In association with Fathom Events, the TCM Big Screen Classics series, which brings classic films to theaters, is even more important than ever. The latest release of National Lampoon’s Animal House from 1978 isn’t exactly a “lost classic”. This is a film that is in the general pop-culture reference library. It’s not hard to find, it plays on TV, it’s readily available on home video, and is referenced in other current releases. What’s missing is the theater experience. No matter how we improve the home experience, it’s not the same as sitting in the dark for two hours with strangers and enjoying a film. Most fans haven’t had a chance to experience these films on the big screen or like me with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off haven’t seen them in theaters since their original release.
“Knowledge is Good” is the motto of Faber University (actually University of Oregon) but that’s not what you are going to get here. The movie is loosely a story of Delta House during the start of the school year of 1962. We follow the adventures of the fraternity from the start of Rush Week through the Homecoming Parade. It’s an interesting combination of funny, realistic observations about college life that are timeless and completely unbelievable, outrageous situations. Actually, it’s probably more about the latter. There isn’t knowledge about college life or the early 1960s to be learned here; it’s just a fun collection of what feels more like interrelated skits. There’s no coincidence that in addition to John Belushi there are rumors that Landis was interested in Dan Aykroyd and other Saturday Night Live cast members.
Just because I call it a film of interrelated skits doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-developed characters. Watching this for probably the tenth time, I was impressed by the depth of characters that mostly interact with each other while drunk, high, or in togas. Donald Sutherland as Professor Dave Jennings is defined quickly as the pot-smoking professor that teaches a Lit class but finds Milton as boring as everyone else. Most everyone who attended college, no matter the decade, knows a faculty member that was going to try to pick up the coeds and be the “cool professor”. I was amused by Sutherland’s apartment and nonchalance more here than I had recalled it. The other character that stands out is Tim Matheson as Otter. As entertaining as his character is on the surface as a ladies man, there’s a playfulness and heart to the character that would be easy to leave out in other scripts.
How does the movie hold up? What really hit me is how the reputation of the film being a raunchy comedy of the Seventies doesn’t apply today. Part of that is the difference in movie standards today. The nudity here is much more brief than it would be today. The real difference is that each scene of sexual debauchery, Belushi as a Peeping Tom, the Dean’s wife being seduced, and even the almost rape of a drunken underage girl are all played against scenes of pure fun. The humor of the film is innocent and broad. Guitars are smashed, people are hit in the head with golf balls, and there’s a toga party. The whole story of the film leads up to a single, innocent ruining of a Homecoming Parade. The chaos of the final scene is symbolic of the nontraditional plot that the rest of the film takes to get the conclusion. Along the way John Belushi says little but shows up every time it seems like the movie might be losing energy and injects some laughter.
The film definitely has a place in movie history. It’s hard to think of a college-based film that doesn’t owe something to Animal House. You can list them from Revenge of the Nerds to Old School to PCU and they all pull characters and situations from Delta House and Faber University. Anarchy is the name of the day. College of the movies is full of parties, sex, drinking, stealing cars for road trips, food fights, and did I mention sex. The innocent fun and chaos are contagious and I was still laughing at “Hey, Otis,” and the horse dying in the Dean’s office. I hope that all ages are finding time to support these Fathom Events releases. There are some incredible films that need to be experienced again on the big screen.