David Denby

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

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Fraternity-house pranks, which depend on humiliating your rivals and yourself at the same time, may be the lowest of all forms of humor, but they have a necessity that anyone can see: They are probably the only form of rebellion available to square college boys. (Hip kids tend not to join fraternities, i.e., they get laid off campus.) In a few years those boys will be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, but at nineteen they can make outrageously cruel and infantile jokes and no one will give them too hard a time. At college I halfheartedly admired the guys who tore themselves apart on Saturday night, but I never wanted to join their revels. National Lampoon's Animal House, which is a genial, uneven, occasionally hilarious celebration of frathouse anarchy, doesn't give you the chance to stand back: The movie says that anyone who won't join the fun is a prig….

Animal House was written by three National Lampoon contributors (Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller) as a continuation of that magazine's nonstop guerrilla war against respectful attitudes toward culture, women, blacks, animals, etc. The year is 1962 at Faber College, one of the less rigorous West Coast institutions. The place is in a state of war. On the one side is Delta House, a sorry collection of fatties, geeks, near-criminal misfits, and outrageous make-out artists (our heroes). On the other side are the embattled dean … and his obsequious student allies in Omega House, an even sorrier collection of murderously ambitious John Dean types with prom-queen girl friends who are all hot and bothered underneath their colorless, waxy lipstick. The war is fought in the frat houses, in bed, and in the dean's office, where such genuine atrocities as shooting the ROTC commander's horse are regularly committed.

Director John Landis (Kentucky Fried Movie) doesn't have what you would call a light touch, but he's good at keeping the frenetic action clear, and he uses the large cast well…. In this movie women are definitely seen as prey, but they have their own feelings, too. Or at least their own desires: Sex is the one thing the National Lampoon can't bring itself to ridicule. The sexiness, even tender sexiness, that gently breaks through the scabrous surface is the redeeming sign of grace in what could have been a very rancid show. (p. 65)

David Denby, "Man without a Country," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1978 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 11, No. 31, July 31, 1978, pp. 64-5.∗


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