Note: Tim Raynor and John J. Puccio wrote the film review portions of the article, with John doing the audio and video sections, Tim and John writing up the extras, and John doing the parting thoughts.
The Film According to Tim:
There are many of us who try to give our interpretations of what a "classic" film is. The one thing we can probably all agree on is that a classic is one that stands the test of time. In that regard, "National Lampoon's Animal House" has certainly earned the right to be recognized as a classic. Even at the time of its release in 1978, it was dubbed by many critics and fans as an instant classic. However, the real question is, Does it still stand the test of time close to thirty years later? The answer to that is a definite yes!
"Animal House" not only reshaped the way we would see outrageous gags and sexually charged college humor, but it also paved the way for future comedies for years to come. "Animal House" gave us a whole new outlook on the raunchy party lifestyle of college fraternities. Even after its reign on the big screen, it managed to influence college-style comedies for years to come, things like "Back to School," "Road Trip," "Van Wilder," and "Old School." It isn't that any of the aforementioned films didn't have humorous moments, they certainly did, but they don't compare to the original monster that spawned them all. Not to mention, it was a miracle "Animal House" ever got made. Back in 1977 director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, the late Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller were fairly young guys who didn't have the utmost trust or respect of Universal Studios at the time. Luckily, producer Ivan Reitman gave them the big break they needed. Even then, it was difficult to hire top actors because many of them found the script too coarse.
Now, I think it would be safe to assume most all of us have seen "Animal House," if not once, several times. I find no need to explain the details of the film, but instead I'd like to reminisce about some of the film's characters and highlights. In all honesty, there really is no main lead in the film, unless you consider the Delta House itself a character. The film is basically about a bunch of frat boys in the early 1960's who attend Faber University and live in a fraternity known as the Delta House. It just so happens to be the worst frat house on campus because of its reputation for loud parties and its lowest grade-point average in Faber history. Sounds like my kind of place. From the start of the film, we are introduced to a home that is more likely to be condemned than any other house found on skid row. The boys' antics are so notorious that Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) places them on 'double secret probation" (one of my favorite scenes of the film). It is reputed that Dean Wormer was loosely based on Richard Nixon.
Let me touch base on some of the most memorable characters in the film. First off is John Belushi as an overweight, drunken, seventh-year failure student slob named Bluto Blutarsky. Belushi, in many ways, is the one guy who steals the show. He had such a great talent for being animated, the role almost fit him perfectly. Next, we have Kent "Flounder" Dorfman (Stephen Furst), an overly nice, overweight freshman whom nobody wants in their fraternity. However, Delta House takes him in, reluctantly. Next is Larry "Pinto" Kroger (Tom Hulce), a young, innocent lad who is looking to get laid, even if it's with the town mayor's thirteen-year-old daughter. Then we have the loving couple of Donald "Boon" Schoenstein (Peter Riegert) and Katy (Karen Allen), who find their relationship fading due to Boon's excessive nightly drinking. And there's the in-house biker known as D-Day (Bruce McGill) and the Delta House President, Robert Hover (James Widdoes), who both have little time on screen but share a vital part in the fabric of the film. Lastly is Eric "Otter" Stratton (Tim Matheson), who really acts as the intellectual brains of the group, especially when it comes to delightfully ingenious antics.
Then, let us not forget the snobs of Faber, who give the film much of its purpose. First is the most memorable snob, and probably second-in-line for stealing the show, Doug Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf): "Is that a pledge pin…on your uniform!" Doug is an ROTC drill sergeant who packs a temper that rivals even R. Lee Ermey's in "Full Metal Jacket." Metcalf's role as Neidermeyer would be revisited in "Twisted Sister" music videos of the mid 80's. And if you've ever seen "Twilight Zone: The Movie," there's even a reference to his own troops in Vietnam killing him. Next is Greg Marmalard (James Daughton), who plays Dean Wormers' rich-brat, rat-fink assistant to the disciplinary school board. Then there's Chip Diller, played by Kevin Bacon in his debut role on the big screen. Bacon has quite a memorable part during his initiation, as many of you might remember: "Thank you, sir. May I have another?" And we have Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louis Weller) and Barbara "Babs" Jansen (Martha Smith), two airheaded blondes bent on keeping their image as upper-class snobs and cheerleaders.
