Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Movies is Good: ANIMAL HOUSE

 by JB

I cannot believe that in the 11-year history of this site, none of us have written about this crazy film.

In the summer of 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House meant a great deal to me. I was on summer break between sophomore and junior years of high school. I had a high-profile job, working at the most popular ice cream store in the mall. I had a steady income and a steady girl, a steady girl I willfully ignored for the better part of three months as my best friend Terry and I embarked on a movie-going odyssey. From the day the film opened at the late, lamented Woodfield 2, Terry and I saw it every night for 86 days straight. From Friday, July 28th until Thursday, October 19th, no matter what else was happening in our lives, no matter what other friends either accompanied us or did not accompany us to the show, we made it to a least one screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House. (There were nights where we stayed straight through two showings.) What stopped our streak? Easy. Thursday, October 19th was opening night of my high school’s fall play, which I was in. That was it. Duty and the allure of the footlights called. Terry may have continued seeing Animal House. I know he wouldn’t be seen dead at the fall play.
Clearly, this is a film I hold close to my heart. Terry and I had graduated from Mad magazine to National Lampoon magazine sometime during freshmen year. We loved the Lampoon, loved its point of view, loved it scatology, loved its “nothing sacred” attitude, and loved that it often featured pictures of beautiful nekkid women. Really nekkid. Totally nekkid. We were also big fans of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which had premiered in October of our eighth-grade year. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it.

The original Saturday Night Live show and National Lampoon had a lot in common. The first season of SNL featured writers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beats, who had both written for the Lampoon and infused the show with the same sensibility. Original Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time cast members John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray had all written and performed in The National Lampoon Radio Hour. My friends and I were enjoying the same comic spirit, served up within two different forms of media. So when the movies soon followed, we were there for it.
The Plot in Brief: It’s Fraternity Pledge Week at Faber College, 1962. Should nerdy freshmen Larry Kroger (Thomas Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) choose the imposing Omega House, which seems like a repository of every bully from high school, from smooth Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) to clearly sociopathic Doug Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf)? Or should they choose the rowdy Delta Tau Chi house, located just next door? Delta House features better music, a more relaxed atmosphere, and a colorful slate of fraternity brothers including party animal Bluto (John Belushi), womanizer Otter (Tim Matheson), everyman Boon (Peter Riegert), gearhead D-Day (Bruce McGill), secretive Hardbar (co-writer Chris Miller), fraternity president Hoover (James Widdoes), and genius-on-the-spectrum Stork (co-writer Doug Kenny).

What fraternity will the two freshmen pledge? What fraternity nick-names will they receive? What sort of hilarious hijinks will result when Dean of Students Vernon Wermer (John Vernon) decides to kick the rebellious Deltas off campus?
Last Tuesday, Universal Pictures released a new 4K Blu-ray of this popular title. The new disc, to be honest, is no great shakes. It is a tad grainy for my taste and features only old bonus features from the film’s many previous iterations. The soundtrack seems to have been cleaned up; Elmer Bernstein’s score and the many popular oldies have never sounded better. It’s a serviceable disc, mind you; it gets the job done, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful as the new 4K transfer of The Sting (to name just one recent release) that Universal also released last week.

The bonus feature I would have loved to see would have been the NBC primetime “Saturday Night at the Movies” edit of the film that premiered in the fall of 1980. By then, my friend Terry and I were college roommates. We dutifully trooped down to our dorm’s TV lounge (NO ONE had a television in their dorm room!) with pencil and paper to jot down the differences between the film we had both memorized and the watered-down pap NBC was fobbing off to its television audience. That night we discovered that director John Landis had filmed separate “TV-Friendly” alternate takes of certain shots deemed to have “gone too far for television.”

When Bluto and D-Day convince Dorfman to kidnap a horse and stow it in the Dean’s office, and when said horse later has a heart attack, Bluto’s now-famous reaction is “Holy shit!” (Accent on the “T.”) As if watching the film in another dimension, that night on the TV edit Terry and I heard, for the first time ever, Bluto shouting, “Oh my God!” and “I don’t believe it!” You know, two interjections famous for being just as funny as “Holy shiT!” in no dimension anywhere.
When Bluto peeks at Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller) undressing in her bedroom window, she remains strangely clothed in the network-friendly version. My favorite change? In the theatrical release, Professor Jennings (Donald Sutherland) reaches up to grab something on a high shelf, and his sweater rides up to reveal his naked bottom. In the NBC TV version, Jennings is wearing pants. Boooooo! In all, Terry and I counted 168 changes between the two versions. Why doesn’t Universal release Landis’s “Oh My God” cut of the film? That would be hilarious.

I did enjoy spinning the new Universal 4K disc to remind myself of how much I still love this goddamn movie, how well it still holds up, and to once again enjoy all of the minutiae that I’ve noticed through the years:

Much like George Lucas’s decision to go with a standard orchestral score for Star Wars in 1977, John Landis asking Elmer Bernstein to write a “classical” movie score for Animal House was the stuff of genius. In the same way that an ultra-modern, gimmicky synth score would have made Star Wars a much worse film, a jokey score would have diminished Animal House. We take what is happening to the Deltas seriously because of the score. John Vernon is much more intimidating because of the score. I do love Bernstein’s loose, loping “Bluto” theme for the scene where Belushi checks out the campus’s quadrangle. Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-bum-bum!

