It’s not unusual to look back on your college days with a mixture of delight and sadness. Curiously, re-watching Animal House (1978) conjures up the same feelings. One of the highest-grossing of its time, it was a springboard for a host of careers. Director John Landis went on to make The Blues Brothers (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). Producer Ivan Reitman and writer Harold Ramis collaborated again on Ghostbusters (1984); over the next ten years, both directed major hits. It made John Belushi into a star, and gave Kevin Bacon one of his first film roles. But all of the talents involved seem to have petered out in the meantime: Belushi, of course, did it most spectacularly. Landis, on the other hand, is currently missing in action without a single appealing credit on his recent CV. In retrospect, the shortcomings of the Animal House team look pretty obvious.
For the (ahem) uninitiated, Animal House is set in 1962, and spotlights of the most insalubrious hall of residence on campus at Faber College. Delta is home to a collection of misfits and ne’er-do-wells who gleefully undermine the upstanding reputation of their fellow students. This is a thorn in the paw of Dean Wormer, who decides to get the so-called ‘Animal House’ shut down. In revenge, they stage a spectacular hijack on the local town parade. The plot is extremely slender, and it’s really just a framework for a medley of set pieces. At the time, this blend of hopelessly horny college boys and gross-out scenarios was remarkable stuff, and provided the blueprint for much low-brow American film comedy, inspiring Porky’s (1982) and Revenge of the Nerds (1984), and influencing American Pie (1999) and the work of the Farrelly brothers. But in all cases those films took the Animal House formula and pushed it much further. Perhaps that’s why, when viewed today, the original seems terribly dated. For a film set in the early Sixties, it feels awfully Eighties.
The humour seems pretty mild stuff, and the young cast are mostly pretty nondescript, taking turns to do a spot of underwhelming comic business. Only Belushi really grabs the viewer, coming on like a demented imp and, in one scene, even turning to camera to wiggle his eyebrows as a girl he’s spying on starts to undress and caress herself. But sadly such sparky moments are few and far between. The supposedly OTT elements have been far outstripped by modern ventures: here, time and again, Louie Louie is cracked out to imply comic depravity rather than to herald it. If the characters were more engaging, and the whole more coherent, it might even be charming. But the vapid plot – the college authorities want rid of Delta, so they close it – allows for a surfeit of undisciplined, scattershot humour that’s rarely satisfying.
Animal House was the inaugural film venture for the American satire magazine National Lampoon. The later Lampoon films are now stuck where they belong – on heavy rotation on Channel Five. But even this debut seems pretty toothless as far as ripping into sacred cows is concerned. Compared to, say, its contemporary Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), it’s positively polite. Nor is the sense of faded talents dispelled by the DVD extras. There’s a passable ‘making of’ feature, but the cast reunite only in character for a painfully unfunny ‘where are they now?’ piece, itself just expanded from freeze-frame captions from the film’s climax. What seemed, in its day, to be deliciously risky, now seems rather half-baked: Animal House is flimsy and juvenile – and not in a good way.