National Lampoon's Animal House Review
There are certain films which are so iconic that they ingrained themselves in popular culture practically overnight, and Animal House is one of those movies. John Landis had just directed the anarchic Kentucky Fried Movie so he was a perfect fit for this wild script, written by Harold Ramis and National Lampoon magazine scribes Doug Kinney and Chris Miller. As with American Graffiti and Grease, a certain time and place is refracted through a decade or two's worth of fond rememberance, using music as a key element to invoke those memories. Animal House rewinds to the college scene of the early 60's, a time when post-WWII America still held her virtue prior to John Kennedy's assassination and Lyndon Johnson's subsequent escalation of the Vietnam conflict.
Faber College is the place, run by the domineering Dean Wormer (John Vernon in top 'bad guy' form). The Omega Theta Pi fraternity are all clean cut, good looking folks of upper class stock, ranging from smarmy chapter president Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) to the borderline psychotic head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Douglas Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf), with a small but snivelling role for Kevin Bacon in between. They're in direct contrast to the loud mouthed, beer swilling guys at Delta Tau Chi, who prize a good party higher than any set of grades, none more so than John 'Bluto' Blutarsky, played to legendary effect by the late John Belushi. Tim Matheson's turn as serial seducer Eric 'Otter' Stratton adds some much needed charm, and the sarcastic smarts are provided by Peter Riegert as Donald 'Boon' Schoenstein, with Karen Allen as Katie, his girlfriend. Donald Sutherland also has a small cameo as a pot-smoking teacher. We're introduced to both frats through the eyes of newcomers Larry and Kent (Tom Hulce and Stephen Durst respectively), and it's no surprise as to which house they end up in. Lots of comedic hijinks ensue as Dean Wormer tries to get the Delta guys thrown off campus, culminating in a chaotic homecoming parade through the local town.
Forget about the plot though, as it's merely a framework to fit in as many zany college antics as possible and this terrific ensemble of actors brings those stories to life, not to mention kick-starting the 'gross out' genre. It features the 'gross out' staple of having a proper romantic core in amongst the puerile humour, i.e. two vaguely normal people trying to get on with their relationship whilst surrounded by these other fools. I don't think it quite works in this case, as Boon and Katie make a very boring couple and she's proved to be just as much of a bed-hopper as the other blatantly man-hungry gals in the flick, which tips the story far too close to outright misogyny. Then again, the movie's about a bunch of guys living it large on campus, so in that context the poor characterisation of the women isn't all that surprising.
The funny's the thing though and Landis has a keen eye for it, mixing in cartoony sight gags, a dash of the Stooges' slapstick, a hint of Keaton-esque physicality and stuff that's just plain bizarre. There are quieter moments and throwaway lines of dialogue which are just as funny as the broader beats, and it's all held together with the comedic force of nature that is John Belushi. He's got a wonderfully expressive face and a very loose style of performing which lends itself to the haphazard feel of the movie; even after watching it over and over I never quite know what he's going to do next. He's used sparingly though, which was a wise move, and there are some hilarious Bluto-free vignettes such as the uncomfortable visit of some Delta alums to an all-black nightclub (which actually happened to Harold Ramis).
As I mentioned before, music is a main part of the film's nostalgic appeal, using the 'jukebox' approach to layer in classic after classic. The music isn't just ear-candy as it's often used to complement certain emotional beats, which gives the film some depth that the oft-crude script is otherwise missing. The near-mythical Toga party is set to a charged rendition of The Isley Brothers' 'Shout' which really sells the scene and the devil-may-care attitude of the Delta House boys. The only moment of incongruity comes when Bluto's eating his way through the college cafeteria to the strains of '(What A) Wonderful World' by Sam Cooke, but as it's Sam Cooke I don't mind in the least. Elmer Bernstein's straight-laced score also provides some memorable cues such as the gloriously pompous Faber College Theme.
