Sunday 9 January 2011

Movie Review: Animal House (1978)

The film that invented the modern teenage gross-out comedy, Animal House has a lot to answer for. It's a genre that refuses to die, despite running out of fresh ideas decades ago. Nevertheless, in 1978 Animal House struck a chord, created a superstar, generated enormous profits, and set a standard. Franchises like Porky's (starting in 1982) and American Pie (starting in 1999), and films from Revenge Of The Nerds (1984) to There's Something About Mary (1998), owe their existence to Animal House, as do numerous other less famous and fortunately less successful titles.

The film tracks the adventures of the Delta fraternity on the campus of Faber College in 1962. Larry (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst) are new students who join Delta, and are soon acquainted with the other members including the slob Bluto (John Belushi), the biker D-Day (Bruce McGill), the smooth Otter (Tim Matheson) and his friend Boon (Peter Riegert). The Deltas are hopeless when it comes to academics, so they spend their time holding parties, starting food fights, going on road trips, chasing girls, irritating the snobs at the Omega fraternity, smoking pot with the cool Professor Jennings (Donald Sutherland), and making life miserable for Dean Wormer (John Vernon). Wormer is doing all he can to have the lot of them expelled, and he eventually succeeds. In revenge, the Deltas wreck the College's homecoming parade.

Not that any of the plot elements really matter. Animal House is all about the colourful characters and the quick, funny scenes of juvenile antics. Belushi's Bluto has all the subtlety of a cartoon character (think a combination of Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil), but he is genuinely funny and creates many of the best moments in the movie. With a twitch of the eyebrow Belushi signals that something is happening in Bluto's dense brain, and many of his lines and scenes have become legendary:  "Holy Shit!" (repeated three times with increasing panic); "Toga! Toga!"; "...when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour..."; "when the going gets tough...(long pause to remember the rest of the phrase)...the tough get going!"; the exploding zit in the cafeteria; and his encounter with the guitar player are all classic comedy moments.

Supporting Belushi is a more than capable cast, with Sutherland and Vernon providing some weight, and Karen Allen (as Boon's girlfriend) making a memorable debut as seemingly the only person in the movie with a head screwed on straight. Tom Hulce went on to a distinguished acting career, while Kevin Bacon, who has a small role, achieved stardom.

Director John Landis does not try to keep a lid on the proceedings, allowing most of the scenes to go way beyond the edge of sanity and ludicrousness. Why crash into one car in the parking lot when there are five that can be smashed? Why have one topless girl in the window when six can be frolicking in a pillow fight? Why insult one ethnic group at the Omega recruitment gathering when three or four ethnicities - and a person with a disability - can be lined up on the couch? And why disrupt only the College parade when the whole town can be brought down?  Landis was not only directing Animal House he was inventing the DNA of an entire genre, where the motto can be summarized as "push to excess."

Animal House is funny, and compared to more modern examples of the gross-out comedy, surprisingly subdued. But other than its genre-creating legacy, it is mostly memorable for showcasing Belushi's comic talent, sadly lost to the movies just four years later.

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.

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