"Chtist! Seven years of college, down the drain!" -- Bluto
Director: John Landis
Writer: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, Chris Miller
Principal cast members:
Among the 'official' trivia for this movie is the nugget that Toga Parties were virtually unheard of in the United States prior to this 1978 film. I have photographic proof that in the 60s, my alma mater experienced such parties and the student social club to which I belonged happened to host them. So much for trivia.
Harold Ramis as a writer of films has been superb at parlaying a specific formula into comedy gold, often thanks to some of his Second City and Saturday Night Live alums. The formula, followed in Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and this movie, works pretty much as follows: Lovable losers are looked down upon by the establishment, even though they are cooler and have more fun. A challenge of some sort emerges, the losers rise to the occasion, and they become heroes. Or at least, winners. Such is the Ramis method. Now, take this formula and toss in the college remembrances of National Lampoon writers Doug Kenney and Chris Miller and you have the makings of a college comedy classic.
The plot of Animal House is simplistic and formulaic. So much so that is has given birth to a sub-genre of college comedies that tend to follow the same pattern of outcasts versus establishment right down to the fascist dean who attempts to put his foot down. The formula was even lampooned in a Simpsons episode.
Animal House takes us back to a simpler time. It is a time when fraternities could haze without regard to political correctness, marijuana was a whispered vice that epitomized the dangers of 'hard drugs,' and everyone you saw on campus was white. At the very beginning of the movie, we are given a clear indication of two distinct cultures within the campus of Faber College. One is the Omega house, a fraternity where rush is a quiet, perfectly coiffed cocktail party and the unacceptable candidates are conveniently herded to a corner of the room where they can all be shunned together.
The other is, of course, Delta house where the music is rock and roll from a jukebox, beer is literally flying through the air, and formality is not only frowned upon, but sought out and destroyed without mercy. Naturally, before you can say 'double secret probation' these two fraternities are at odds with each other and the Deltas are fighting for their right to party and maintain the worst grade point average in Faber College history.
Very early in the film, we witness an English literature class taught by Professor Jennings, played with Beat Generation intellectual earnestness by Donald Sutherland. Analyzing Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Professor Jennings takes a bite from his apple and queries his class, "So was Milton trying to tell us that being bad is more fun than being good?" The answer is played out throughout the film as Sutherland calmly sets the theme for the basic conflict that permeates Animal House from start to finish.
The story is really unimportant. We dash from scene to scene of college pranks, wild partying, and nefarious plotting against the Deltas. It is indeed formulaic and somewhat predictable to anyone who's seen any of the 'lovable losers rise up to win' films that have occurred since then. The key to Animal House's success is the wonderful casting in what became archetypical roles.
The two lead characters from the start, the ultimate losers among the loser frat, are Pinto and Flounder, played by Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst. While Hulce does an admirable job of making Pinto a charming if somewhat shy freshman, it is Furst who really wins the prize as the frat's ultimate loser. Furst has to overcome the horrible first impression he makes to win over the hearts of his frat brothers. He has, of course, no chance at all of winning over the ruthless Omega rush chairman, Neidermeyer, who commands his ROTC unit. Furst has an elastic face and an earnest voice pleading for approval. He is the everyman dork we all fear we would be in that situation and every triumph he has, no matter how small, is an uplifting victory for the rest of us.
The Deltas themselves are a reckless, irreverent mob of miscreants. The spiritual leader of the band is Bluto in a role that epitomized the comic career of John Belushi. Bluto is played as the ultimate wild man, though when called upon to speak, he turns out to be intelligent and extremely coherent, if tinged with a bit of madness. Bluto's antics throughout the film represent the 'WTF' spirit of the frat - the resignation to the notion that sooner or later, the authorities are going to kick you out so you might as well have as much fun as possible in the meantime.
Other frat members are equally iconic. Tim Matheson is smooth as Otter, the ultimate make-out man and playboy of the Deltas. Peter Reigert is the impish R&B aficionado who lets his mouth get him in trouble on numerous occasions, but also sports the perfect college girlfriend in the form of Katy, beautifully played by Karen Allen. Bruce McGill hits all the right notes in this, his second film role, as D-Day, the motorcycle madman of the Deltas who is civilized enough in private, but clearly one step away from a major felony rap.
Worth special mention among the Deltas is James Widdoes as chapter president, Hoover. In Hoover, we have a man who truly wants his frat to survive the crisis and he tries really hard to talk a good game and be the proper front man for this band of misfits. But every time the brothers start to get a little crazy, Hoover is entirely too easy to seduce. Widdoes' earnest sincerity in the middle of the rampant drinking and sex is completely charming.
Standing as a stark contrast to the Deltas is the Omega house. Their membership is epitomized by three actors who are perfect at being the establishment assholes with a dark side that the script demands. James Daughton plays Greg Marmalard who collaborates with the dean to get the Deltas kicked off campus. Daughton comes across as a perfect future city councilman or political aide willing to do the dirty work for those higher in power. His right-hand man at Omega house is Mark Metcalf as Douglas C. Neidermeyer. It is Neidermeyer who portrays mindless authority that finds an outlet for frustration in sadism. As the Omega pledge chairman and the ROTC commander, we catch glimpses of sadistic delight in Metcalf's manic eyes as he lays on swats for the freshman pledges and throws Flounder around a horse's stall. Kevin Bacon is also quite good here in his first film role as incoming Omega freshman, Chip Diller.
As bad guys, however, the Omegas are mostly an inconvenience. They do not have the power to completely end the Deltas. That power rests entirely with the dean. As the heavy, no single actor is more fundamental to the success of the film than John Vernon as Dean Vernon Wormer. Vernon's portrayal is perfect. His dean is ruthless, efficient, and not a fun guy. His vision of Faber College is one of perfect order and he isn't afraid to ruthlessly ruin the lives of any number of fun-loving college students to achieve that order.
It takes a particularly skilled actor to deliver with lead-pipe gravitas a line like, "It's time for someone to put his foot down and that foot is me!"
The Delta-Omega contrast is perfect, right down to the women who serve as their accessories. The Omega women are Babs and Mandy, cheerleaders whose application of hair spray and makeup are architectural marvels. Babs is perfectly convincing as the less-desirable woman who will stop at nothing to win the Omega president's heart and is willing to help engineer the Delta takedown in the process. Mandy, it turns out, has a soft spot for bad boys that begins to emerge later in the movie.
The Delta women, in contrast, are less perfect in their appearance, but far superior in personality. They are epitomized by Boon's girlfriend, Katy, played by Karen Allen. Katy is smart, sassy and independent. She is also not to be trifled with whether you are a Delta or one of their enemies. She is patient and long-suffering, but she has limits and is not afraid to voice them. In short, the Omega women are prettier but the Delta women are sexier and smarter.
The climax of the film is one of the most twisted and entertaining homecoming parades in college history and it is the Deltas' admirable use of physics and terror that make it memorable. Animal House was part of a writer's formula that spawned a movie genre of its own that was copied in numerous B movie and direct-to-video releases. It also led directly to the entire 'Revenge of the Nerds' franchise. As such, it makes sense that it has been deemed 'Culturally Significant' by the National Archives. For those such as me, who saw the movie mere days before returning to campus for my senior year of college, the significance cannot be overstated.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 7