in the service of a good gag.
Wormer (John Vernon) unavoidably becomes fed up with Delta House’s antics and decides to put them on Double Secret Probation: one more screw-up and they all are not only kicked off campus but also expelled. This sets in motion a series of pranks and dirty tricks that pits the Omegas against the Deltas, culminating in a hilariously chaotic finale. It’s how John Vernon says his lines that makes him so keenly memorable, like the complete and utter disdain that he drips all over the word “twerp,” as he insults the Omega House president. Only an old school character actor like Vernon could say lines like, “Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear, every spring the toilets explode,” with a straight face and the proper amount of gravitas. He sells every line of dialogue like it was Shakespeare. Wormer represents every authority figure that gave you a hard time in school, every teacher that gave you a bad grade and every principal that gave you detention. He’s the mustache-twirling baddie and the pompous windbag right out of a Marx brothers movie. This dastardly demeanor is what makes his comeuppance so satisfying.
What separates Animal House from its countless imitators is the fantastic ensemble of actors that the film’s producers assembled. Most of the young, talented cast consisted largely of then unknowns. At the time, Belushi and Donald Sutherland were the only ‘big names.’ What keeps the film clicking along is the dialogue. It’s not just what the actors say (although, there are truly classic quotes), but how they say it. These actors understand that how the dialogue is delivered is crucial to making it funny. The film is also full of classic comedic set pieces: the smuggling of Neidermeyer’s horse into Wormer’s office, the cafeteria food fight, the Delta road trip to see Otis Day (“You remind me of Fawn.”) and, of course, the climactic showdown between the Omegas and the Deltas. As with any zeitgeist film, Animal House spawned countless variations on its premise, including Porky’s (Animal House set in a high school) and Police Academy (Animal House joins the police). It also spawned countless imitations, some good (Old School) and some not so good (Van Wilder). Accept no substitutes — the original is still the best and revisiting it only reaffirms just how well this film has aged.