Two new arrivals at Faber College in 1962 are looking for a fraternity to join, so tonight Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) dutifully traipse around the campus. One of their stops is at the Omega house, where they are welcomed in by Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf) - but not really, as after he introduces them to the guests, he ends up guiding them firmly towards the candidates who have no hope of being admitted there. Leaving crestfallen, Kroger and Dorfman try their luck at the Delta house, and are pleased to be welcomed with open arms - and open beer bottles as Delta house is the most disreputable fraternity at the college...
On the list of truly groundbreaking films - your Psycho, your Star Wars - Animal House is often left off, and this is probably because even though you would be hard pressed to name ten modern and mainstream American comedies that did not owe it a huge debt, the type of humour it pioneered is far from respectable. Even today, this success from the National Lampoon stable divides reactions from those who wonder what is so funny about watching a bunch of jerks of all stripes, to those who love its full-blooded embrace of the anti-establishment. So is it still funny after all these years of imitators and derivatives?
The answer has to be yes, because while many of the gags are ideal examples of perfect bad taste, it's the sense of them against the world that truly appeals. Most of the characters can be put in to two opposing camps: the bad boys who are really the good guys, and the good boys who are really the bad guys. Needless to say, Delta house are the former and everyone who wants to see them expelled are the latter, and they include not only Omega house but the head of the college, Dean Wormer. The Dean gave John Vernon a great opportunity for comic villainy, and he rises to the occasion magnificently with a personality who seethes through gritted teeth, yet might just be totally crazy himself.
All the authority figures appear to have been driven round the bend by their adherence to the rules; look at the difference between the initiations of Delta house and Omega house, where the rebels are purely there for a party, while the straightlaced students hold what looks like a sadomasochistic ceremony of ass-smacking. The script, by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, leaves us in no doubt that we should be supporting the misfits, but there's a surprising amount of variation in their approaches to life. At one end of the scale, we have Kroger and Dorfman who are your basic nerds, while at the top of the heap there's Stratton (Tim Matheson making a role obviously written for Chevy Chase his own), the cool ladies man.
The only thing they have in common is their pursuit of a good time, even at the expense of their studies. But I haven't mentioned the best endorsement of this attitude, and he is Bluto, who leaves you wondering whatever possessed him to go to college in the first place when all he wants to do is drink and enjoy himself in an extreme a way as possible. Bluto was the greatest role John Belushi ever had, proving he could carry his Saturday Night Live talent to the big screen, and reminding us what a fine comedian we lost whenever we watch Animal House. He is at the heart of many of the moments that stand out: the folkie guitar smashing, piling as much food onto his plate at the canteen as possible, the rousing speech when it seems all is lost. But there is plenty of genuine hilarity elsewhere as everyone here pulls their weight in comedy, and its unexpected inspirational qualities leaves one on a high as chaos reigns at the finale. Music by Elmer Bernstein.