"Faber College, 1962" reads the opening caption of National Lampoon's Animal House, which begins with solemn opening credits and a proper, dignified score. Freshmen Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) are looking for a fraternity to pledge; they go to the mixer at Omega house, but the big-haired blondes and stiff-jawed jocks are somewhat less than welcoming. They leave, and Kent suggests they stop in at Delta House. Larry protests: "I hear Delta's the worst house on campus!"
It is. From the moment they arrive at the house, greeted by a half-mannequin crashing through the window and the strains of "Louie Louie" wafting out from within, the gears have shifted on Animal House, which moves quickly from polite collegiate comedy to a broad, rude, vulgar slice of post-Marx cinematic anarchy. Nowadays, home video writers approaching the picture anew wonder what all of the fuss is about; the Internet is awash with "it's not really all that funny" reviews, few of them ill-intentioned. But Animal House is still funny in the same way that Halloween is still scary--with the implicit understanding that it set a template, and that it was imitated and replicated with such frequency that its value, within its original context, is somewhat difficult to fully comprehend.
For Animal House was the first of the "slobs vs. snobs" comedies that dominated the 1980s (beginning with Caddyshack, which shared much of the same personnel); it was also the first real hint of what a Saturday Night Live star could do in a feature comedy. The late 1970s were not a great time for film humor--Mel Brooks was fading, Woody Allen was getting serious, and the multiplexes were dominated by car-chase vehicles and Bad News Bears sequels. The hard R-rated Animal House was like a dirty bomb; it crashed into theaters like those mannequin legs smashing through the window.
And it made John Belushi a star. From his first appearance, pissing on Larry and Kent's shoes on the front lawn, Belushi's Bluto Blutarsky dominates the ensemble cast; he's a full-on tornado onscreen, a Harpo-style whirling dervish in the school cafeteria, a deliciously naughty boy casting sidelong glances at the camera as he peeps in a sorority window. Even in big group scenes--like the sing-along of "Shout" at the toga party--our eyes instinctively go to him.
But his fellow players make fine impressions as well. The role of Otter is a perfect vehicle for Tim Matheson's smarmy charm; Peter Reigert is both an ace straight man to him and a charming opposite for Karen Allen, whose warmth and good cheer does wonders with a potential wet blanket of a role. Bruce McGill's D-Day roars through the picture with an energy that matches Belushi's perfectly, while John Vernon's Dean Wormer is a wonderfully despicable antagonist.
Director John Landis--following up the uproarious Kentucky Fried Movie--seems to have primarily focused on casting the film well, making sure his actors were in frame, and keeping things moving; his crude visual style tends to favor looking the gags right in the eye, but who watches a film like this one for visual inventiveness? Some of the gags don't work: the bit with the horse mostly falls apart because of the terrible freeze frame, the road trip doesn't really pay off like you're hoping it will, and the business with underage, hard-drinking Clorette DePasto (played by Sarah Holcomb, also remembered as Danny's girlfriend with the inexplicable accent in Caddyshack) has, to put it charitably, not aged well. But Landis's pacing is brisk, so for every joke that doesn't land, there's three that do--most of them eminently quotable. "My advice to you is to start drinking heavily." "I'm a zit, get it?" "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." "I, state your name..." "Seven years of college down the drain." And, of course, "Food fight!"
This may or may not be worth mentioning, but I continue to be befuddled by the lengthy loading times for Universal's Blu-rays. Also strange, on this one, is that every time I put it in, I had to remind it that I would like the menus to be in English. Minor irritations, but still...
Animal House's VC-1 transfer has already been the object of protest and ridicule online, thanks to Universal's continuing (and liberal) employment of digital noise reduction and edge enhancement throughout. And to be sure, you can see it--in the slideshow scene, for example, there is a disconcertingly smooth, waxy quality to Matheson and Riegert's faces--and you can also wonder how it can be so inconsistent (several isolated shots, like the medium shots of the mayor in Dean Wormer's office or Babs's half of the phone call to Otter, remain messily noisy). But, at risk of offending the hardcore videophiles, I have to tell you: it didn't bother me all that much. Sure, the image would be better without it (and if The Blues Brothers transfer is any indication, Uni appears to be getting the message), but it's still a pretty good video presentation: the rich saturation nicely suits the picture's bright, bouncy color scheme, black levels are (for the most part) full and inky, and grain is still knocking around in there. It is not a top-notch image, to be sure, but it is certainly a giant upgrade over the DVD presentation.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD track, disappointingly, does not really cut loose, surround-wise; though there are plenty of opportunities for separation and immersion (namely, the many party scenes), the track barely registers in the rear channels. That complaint aside, it's a pretty robust track, with dialogue boisterous and music cues well-modulated.
French, Spanish, German, and Italian 2.0 mixes are also available, as are English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles.
Universal popped out several editions of Animal House on DVD over the years, which supply the bulk of the Blu-ray's bonus features. First up is "The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion" (45:19), a full-frame, standard-def featurette that dates clear back to the film's original DVD release. It may not be new, but it's good; most of the major players (the ones that are still with us, anyway) are interviewed, painstakingly tracing the full development process with the help of some wonderful behind-the-scenes footage and stills.
Next is "Where Are They Now?: A Delta Alumni Update" (23:23), another standard-def featurette, this one dating back to the 2003 "Double Secret Probation Edition." It is narrated by director Landis, who contends that Animal House was a documentary about the Deltas and Omegas, for which he is now tracking down his subjects. Several of the actors pop up to recreate their characters, which is kind of fun, but the featurette is overlong, too intoxicated with its own cleverness, and only sporadically funny.
The "U-Control" menu offers two picture-in-picture options: a "Scene Companion" of behind-the-scenes material (most of it culled from the "Yearbook" featurette), and "The Music of Animal House," which offers up title and artist information for the film's music cues (plus some sort of Playlist option).
Also included are two games of Animal House-related Scene It?, with clips from the film and related trivia questions; the Theatrical Trailer (2:47); and trailers for new Universal releases via BD-Live.
Five years before it released Animal House, Universal put out American Graffiti
--another coming-of-age comedy set in 1962, the year (as the cliché goes) before America lost its innocence. Animal House is like that picture's dirty-talking little brother; heh, heh, we weren't always all that innocent, it assures us, and combines the conventions of the old campus comedies like Good News and College Swing with the new permissiveness of language and content to create, in effect, the first comedy of the 1980s. Animal House paved the way, with its anything-goes spirit and free-for-all atmosphere. And, in spite of what you might've heard, it's still awfully funny.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.