"I heard Delta is the worst house on campus."
Let's make this short and sweet. Universal has gone back to the Animal House well again, releasing National Lampoon's Animal House: 2-Disc 30th Anniversary Edition, a thoroughly useless repackaging of the 30-year-old instigator of the gross-out comedy genre. This particular set is the cheaper version of a more bonus-heavy 30th gift edition, if that makes any difference to you. Certainly owners of the popular 2003 Double Secret Probation release won't need to plunk down any dough for this latest Animal House incarnation - it actually has fewer bonuses than that release, and sports exactly the same anamorphic transfer.
I was going to assume that everyone already knew the plot to Animal House, but considering the movie is 30 years old now, I may be deluding myself that younger viewers are even aware of this seminal comedy (my 15-year-old said, "Whose John Belushi?" which sent a chill down my spine). It's 1962, and the freshman students of Ivy League Faber College (whose founder's motto was: "Knowledge is Good") are preparing for the school fraternities' Rush Week. Genial Larry Kroger (Thomas Hulce) and rotund, sweet-natured Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) show up at the ultra-exclusive Omega House pledge party. Labeled (behind their backs, of course) as "the wimp and the blimp" by "name tag hostess" Babs Jansen (Martha Smith), Kent and Larry are immediately steered away to the "reject pile" (which includes a blind kid in a wheelchair) by Doug Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf), Rush chairman of the snobby, fascist Omega house, and Greg Marmalard (James Daughton), Omega's president. Misfits Kent and Larry won't be rushing Omega any time soon.
But Kent convinces Larry to go next door to Delta Tau Chi's house, where Kent's brother was a member. The pair are promptly urinated on by Delta's resident "animal," Bluto (John Belushi), before they enter the bacchanalian delights of Delta House in full party mode. Rush chairman "Otter" Stratton (Tim Matheson, damned glad to meet you), Delta's ladies' man, and sardonic, romantically-challenged "Boon" Schoenstein (Peter Riegert) eventually waylay Kent, insulting him directly to his face (as opposed to the fake Omegans), before Delta president Robert Hoover (James Widdoes) saves him. Larry, meanwhile, meets fresh-faced Katy (Karen Allen), Boon's put-upon girlfriend who's rapidly tiring of the immature hijinks at the Delta House. Pledged to Delta, Larry and Kent soon spiral down with the rest of the aggressive under-achievers at Delta House, pulling various pranks and stunts that would land most people in jail, before Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) decides he's had enough of Delta's "animal house" shenanigans, and kicks those punks right off campus. But Dean Wormer doesn't know the old Delta saying - "Don't get mad, get even" - and the Deltas mean to teach him a lesson.
And Animal House's collegiate setting only reinforced the youthful appeal of its premise. Prior to its release, college movies like The Strawberry Statement and Getting Straight showed what a drag college life had been for the last ten years or so, what with constant war protests, political rallies and even worse, the introduction of women's studies. Animal House harkened back to a phony "simpler time," before the official start of the Vietnam War (it's no coincidence that Animal House is set in the same year as that other audience-pleaser, American Graffiti - 1962), and its arrival in the middle of the disastrous liberal dirge known as "the Jimmy Carter presidency" was another infinitesimal indication that the nation was tiring of constant self-castigation. Even big TV shows on broadcast networks at the time were either period piece comedies (Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley) or borderline smut (Three's Company and Dallas). The country, tired of the sixties' turmoil but grateful for the loosening of the more strict societal niceties, wanted to have some fun, and a film like Animal House was a perfect encapsulation of that desire.
Which brings me to how Animal House plays today. Admittedly, I've seen the film far too many times now for it to register like it did for me when I snuck in to see it as a pre-teen. I know what's coming; I enjoy it; but a film like Animal House doesn't "wear" like repeat viewings of say, It's a Wonderful Life. A big part of the initial appeal of Animal House was the shock value of its sex humor. Bluto watching the incomparably icy/bitchy/absolutely luscious Mary Louise Weller (as "Mandy Pepperidge") fondle herself, or watching both Weller and Smith masturbate Daughton with gloves on (to no avail, of course) was pretty outrageous, raunchy stuff for 1978. Of course today, when mothers take their daughters to "cute" comedies like There's Something About Mary, where one of the film's big jokes is laughing at a character with ejaculate in her hair, the rowdy collegiate gags of Animal House seem positively quaint. Couple that relative tameness (evidently, the screenplay was cleaned up considerably from the dark, rape-and-vomit-filled script originally delivered by National Lampoon writers Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, and Harold Ramis) with 30 years of over-exposure and over-familiarity with its jokes, and it's tough to get that feeling again at how influential the film truly was when it first came out.
I wonder, too, if most kids today would even get the central class-warfare theme of the snooty WASP Omegas versus the outcast Deltas that drives Animal House (would kids today understand how funny it was to just pit a "Mandy Pepperidge" and "Doug Marmalard" versus a "Bluto Blutarsky" then?) I suspect they'd concentrate instead on the big physical gags (just as I did as a kid), and find them wanting in comparison to the more outrageous stuff they routinely see today. And even the more memorable gags can peter out (make your own joke there) for lack of more careful crafting. Gags that could have been even bigger had they been designed with an actual payoff, do crop up (just when Bluto's scene with Mandy gets interesting, the film dumps him off the ladder; in the film's celebrated cafeteria scene, the build-up is tremendous, with Belushi's hysterically funny a la carte self-service scene setting us up for something big, but the resulting food fight that everybody seems to remember, ends before it even begins). But watching the film now, I tend to enjoy more the sharp, funny lines that surround the big sex and pain gags (I'm now leaning towards Cesare Danova's Mayor Carmine DePasto's warning to Dean Wormer - "If you mention the word 'extortion' one more time...I'll have your legs broken." - as the film's funniest line), and the almost perfect casting of the fresh cast (John Vernon should rightfully have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor turn here - he's insanely funny). And while the film is probably now more an exercise in nostalgia best received by old-timers who remember the film from way-back-when, there's a some very clever, very witty writing going on among the big gross-out set pieces, and some hilariously-pitched performances by the energetic cast, making Animal House, even after all of its subsequent imitators, one hell of a funny film.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.