Director John Landis Starring John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, John Vernon, James Daughton, Mark Metcalf, Karen Allen, Donald Sutherland, James Widdoes, Bruce McGill, Douglas Kenney, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Holcomb, Mary Louise Weller, Verna Bloom
Few comedies can say they both grossed-out audiences with debauchery while getting laughs with sheer stupidity, and yet somehow succinctly depict the 1960’s baby-boomer liberation. This is Animal House, the coming-of-age story that never really comes of age but somehow has remained an all-time classic comedy since it’s release in 1978.
Made on a budget of nothing, Animal House went on to be a surprise hit and is still one of the most profitable comedies ever made. It started the gross-out genres, created the college setting for comedies, and was one of the few films of its time to address relevant issues with counter-culture humour. A new era of raw and sexually uninhibited comedy began with Animal House, and this debauchery has been going on across college campus’ and movie theatres ever since.
The Story & Characters
Having just arrived at Faber College in 1962, Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce), and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst), are blank canvasses door-knocking potential fraternities, and discovering that it’s hard trying to find a place where you can be yourself and really fit in. After being alienated by the elitist Omega Theta Pi president, Greg Marmalard (James Daughton), they dejectedly stumble upon Delta Tau Chai house, where a huge party is raging. Larry and Kent are greeted with a bottle smashing near their heads, so at first it’s quite intimidating, but the moment the two walk through that door they enter a whole new world they both feel at home in.
Despite being considered square and struggling to acclimatise themselves to what’s going on around them, that mainly being sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, they are nonetheless advocated for by Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson), and Donald “Boon” Schoenstein, senior members of the fraternity, devil’s advocates, and rebel’s without cause; they stepped through the door long ago and have come out relatively unscathed. Larry and Kent are both initiated by John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi), who’s at the opposite end of the spectrum; he’s the end result of Otto and Boon’s advocacy, having happily given into his vices. He’s all the greed, gluttony, and lust in the world rolled into one. Bluto gives Larry and Kent their fraternity nicknames, Pinto and Flounder, which are given out based entirely on first impressions, introducing them to their new identities as unlike the members of the other fraternities each person in Delta house is an individual. Then they party some more.
Vernon Wormer (John Vernon), is the near-obsessed dean of Faber who, along with Marmalard and Omega house, is willing to do anything within, or outside, his power to be rid of the crazed antics and dismal grades of the Deltas. Wormer’s reactionary stupidity is rampant as he places Delta house on “double secret probation”, but the more pressure that’s put on the Deltas the more chaos they’re willing to enact. They hit golf balls at Marmalard and Douglas Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf), then steal, and accidentally kill, Neidermeyer’s horse as revenge for his abuse of Flounder, who slowly develops self-confidence and becomes his own person over the course of the film. The harder Wormer and the Omegas struggle, the deeper the Deltas dig their feet in, with Otter attempting to steal Marmalard’s girlfriend, Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller), to incite a riot in the college cafeteria. The Omegas want integrated normalcy while the Deltas thrive on conflict, it gives them a purpose.
After Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) unknowingly steal incorrect answers for an upcoming test that have been planted by the Omegas; every Delta fails the test and Wormer gleefully informs them he only needs one more strike on their charter record to remove them permanently. However, the water never even touches the duck’s back as the Deltas respond to the news by throwing a “toga, toga, toga!” party, complete with the famous “Shout!” party scene. It may be a huge victory to Wormer but it’s just another play in the game for the Deltas. It’s here that Otter and Pinto have their own coming-of-age moments. Otter seduces the wife of Wormer, and Pinto has his own encounter with a supermarket check-out girl, though he humorously has his own moment of conflict before returning the drunken girl to the doorstep of her father. It’s his ultimate act of rebellion as it turns out she’s the under-age daughter of the mayor. This shows that they may be miscreants but they’re not necessarily morally ambiguous.
Incensed by the toga party, Wormer holds a mock court where everyone except Delta takes proceedings seriously. Wormer, with the Omegas, revokes the Deltas charter, and together the Deltas march out in a pseudo protest. After all their possessions are confiscated, and Bluto chugs an entire bottle of Jack Daniels to calm himself, Otter, Boon, Pinto, and Flounder head out on a road-trip in a car belonging to Flounder’s father. When they come across a roadhouse that caters only to black clientele they are forced to make a hasty exit, damaging the car in the process. Upon returning they are welcomed gleefully by Wormer with the news they’ve all been expelled and of their eligibility for military service, but none of them really care about that. They’re more concerned with their way of life being threatened. Fat, drunk and stupid may not be the best way to go through life, but it’s their right to choose so that’s how they’re going to live. Flounder’s responds to Wormer’s pontificating physically enacts what it really is; a mouthful of vomit.
The Deltas are dejected, especially after Otter takes a beating courtesy of the Omegas, but when Bluto asks “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour?”, the Deltas resolve to take their ultimate revenge on Wormer and the Omegas. They transform Flounder’s father’s car into a “death mobile”, with the annual homecoming parade as the intended target, and then anarchy reigns. With everything in ruin they all make their escape, having stayed true to themselves, each other, and their values, but most importantly with their independence intact. They may have lost the battle, but as history shows they didn’t lose the war.
The Making Of
The end result that you watch doesn’t seem to break any new ground on the surface, but it’s in its history that you realise the legacy Animal House has left on cinema.
Doug Kenney was writing for National Lampoon magazine when he was tasked, along with Harold Ramis, to adapt the magazine’s hugely popular 1964 High School Yearbook Parody into a film. When they couldn’t find the tone, setting, or plot they were looking for Kenney suggested using the fraternity escapades of fellow National Lampoon writer Chris Miller. Though his stories were a lot dirtier than what appeared in the final film, such as vomiting and sex acts in public, his stories were what made Animal House so unique. Somewhere, at some time, these things happened to real people, and the development of the script was a fair representation of who those people were.
None of the three had ever written a screenplay, and the treatment they wrote, and the methods in which they wrote it (ten pages each, editing as they went) was totally unorthodox, but then again none of them were overly concerned with standard practices, and this attitude came through in the characterisation. Director John Landis broke new ground with his efforts to hire straight actors and no established stars (except for Donald Sutherland in a supporting role), which was something uncommon back then, and though the first choice to play Bluto was always John Belushi, for the most part he got his way. National Lampoon and Animal House both influenced a changing of the guard as a new generation came through the ranks and began making comedy that was topical, addressing issues such as race, sex, and politics.
Animal House became a cultural phenomenon, recreating the idea of what college life should be for a new generation of young adults, popularising food fights and toga parties, and showing students the benefits of individualism in a educational system that expected integrated conformism. It’s had a lasting effect on cinema as well; made on a shoestring budget it’s still one of the most profitable films of all time and one of the highest grossing comedies. Speaking of grossing, it grossed out an entire generation and in doing so managed to create both the college campus and gross-out comedy in one go. While it may be tame now by today’s standards the message of identity and rebellion is still clear, it’s just delivered in the grossest way possible.