Cesare Danova is so funny simply playing the heavy the way he did in more than a hundred serious movies. (“And if you mention extortion again, I will have your legs broken.”)

During the cafeteria scene that precedes the big food fight (which made the nation’s cafeteria workers curse this film in the fall of 1978) it is so obvious that Tim Matheson is summoning every ounce of actor’s strength not to break up when John Belushi does his famous mashed potatoes bit.
In the film’s climactic parade sequence, it always seemed to me that a background extra had somehow gotten a copy of the script. As the Mayor welcomes everyone to Faber’s Homecoming parade, a silver-haired, middle-aged man seems to be mouthing the dialogue along with Danova. Two years after National Lampoon’s Animal House was released and our 86 screenings had been achieved, Terry and I happened to meet director John Landis at the Chicago premiere of The Blues Brothers. We asked him about the mysterious man in that scene. “Oh, you noticed that?” said Landis, smiling. Turns out the man was a local extra with a wild nervous tic: he could never stop his eyebrows or mouth from moving. Landis told us that he placed this guy in the back of the scene because “he thought it was hilarious” and applauded us for being so damn observant.

Good times.

I cannot imagine a single reader of mine having never seen this film. Still, if you have never seen National Lampoon’s Animal House, you should make it your business to see it. It is well made with great performances. There are a lot of jokes. It is very funny. It created its own new genre. It features a few beautiful nekkid women and one beautiful nekkid Sutherland ass. Maybe 86 screenings are too many… I don’t know; I was young, and I had the time... but you should see it at least once.

As it proclaims on the base of the statue of the college’s founder, Emil Faber: “Knowledge is good.”


  1. booyah... I had a serious thing for Bruce McGill's D-Day when it came out.

  2. Yes, I love it when, in his first scene in the movie, he plays the William Tell Overture on his neck.

  3. i loved every word of this article! I looooove the story of seeing it at Woodfield 2 (RIP indeed...that, Century1,2,3,4, and later Barington Square Mall were all formidable in building my complete love of cinema). 86 times!!! All i have to say to that is...its a solid start...bwahahahahaha.

    If i may, i'd like to suggest a film that can be enjoyed in a double bill with this flick. For those folks who crave more behind the scenes, i HIGHLY suggest the biopic on netflix "A Futile and Stupid Gesture". Its an absolutely entertaining, funny, and informative (thru the lense of fictionalized facts) movie that delves into the creation of National Lampoon magazine and much of what it spawned...specifically around co-creators Henry Beard and, moreso, Doug Kenny. I find Doug's story and comedic output fascinating. I mean he co-wrote arguably two of the greatest comedies ever made (Animal House and Caddyshack). The biopic is made with alot of love, sarcasm, and humor for its subject matter. Dig it!

    Thanks again for the stories and write up! I cant believe you met Landis at The Blues Brothers (which is, without question, the single greatest movie of all time. this is not up for debate. also, ironically, my first viewing? Woodfield 2).

    Peace n Double Secret Probation for All of You!!!

  4. “The time has come for someone to put their foot down, and that foot… is me.”

  5. I'll tell you what. I'll swear you were doing a great job taking care of his car, but, you parked it out back last night and this morning, it was gone.{bluto surprised face..LOL} D-Day takes care of the wreck. We report it to the police. Your brother's insurance company buys him a new car.

    Will that work?

    Hey, it's gotta work better than the truth.

    My advice to you is to start drinking.... heavily.

  6. Matheson’s sarcastic reading of “but you parked it out back last night and this morning… it was gone!” Is EPIC.

    1. HA! Totally. Its comedic fine tuning and timing such as that which makes this movie ENDLESSLY rewatchable.

      Mathesons charisma carried over for me and my buds to the movie Up The Creek....a reteaming of sorts of Flounder and Straton. Of course it pales when compared to the true classics but it was shown pretty regularly on pre-cable pay services((cough cough..OnTV decoder boxes..cough cough)) and watched on repeat by we early VHS adopters. Also worth noting was his outing as the big bad in Fletch ("Its all ball bearings these days!")

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  8. I'm afraid I've only seen the movie once, and after my undergraduate years, at that, but I instantly admired its structure of introducing us to the Deltas via the audience surrogate freshmen characters... who then virtually disappear from the flick once we, the audience, become familiar with the elder/main Deltas themselves. Apart from Psycho, and the commonplace trope of opening on the kid version of the protagonist, I can't think of any similar narrative-enriching protagonist switcheroo offhand.

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  10. What were you paying to see Animal House every night, J.B.? Did you get a discount for going so often? Over that three-month span, did you notice the print changing or deteriorating?

    In this age of movies going from theater exhibition to disc or streaming in a few months, it is amazing to think about something playing in a theater for several months. It definitely was a different time.

  11. Yes, we sometimes forget how long some movies played in theaters forty years ago. I remember tickets being two or three dollars. I also remember the print looking shabbier and shabbier as the run progressed…