Tuesday, 12 June 2012

GROSS-OUT: National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

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National Lampoon's Animal House (USA, 1978)
Directed by John Landis
Starring John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen

When I reviewed Basic Instinct last year, I talked about the reputation of erotic thrillers, commenting that they are "often lumped together with horror movies as the stuff that 'sensible', 'reasonable' citizens wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole." You could add gross-out comedies to this list of untouchable genres, and you might have a case given the quality of Superbad and its recent counterparts. But just as dismissing all erotic thrillers would prevent us from having fun with Paul Verhoeven, so to dismiss gross-outs outright would lead us to overlook the qualities of the film which created that genre.

 
National Lampoon's Animal House is the first, best and perhaps only good film to carry the National Lampoon brand. Its combination of bad taste humour, top-notch performances and counter-cultural undercurrents has ensured its place in the history of American comedies. It remains one of the highest-grossing American films of all time, and the standard to which all subsequent gross-out comedies aspire. Not everything about it works after 34 years, but its importance cannot be underestimated.
 
Together with John Landis' previous film, the TV parody Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House created the majority of the clichés and conventions which we now associate with gross-out comedies. There is the emphasis on physical comedy, which extends into jokes about bodily fluids and human anatomy. There is the utter contempt for authority, civility or maturity, with the protagonists showing no respect or ambition towards people with short hair in suits. There is the raucous, energetic storytelling, with boisterous acting and big emotions from all the cast. And, most of all, there are those difficult moments in which you're either laughing your face off or covering your eyes, feeling really quite ashamed at what just happened on screen.
 
It's very difficult to review a gross-out comedy without simply listing all the individual gags and commenting on how outré or disgusting they are. Subsequent gross-out efforts like Porky's often resorted to taking similar gags and either seeing just how far they can push them or cutting to the chase a lot quicker. An example would be the scene where Bluto sneaks over to the Omega House to watch the girls undress. While in Animal House he makes the effort to watch them for a while, even shuffling the ladder along to see into the next room, in Porky's the girls are stuck straight into the shower and the boys look on with little effort to withhold themselves.
 
While you have to keep reminding yourself to see the film as a product of its time, many of the jokes in Animal House are still hilarious today. The accidental killing of Neidermeyer's horse is very well done, with John Belushi's widening eyes and repeated utterance of "Holy shit!". Most of the best jokes are at Neidermeyer's expense, whether it's being dragged along the football field by his horse or being trampled during the food fight. The quick sight gags are also well-assembled, such as Dean Wormer reading Bluto his grades, only to find Bluto has put two pencils up his nose, preceding Rowan Atkinson's ploy in Blackadder Goes Forth.
When Animal House was first released, it was accused by large sections of the press of being mean-spirited. In fact, what has made the film last so long, and age so relatively well, is the amount of heart that it has. We have genuine affection for the characters even at their most outrageous, and we have a stake in their actions because we are always rooting for the underdogs. Dorfman and Kroger (a.k.a. Flounder and Pinto) are the heart and soul of the film, being every bit as socially awkward and inept as we were in our first year of university.
The film is constructed in a way which betrays not only the upstart nature of the magazine, but Landis' love for old comedies. The film opens with our two protagonists going to the Omega fraternity welcome party, and promptly being shoved into a quiet corner with the other outcasts, out of the way of the snooty, 'clever' people. The trappings and sense of humour aside, it's not so different from what Charlie Chaplin would do, putting the Tramp around people of respectable nature or in positions of authority, and then bursting their egos to either win the day or get the girl.
 
The other big reason for Animal House's endearing popularity is its countercultural subtext. While the magazine was very much a product of the 1970s, Animal House is set in 1962, dubbed by co-writer Douglas Kenney as "the last innocent year... in America". What appears on the surface to be a bunch of overgrown teenagers fooling around and being idiots becomes something of a harbinger for the youth-led revolution that would sweep America as the decade went on. The film doesn't go into any great detail, let alone become political, but it is important not to overlook its setting.
 
Viewed through this kind of prism, it isn't hard to see why the film became such a big hit with young audiences. While the hippie rebellions of the 1960s were long dead by the time of its release, it epitomised and captured the fantasy of so many young people, to fight against the established order and eschew the values of their parents. Most of the 'adult' characters - Dean Wormer, Greg, the vast majority of Omega house - are characterised as complete squares, who deserve to be run out of town for being so boringly pro-establishment. Only Donald Sutherland's pot-smoking English professor is spared the rod, being down with the kids enough to get Karen Allen to sleep with him.
 
This brings us on to a further asset of the film, namely the relatively decent way in which it treats its female characters. It's hardly going to win prizes for equal opportunities, but neither is it as openly leering or sleazy as one might expect. Some of this is down simply to period details - girls' underwear was more complicated and there was a lot more of it in the 1960s. But Landis is careful to give a couple of his actresses some room for manoeuvre, with Karen Allen making the very most of her role. She is neither a self-obsessed, pulchritudinous cheerleader like Kim Cattrall in Porky's or a bookish nerd who couldn't buy a boyfriend.
 
The performances in Animal House are of a very good standard given the inexperience of both the cast and the director. Landis' biggest coup is being able for the most part to rein in John Belushi, getting him to focus his energy where Steven Spielberg let him flounder in 1941. He's not entirely in control, particularly during the final set-piece, but there are hints in the performance he gets from Belushi of the great work they would do in The Blues Brothers.
 
Elsewhere John Vernon is brilliantly intimidating as Dean Wormer, using his distinctive voice and uptight physique to be simultaneously threatening and spineless. Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert are a perfect team as Otter and Boon respectively, with the golf scene summing up their endearing kinship. Donald Sutherland makes the most of his brief appearance (which includes a shot of his backside) and Karen Allen holds her own against the male cast, just as she would do in Starman or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
 
The problems with Animal House can be divided into two camps. The first, and more forgivable, are the technical shortcomings, which can largely be put down to Landis' inexperience. The ramming of the parade stand is poorly edited, with the Deltas' car taking an awfully long time to cover two yards, and the payoff of the Dean and other dignitaries leaping into shot isn't really worth the effort. We could put much of the final sequence into this camp, with underwhelming crowd choreography and poor timing of a couple of gags.
 
The second camp concerns the moments when the film oversteps the mark. There's not much point getting offended by Animal House, since it exists to provoke an emotional response that will separate those who get it from those who are too old or dull to understand. Nevertheless, the subplot about Pinto supposedly molesting a young girl really shouldn't be there: it's not narratively integral, as well as not being pretty.
 
National Lampoon's Animal House remains the benchmark for the gross-out comedy genre it helped to create. Landis' later comedies like Trading Places would be more technically proficient, and not all of its material holds up to present-day scrutiny. But the anarchic spirit and enjoyably bad taste remains intact, making it essential viewing for comedy fans - even those on double secret probation. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: The gold stardard for gross-out comedies

2 comments:

I love your review style, Mumby; it's so deep and closely analyzed. I remember liking this one a good bit when I first saw it a couple years ago...I might give it a rewatch.

Thank you very much Creeper's Reviews, I do the best I can. Let me know your thoughts as and when you re-watch it

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