Landis is a smarter filmmaker than many give him credit for as he loves to drop in some social commentary, what with the social outcasts of Delta rebelling against the military authority of Omega (who themselves are driven by the corrupt Dean Wormer), which culminates in social unrest. The girls on the JFK float in the homecoming parade at the end of the film are dressed as Jackie Kennedy was on that terrible day in November 1963, but the filmmakers nixed a gag which alluded to JFK's fate. Still, it's more than a little ironic that this fresh, free-wheeling film with its counterculture subtext was largely responsible for popularising the broader, dumber 'gross out' genre.
Animal House comes to Blu-ray sporting a VC-1 encode, framed at 1.85:1. The level of detail fluctuates throughout, a common trait for movies like this which were shot quick and dirty on a shoestring budget. DNR may well have been a factor, although certain shots still reveal a wealth of detail, like the close-ups of John Vernon's pock-marked face, and clothing usually displays a lot of texture. A mark has been knocked off for the obvious halos around contrasting edges. Perhaps Universal will learn to leave the sharpening control alone one of these days? The constant layer of grain doesn't look entirely natural (the aforementioned sharpening can give it an ugly 'digital' appearance) but the opticals have been cleaned up nicely and the whole film looks very clean in general.
There's a distinct lack of shadow detail and proper blacks in the darker shots, which jives with the off-the-cuff nature of the shoot; not being able to properly light those scenes has flattened the contrast considerably. Tim Matheson's hair disappears into the background of the car when he's seducing Fawn Liebowitz' friend in the back seat, for example. The colour is generally quite subdued, but I doubt that the intention was to create a candy-coloured romp. The grungy headquarters of Delta House is captured accurately enough. Skin tones can run a little hot at times, veering into a slight orange cast, otherwise they hold together well. No encoding greeblies to report.
Make no mistake, this is another recycled master from Universal but I've seen a lot worse from them over the last few years.
Well, it says DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on the cover, and my amp says that it's decoding DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but this mix may as well be mono. Dialogue stays rooted to the centre speaker, there's precious little directionality across the front soundstage, the rears are non-existent and the LFE provides the bare minimum of support. The music isn't in stereo, although the clip of the end title song that plays over the main menu is. This is understandable to a point, given the limited scope of the original elements, and as a mono mix this would pass with flying colours, but as a 5.1 spread it fails miserably and I've marked it as such. And it's utterly baffling that Universal would lavish lossless 5.1 on this, while condemning The Blues Brothers to a mere lossy 5.1 track (more on that to come).
Please note: the audio drop-out introduced when the movie was remastered is still present; the "now" has gone from Niedermeyer's bark of "Now drop and give me twenty!" to his ROTC recruits on the playing field.
The video-based content has been regurgitated from the 'Double Secret Probation Edition' DVD, which took the 45-minute 'Making of' created for the laserdisc and added a spoof 23-minute 'Where are they now?' featurette. The former is an interesting look at how the movie came to be, with contributions from most of the key personnel, while the latter is a fitfully funny spoof that revisits several Delta members years later. The theatrical trailer is also included.
New to the Blu-ray are a couple of interative U-Control modes, one of which merely tells you what the song is that's playing (you should know them all anyway), but the other one is a 'Scene Companion' picture-in-picture stream which uses interview outtakes from the documentary and behind the scenes photographs to shed a bit more light on certain scenes. Kudos to Universal for taking the time to include some unseen material for this PiP track, instead of simply chopping up the existing documentary and laying it over the movie.
There's also a 'Scene it?' game, which plays a clip or shows a still from the film and asks a question, like "who has been removed from this scene?". It's not exactly taxing, so is best avoided unless you really want to take a 26-minute quiz about the movie. Missing from this selection is the 'Animal House: The Inside Story' documentary produced for the Biography Channel, which was included as a second disc with the Limited Edition R1 DVD giftset a few years ago.
On a side note, this disc appears to be the exact same platter as the North American release, featuring an FBI warning and 'R' rating logo screen before the movie starts, as well as a French Canadian language option.
The years have been kind to Animal House. It's a deceptively smart and well executed period comedy which stands head and shoulders above its 'gross out' kin, and the sad death of John Belushi has meant that his extant performances shine even brighter in the absence of new material. The Blu-ray presentation is adequate, with average video and audio quality but a decent roster of extras.