After calling out a couple of films for non-PC content, my mind wandered back to John Landis’ hit from 1978, which reigned supreme as the biggest comedy of all time until Ghostbusters came along. That film, also from Ivan Reitman, was a much more family friendly affair; Animal House’s focus on sex, pranks and youthful bonhomie spawned Porky’s, Stripes and all manner of voyeur comedies, but how does it stand up in today’s super-sensitive times?
Animal House is unusual in that there’s no main character; we see Tom Hulce and Steven Furst enrolling in their fraternity house, but they’re quickly swamped by a number of fresh-faced actors including Peter Riegert, Kevin Bacon and Tim Matheson, all intent on having a good time. Studies are generally neglected, with the exception of Donald Sutherland as a baggy English lit professor who introduces smoking pot into their curriculum. ‘Why is being bad more interesting than being good?’ he asks during a lecture on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the focus of Animal House is firmly on rewarding misbehaviour. It’s a shame that Sutherland only has two scenes, although he makes the most of them.
Animal House has a few substantial things going for it, mainly John Belushi as a hedonistic maniac who wordlessly propels much of the campus rebellion. He also has a great adversary in Dean Wormer (John Vernon) who is perfect as the authority figure who feels he can stoke the rebels into more outlandish behaviour and use it as an excuse to extend his authoritarian control. There’s an emphasis on nostalgia, on the music and attitudes of the past, and the whole package is slick and fast-moving.
But is it funny to leave a horse’s corpse in an office? To spy on undressed female students? Or to debate the merits of taking advantage of a sleeping woman? Animal House frequently goes too far, and the leering male POV means that female characters, such as Verna Bloom as Wormer’s wife, barely get a chance to breathe. And in terms of race, the black characters really just form a musical backdrop; a scene where a group of white students arrive at a black nightspot is handled with little sensitivity to race relations. There’s not much insight to this scene other than a black nightclub being a place that white people would be uncomfortable.
My disc of Animal House features a strange sequel of sorts, with Landis tracking down the actors from the original film who each contribute monologues, in character, which describe how they fared after the events described in the movie’s end credits. It’s a painful watch, with only a couple of the cast managing to hit their marks, although Kevin Bacon phones in a nicely-worded segment; it smacks of a half-assed DVD extra, and tarnishes the film’s original impact. I didn’t love Animal House at the time, and I wouldn’t say I loved it now; it’s a rude, misogynist film that offered the bare-breasted slapstick that audiences craved in 1978, but now seems dated in assumptions rather than nostalgic.