Let me also mention Professor Dave Jennings (Donald Sutherland). Sutherland was the one man who made the film possible to produce. Universal had been growing weary of the cast choices and was considering pulling the plug on the film if they couldn't find an icon actor of the time. Sutherland agreed to play Jennings, the erotic, pot-smoking professor, for the sum of $50,000. Sutherland's small part was shot in only two days, and if he had agreed to take a percentage of the film's profits, which he was offered, he would have grossed about $17,000,000.
Even with all the memorable characters, there are the far more memorable gags and antics in the film. Some memorable moments are Bluto, Flounder, and D-Day hiding, and killing, Neidermeyer's horse in Dean Wormer's office, and then, the next day, the horse lying dead in the office as Wormer and the town mayor are meeting about the spring Faber parade. Let's also not forget Bluto strolling down the cafeteria's food line, stuffing his face and filling his tray with just about every item available. In the same scene we get to see Bluto's impression of a zit, as well as a major food fight. I should mention that many fans of "Animal House" remember the food fight as a big scene; ironically, it only lasts for three seconds. Another fine moment is the quite memorable "toga party," where Otter makes advances on Dean Wormer's wife (Verna Bloom), and Pinto tries to get lucky with the mayor's thirteen-year-old daughter. Then there's the ever-so-memorable road trip where Otter, Boon, Flounder, and Pinto scheme up a clever way to pick up girls and end up in a bar, only to discover they're the only white folks in the place. The final gag is probably the one that takes the cake. After being kicked out of college, and out of the Faber spring parade, the Delta House seeks revenge. They take Flounder's wrecked black bomb of a car and revamp it as the "Death Mobile." The pranksters cleverly cover it as a float, which looks like a giant cake that says "eat me" on the sides, and the rest is history as they wreak havoc on the small-town parade.
There are plenty more gags that I haven't mentioned, but that's the beauty of this film, as there is never a dull moment. Some jokes I just can't mention because DVDTOWN tries its best to run a family site, and besides, it is an R-rated movie.
The Film According to John:
At present count, this is the fifth home version I've owned of "National Lampoon's Animal House." First, it was Betamax, then VHS, followed by two standard-definition DVDs. Happily, with each upgrade, I've found the picture and sound improved. Now, it's the HD-DVD and DVD Combo that Universal Studios give us, and, needless to say, the audio and video are better than ever. What's more, you get the high-definition version on one side of the disc, the standard-definition version on the other side, and a slew of extras; so, you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Practically everybody who ever went to college claims to have belonged to or known about a fraternity like Delta. Practically everybody colors their remembrances with a good deal of imagination, too, wishing it to be so. Despite this, "Animal House" rings true in its exaggerations. Heck, even the idea of a total, drunken, washout slob becoming a celebrated politician seems more than plausible these days.
Tim mentioned a few of his favorite scenes, which I share; let me mention a few more: (1) The statue of the school's founder, with the inscription "Knowledge is good." (2) Kroger and Dorfman being shunted off into the corner for rejects when they try to apply for membership in the snooty fraternity. (3) The boys' introduction to Delta House on pledge night. (4) Any scene with John Vernon's Dean Wormer: "The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me!" (5) The naming ceremony. (6) The cafeteria scene: "Food fight!" (7) Blutarsky's lascivious leer as he stands on a ladder outside a sorority-house window. (8) The toga party. (9) The Disciplinary Council. (10) The road trip. (11) The Faber Alumni Day parade: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!" (12), Heck, every scene is funny.
OK, maybe the high jinks of the "Animal House" fraternity at fictional Faber College don't seem so shocking or outrageous now as they did when the movie first opened. The world has caught up with and even surpassed the shenanigans of Delta's group of party rejects played by John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Thomas Hulce, Stephen Furst, and the others, making them appear almost innocent by comparison to some of today's youth. But the jokes are as funny as ever; and as Tim pointed out, they influenced a generation of younger filmmakers. Moreover, the satire is still as pointed, the characters are still as quirky, and Belushi's role as Bluto Blutarsky is still as amusing. Belushi will forever be remembered for this trademark image, and he would virtually repeat it in "1941." Director John Landis made a film that will probably remain fresh and fun for as long as kids go to college.
