8. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

Director: John Landis

Starring: John Belushi, Tim Matheson, John Vernon, Verna Bloom, Tom Hulce, Cesare Danova, Peter Riegert, Stephen Furst, Donald Sutherland, Mark Metcalf, Karen Allen, Sarah Holcomb, Bruce McGill, Martha Smith. Mary Louise Weller, James Daughton, Kevin Bacon, James Widdoes

“See if you can guess what I am now,” Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) says as he puts an oversized bite of mashed potatoes in his mouth. The Omegas, the antagonistic preppy fraternity at Faber University look confused, but Bluto’s Delta House fraternity brother, Otter (Tim Matheson), knows what’s coming. Bluto then punches both of his cheeks, spraying the potatoes all over the Omegas. “I’m a zit! Get it?!” This was the scene used as a pitch to get me interested in watching “Animal House” for the first time as a young teen. It’s the part right before that, though, which is for me one of the more brilliant moments of the movie. Before Bluto sits down to annoy and repulse his adversaries, we see him moving through the lunch line (to the tune of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”), grabbing at least one of everything… and I do mean EVERYTHING. At one point, he stuffs an entire hamburger in his mouth! The best thing about the scene is that there is no dialogue. Much like Harpo Marx before him, John Belushi has the ability to be laugh-out-loud hilarious through his wide range of facial expressions.

While Belushi is without question the star of the movie, “Animal House” does sport a terrific ensemble cast, featuring established names (including Matheson, already known as the voice of Johnny Quest) and future stars alike. There aren’t too many actors who can be both an imposing figure and someone easily made to look foolish, but John Vernon is one of them. As Dean Vernon Wormer, he would love nothing more than to exercise full authority against the Deltas, thus maintaining a sense of order at Faber College. But the Deltas manage to make his life miserable still, even when he thinks he’s won by revoking their fraternity’s charter. All of the Omegas are easy to hate, but the one I truly love to hate is ROTC commander Douglas Niedermeyer. Joss Whedon (director of “The Avengers”) must agree with me, as he cast actor Mark Metcalf as the vampire known as The Master in the first season of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.

In addition to being the first movie for future stars like Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon, as well as the first in a long line of films under the National Lampoon banner, “Animal House” is also a trailblazer for the high school/college, sex & gross-out comedies. It’s the type of movie that dares to test your perception of what is ‘going too far’ by throwing in a gag where a guy goes into an all-women’s college to pick up girls with the angle that he’s the boyfriend of a student who recently died in a kiln explosion. Without the overwhelming success of “Animal House,” what would the genre look like today? Its influence stretches from “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in the early 80’s, all the way to more recent raunchy comedies like “Road Trip,” the “American Pie” and “Hangover” series, and almost anything directed by the Farrelly brothers.

Another testament to the legacy of “Animal House” is the overall freshness of its humor. You don’t have to have been in a fraternity or pretend to know anything about them to appreciate the great writing and comic timing. To once again speak of the virtues of John Belushi, I must point out the “horse scene.” This is the one that makes me laugh so hard that, had all the film’s other gags been quite this hysterical, I would likely have been visiting the hospital after my original screening. Niedermeyer has been picking on Flounder (Stephen Furst), and Flounder has come to really hate Niedermeyer’s horse. Bluto and D-Day (Bruce McGill) have devised a plan to help Flounder get even, locking the horse in Dean Wormer’s office and handing Flounder a gun to “deal with it.” But the gun only has blanks in it, so what can go wrong? There’s a blooper in the scene that got left in because of Belushi’s improvisational skills. As they prepare to take the horse inside the school, Bluto is watching out to see if anyone’s coming. As he does this, Belushi slips and falls, but gets right back up so quickly that no one had time to yell, “Cut!”

Even the 1962 setting isn’t a problem. In fact it only adds to it, and you don’t really even have time to care that you’re watching a movie filmed at the University of Oregon with the Tennessee state flag clearly showing in one key scene, when it’s really meant to be set in Connecticut.


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