Review: Animal House (Landis, 1978)

d. John Landis; w. Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, Chris Miller; st. Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst, Mark Metcalf, Mary Louise Wellor, John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, Bruce McGill

“Animal House” promotes promiscuous sex, anti-establishment behaviour, criminal activity, underage drinking and alcohol abuse, violence and general anarchy, little or no respect for the education system, and hand jobs wearing surgical gloves. Do I love this movie? Yes Sir! John Landis finally found his calling after fortunately breaking into (almost literally) the film business by equal parts blind luck, personal desire, and others misfortune. With the help of writers such as Harold Ramis and Chris Miller, and the production assistance of Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons, Landis was able to delve into various experiences of college life to create an outrageous expose on the lives of America’s youth. “Animal House” quickly became a hit amongst young audiences who found the rampant anarchy was an entertaining and funny front to the many truths inherent in college life.

john belushio comedy animal house film review top10films
“See if you can guess what I am now.”

The film was the first big-screen outing of the National Lampoon label. The name had become synonymous with college students across the United States as the go-to literary source of juvenile humour, popular culture, and political satire thanks to the National Lampoon magazine frequenting campuses countrywide. Two of its writers – Doug Kenney and Chris Miller – who became disillusioned with deadlines and the rigours of a magazine they had helped produce for nearly a decade, saw an opportunity to rekindle their creative passions when Hollywood came calling. With Ivan Reitman coming on board as producer off the back of working with David Cronenberg on “Shivers”, the film started to take shape. Harold Ramis was added to the writing think-tank, and with Reitman’s connections to the Saturday Night Live cast, the film secured its star John Belushi to settle studio nerves over the film’s largely unknown actors.

However, it was John Landis who ensured the film got the green light by acquiring the services of friend Donald Sutherland for the small part of teacher Dave Jennings. Sutherland and Landis had worked together on “Kelly’s Heroes” where Landis had been an uncredited production assistant.

The film begins rather innocuously when Larry (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) try to get into the prestigious and preppy Omega fraternity but find they are unwanted. Heading next door to the Delta house they find a bit of luck. The Delta’ s need the dues and permit the two hapless freshman to pledge. But Delta house does things a little differently. Larry and Dorfman meet the suave Eric Stratton (Tom Matheson), biker Daniel (Bruce McGill), fixer Donald (Peter Reigert), and animalistic Bluto (John Belushi). Writers Miller and Kenney – who both feature as small characters in the film – drew upon memories of college, and the friends and acquaintances they met there to fill “Animal House” with a vibrant, colourful set of characters that are not only larger than life but represent an authentic if outrageous view of college personas.

What “Animal House” did was lay down the foundations for every college and high school movie made since. This was the archetypal film. You will find these characters in various guises in the films of John Hughes, Bob Clark, Savage Steve Holland, Rob Reiner, Jeff Kanew, Harold Ramis, Wes Anderson and a whole heap of others. “Animal House” perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves for being a frontrunner in high-school/college-based films. Before the film, Hollywood didn’t want to concern itself with the sex, drugs, and rock n roll of college life. “Animal House” didn’t follow the pattern of denying this sort of behaviour existed, and went further to exploit and celebrate it. Appearing as it did at the end of the 1970s, it was a perfect framing of the sexual and social liberation of the preceding two decades.

Of course, “Animal House” wouldn’t work without its cast. Landis brought in relative unknowns at the time, many of which would go on to long careers in Hollywood. Kevin Bacon is the most notable of those still active, but it’s the likes of Tim Matheson and Bruce McGill who really bring the film alive. The same can be said of John Belushi who, in a role that is limited to inappropriate pranks and the physical manifestation of bodily functions, is the only person who could have made it work without becoming repulsive. Belushi just knows funny.

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“The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.”

Landis has to be given a lot of credit for handling an ensemble cast of characters with the assuredness of a veteran director (even though he had only made two films previously). Although the story is still hinged on sketches (that are obviously drawn from the individual experiences of the writers), he maintains a cohesive narrative that bases much of its momentum on the battle between the frat houses. It’s the little guys against the big bullies, something that is easily digestible by audiences and something you can return to on a frequent basis.

And that’s what makes “Animal House” such a great film. It is a story with universal appeal, characters everyone can relate to (and in most cases remember from their own time at university), and humour that is funny because it has an element of truth. The film is the quintessential college comedy, and thirty years after it was released, it has lost none of its appeal.

Top10Films Rating: 9/10

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Discover More:
See Top10Films’ Top 10 John Landis Films Here
“Animal House” was a popular contender in Anomalous Material’s Greatest Comedy Tournament that is currently still ongoing. It lost out in a tough 3rd round battle against Woody Allen’s classic “Annie Hall”.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Aiden R. Reply

    Still one of the funniest movies ever made. So awesome.

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