I was not too happy with Universal's first DVD effort in regard to its technical merits. There was a grainy quality to the earliest DVD transfer, especially noticeable in the more darkly lit scenes, and, what's more, Universal initially chose to present the film in a standard-screen format only. I wasn't even sure at the time whether the format was pan-and-scan, or if we were seeing it in the full-frame aspect ratio it may have first been filmed in, which may have later been matted for widescreen theatrical showing. It turned out that the 1.85:1-ratio widescreen edition (1.78:1 across my screen) did show more left-to-right screen image, although a close comparison also indicated that the top and bottom of selected frames sometimes revealed more and sometimes less material in the wider format. I suppose it depended on different mattings of the original frames. At least we can be reasonably certain that the size of this new version (both HD and SD) is approximately what was shown in theaters. Anyway, the picture quality in the SD edition on Side B is fine, still a bit dark but reasonably sharp in a high-bit-rate anamorphic transfer and fairly well defined for standard definition.
But of more importance is how the new HD-DVD version on Side A looks. The answer is great. No, it's not a night-and-day difference; nothing is. But by putting the SD disc (the same transfer as on the flip side of this combo) into a standard-definition player and comparing selected paused frames with the new HD-DVD, the differences are more than noticeable. The HD version is cleaner appearing, with stronger black levels and greater detail. This is especially true in facial close-ups, where subtle nuances are more visible and skin tones more realistically natural. Side by side, one notices a blur to the SD edition and less vibrant, less solid hues.
The soundtracks on the tapes and on the first DVD I owned were monaural, so there wasn't much to say about them, and then came Dolby Digital 5.1, which we get on Side B with the SD edition. It is an improvement, obviously, but now in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, it's even better. You'll find a wider dynamic range and a smoother overall response. There still isn't much rear-channel activity, though, so don't expect absolute state-of-the-art sonics.
The bonus features are holdovers from the previous edition of "Animal House," and you'll find them in standard definition on Side B. I've never recommended a disc based on the extras it contained; however, I just might have to on this one. At first glance there really are not a lot of extras on here, but what are there are absolute riots! The first extra is called "Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update." It was created by John Landis as he tours around the States looking for most of the characters from the film. Here's the twist: The actors are actually playing their parts from the film. First, we get to know where Boon and Katy are, and next we find Dean Wormer's ex-wife in a strip bar in Chicago. Landis gets an audio from Chip Diller (Kevin Beacon), who has found Jesus in a plate of sunny-side-up eggs. The list goes on, and I have to admit I've never had this good a laugh from any other extra features I've seen on a DVD. I literally laughed myself into tears because I just wasn't expecting what I saw.
Other features are a music video of "Shout," a song originally performed by Otis Day & the Knights at the toga party, this time performed by a group called "RxMx." It's kind of a melodic, punchy, rock version of the tune; however, I'll admit these boys pull it off rather well. Another feature is a "Did You Know That?," a series of animated pop-up anecdotes. How it works is you turn the anecdotes to "on" and then start the movie from the beginning. As the movie plays, little pop-up animated notes appear on the screen displaying trivia information pertaining to the scene being played (SD version only). The last feature is "The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion," where many of the actors, producers, writers, and director of the film provide their insights on the making of "Animal House." There is quite a bit of interesting information as well as a few funny stories amongst them. The only bizarre thing through all the extra features is that they never mention Pinto (Tom Hulce). Hulce, as most of you know, hit his peak when he played Mozart in "Amadeus." I'm not quite sure if there was some contract dispute, but not one person says anything about him.
There is also, of course, the original theatrical trailer, but there are no deleted scenes. Makes you wonder why Universal couldn't have found some cutting-room floor footage, being that the first screening the studio executives saw was actually 172 minutes long. Nevertheless, the extras that are included on his new Combo disc are well worth one's dollar.
Things conclude with thirty-six scene selections, but no chapter insert; a theatrical trailer; and text notes on the production, the cast, and the filmmakers. Universal's menu for the HD edition pops open to the side of the screen during play and when you first boot up, unlike WB's menus, which you can pop up after the movie starts. Otherwise, both systems work conveniently. Finally, the disc comes housed in a slim HD case, this one having a small, irksome latch on the side, the purpose for which I have no idea since the case snaps shut properly even without it.
I'm sure Universal will sell a ton of "Animal House" discs now that they're offering it in an HD-DVD and DVD combo package, and with all their previous supplementary material to boot. How people who bought either of the studio's last two editions will feel about buying it over again is another matter. For me and a lot of other HD-DVD afficionados, though, it's more than worthwhile to see the movie in its improved picture and sound.
"Toga, toga, toga...!"