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October 22, 2014

Animal House

by Franz Patrick


Animal House (1978)
★★ / ★★★★

Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) wishes to expel all members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity because he is sick of dealing with their seasonal pranks. With the help of Greg (James Daughton), president of the uppity Omega Theta Pi, known as the best and most traditional fraternity in Faber College, the duo concoct a plan to finally delouse the university of the drunken party animals.

Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, “Animal House” is appropriately desultory in storytelling which reflects its protagonists’ overall lack of ambition and direction. This device is partly enjoyable because although each scene is episodic, more than half of the jokes are given enough time to escalate until the punchline is ripe for delivery. However, its lack of flow functions as a double-edged sword in that it is difficult to get to know its charming characters completely.

Bluto (John Belushi) is especially hilarious as a college student who happens to be on the heavy side. He is given very few lines to utter but each time the camera is on him, whether he is front and center or pushed to the side, all of my attention is on him like a moth to a light source. Staring at his oily, flushed, and petulant face, one part of me expected him to say something completely shocking and offensive. Meanwhile, another part of me braced itself for another one of Bluto’s inspired physical gag.

For example, the scene in the cafeteria that leads to a food fight is nicely executed. Although his frat brothers are capable of embracing a range of craziness and downright carelessness, Bluto is most fascinating because he symbolizes the id of the Delta House. Unlike his frat brothers, there is not one scene in which he is depicted second-guessing what he is about to do. Whatever feels good is right and whatever needs to be expressed is unfiltered.

Even Eric (Tim Matheson), also known as Otto, the confident womanizer of the group, has small moments of self-doubt. Otto is also interesting, in a different way than Bluto, but other than his penchant for bedding as many women as possible, he is not given much depth. It is a missed opportunity because I was actually interested in him as a person instead of just another beer-drinking member of the fraternity.

I wished there had been a more focused rivalry between the Omega and Delta Houses because the material is at its best when the two sides seek revenge against one another. There is an inherent fun in watching Delta Tau Chi—the secondhand underdogs, the campus losers—because the Omega Theta Pi members are willing to grab every opportunity to rub everybody’s noses in their poshness.

The film falls apart toward the end. The chaos in the parade feels like one careless gag after another which is most uninspiring. Instead of the attention being on the students, it becomes more about the repetitive stunts. Unlike a handful of its jokes, the messages it wants to convey about subverting the influence of an unfair person, or persons, in power do not arrive at a rewarding punchline, an ironic or satiric twist.

Directed by John Landis, I appreciated the juvenile sense of humor that “Animal House” offers. It would not have been a letdown if the screenplay had managed to maintain its jovial energy throughout and given the story a proper ending that the audience and characters deserve.

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