What I am about to do is put several disclaimers in front of this review of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). First, though I have seen it before, it was suggested by a friend. Secondly, I am partial to movies starring John Belushi. My favorite is, of course, The Blues Brothers (1980), a film I put on whenever I am feeling heartsick for home. It goes deeper, though, than my favorite “musical.” My late grandmother, as the second female bus driver in DuPage County, once had on her one of her lines none other than John and Jim Belushi, natives of Wheaton, Illinois. My grandmother often told that story. Next, as somebody who spent what some would consider far too many years in college, I appreciate productions that cover that subject. Higher learning is serious business, though Hollywood tends to lend some levity to the subject whenever it covers it. That was the intent behind the formation of the magazine National Lampoon, anyway, which was started by no less than a Harvard graduate. Still, one like me, watching it after years of earnestly trying to practice my Faith, wonders whether or not they took it too far. Judge for yourselves.
One of the time-honored traditions of being a freshman in college, particularly in 1962 when National Lampoon’s Animal House is set, is deciding on what fraternity or sorority to which you want to pledge. That is what Kent “Flounder” Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry “Pinto” Kroger (Tom Hulce) want to do at the fictitious Faber College when they enter the prestigious environs of Omega Theta Pi. After being brushed off for being undesirable, they walk next door to the dilapidated home of Delta Tau Chi. Unlike the stiff interactions going on in the Omega house, the Deltas are throwing a raucous party welcoming in potential recruits. Flounder has an in because his brother had been a Delta, making him a legacy nominee. The next day, while reviewing the pledges, they get to Flounder and most of the Deltas initially balk at the idea of letting him join. It is not until their chapter president, Robert Hoover (James Widdoes), reminds them of their duty to admit Flounder, with some extra encouragement from their pledge master Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson), that they go ahead with both Flounder and Pinto. There are two potential problems, though, for Delta house in continuing their normal activities of debaucherous soirees and other campus pranks: Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) and Omega house. Dean Wormer sees the Deltas as a blight upon the reputation of the school, and he enlists the help of Omega president Gregory Marmalard (James Daughton) to find a way of removing the Deltas from school. Dean Wormer’s first step is to issue what he calls “Double Secret Probation,” which basically means that they are one step away from all of them being expelled. This is further complicated when they get the wrong answers for a test, the result of which is all of them failing and pushing their grades lower. The Delta’s solution? Throw a toga party. At this latest shindig, the underage Clorette DePasto (Sarah Holcomb), daughter of town mayor Carmine DePasto (Cesare Danova), is invited by Pinto, who then leaves her passed out drunk on her front step. Also, Dean Wormer’s wife Marion (Verna Bloom) is seduced by Otter and returns home in quite the state. This prompts Dean Wormer to call a hearing in order to revoke the Delta charter. This is soon followed by their inevitable expulsions from school, and a warning that their local draft boards would be notified of their status. The Deltas despondency is added to when Otter returns to their stripped house after being attacked by several Omega members, the victim of a trick they pulled where he thought he was going to meet Gregory’s former girlfriend Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller). It is at this point that John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi) shines. He delivers an impassioned speech about not giving up, including a reference to when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, that rallies the former Deltas to action. What is that action, you might ask? They plan to completely wreck the Faber College homecoming parade as it goes straight through the middle of town. Everyone in the now defunct Delta house plays a part. As the scene devolves into chaos, Hoover finds a completely defeated Dean Wormer and convinces the administrator to give the Deltas one more chance, which he apparently does. This is basically where the movie ends, giving a short synopsis of what each character went on to do with their lives.
I am thankful that my college career never reached the levels of craziness that you see in National Lampoon’s Animal House. One of my dad’s regrets is that I never got to have the full college experience of going away, staying in dorms, and existing on campus. I always lived off campus, residing with my parents throughout my undergraduate years. As such, I did not see the massive drinking, people doing drugs, rampant sexual intercourse, and other juvenile pranks that you hear about in real life, and see in the movie. When I was younger, I might have been a little more susceptible to such temptations. As an adult, I would not dream of doing practically any of what is shown. Because of the depths of depravity on display (which, it should be noted, is played for laughs), there is little to which this Catholic can cling. The only possible moment is when Pinto gets Clorette alone, and she passes out drunk in the middle of them making out. With her disrobed on the bed next to him, there appears the classic devil and angel on opposite shoulders. The devil is encouraging him to have sex with her, despite her unconscious state. The angel counsels otherwise, and thankfully this is the voice to which he listens. So, kudos, for what it is worth, for not giving in to his baser instincts. Still, this is all ruined towards the end when he gets her to sneak out with him once more, and they apparently have sex on the school football field. Before they do the deed, she reveals that she is only thirteen. So much for his better angel. You do not have to be a practicing Catholic to know that, premarital sex aside, doing this is not kosher, to say the least.
If you can get past some of the extremes of National Lampoon’s Animal House, then there are some genuinely funny moments. Still, a film that features a peeping tom in Bluto surreptitiously watching Mandy and her sorority sisters undress, not to mention the other subjects already covered, is a bit much to take. One could say that the “good guys” win in the end, though I cannot say the ends justify the means. In sum, I would avoid this movie unless you have a strong stomach, but even then I cannot recommend it.