Animal House

Animal House (1978)
Universal Home Video
Cast: John Belushi, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce, Tim Matheson
Extras: Delta Alumni Update, Animated Anecdotes, Reunion, Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes

So, the high-definition DVD revolution is officially underway. Aside from the obvious choice – HD-DVD or Blu-Ray – one decision that consumers will face as both formats dig in their respective heels is: "Do I upgrade?" However, a tangential dilemma will grow for fans of older, classic movies. Sure, HD will make the latest "Harry Potter" or "X-Men" installment look like a million bucks, but what about "The Maltese Falcon" or "Taxi Driver" or "Psycho?" Will HD's increased resolution create a need to re-purchase classic movies? Especially since in many cases "definitive" DVD editions are already available?

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has provided a possible answer to this quandary with the HD-DVD release of John Landis' landmark 1978 counter-culture comedy "National Lampoon's Animal House." Taking the 2003 "Double Secret Probation" special edition DVD and fusing it with a full 1080 high-definition transfer, the HD-DVD/DVD combo allows for virtual side-by-side comparison between the two versions. Side A holds the HD-DVD version, while Side B is the DVD.

I won't go into great detail about the movie, considering its almost mythic stature within the annals of film comedy. Suffice it to say that "National Lampoon's Animal House" represented a perfect storm of talent, vehicle and cultural readiness, as it depicted the battle between the unconventional Delta House and uber-conservative Omega House fraternities at fictional Faber College in 1962 and served it up as a hearty helping of "Duck Soup"-style anarchy for a weary – and receptive – post-Watergate/Vietnam audience. The film struck an immediate chord, turning the $3 million ugly duckling into the most successful film comedy of that time. Given its influence over the past twenty-eight years, it's hard to believe that the film was such a radical departure — and a huge gamble on the studio's part.

So, does "Animal House" benefit from 1080i high definition? After putting my HD-DVD player through a torturous Side A / Side B flipping session all day, I'm happy to say that there is a difference, a noticeable difference. To sum up in a word, that difference is DETAIL. In HD, not only are the colors more vibrant and rich, but you'll be able to see the outline of deep beard stubble on Pinto's (Tom Hulce, pre-Amadeus) face or Flounder's (Stephen Furst) mole on the slide projection of his picture. The image is that much sharper in the HD version. Pinto's dress coat during Frat Rush is a respectable black in the SD version. With HD's increased resolution, I noticed lots of iridescent speckles in the fabric. Every strand of Babs' (Martha Smith) bouffant is distinct and Bluto's "zit" impersonation takes on a whole new dimension, now that we can really see the, um, consistency. In short, what the SD transfer hints at, the HD version delivers. The source print still exhibits grain, but completely in step with the original cinematography. I found myself watching the HD version in longer stretches than the SD version during my comparisons and I can't think of a better compliment than that.

The Dolby Digital Plus track on the HD-DVD represents a marginally better audio presentation than the 5.1 remastered sound on the DVD. The oldies soundtrack – ranging from The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" to DeWayne Jessie's now-legendary rendition of "Shout" — gets a little goose in clarity and aural definition from the fatter bandwidth of the DD+ encoding. The original mono soundtrack is there for purists, but available only with the SD presentation. In all three permutations, the audio is crisp, clear and you get to hear every note of Elmer Bernstein's lush dramatic score (another radical notion for the film, courtesy Landis).

The extras are all contained on the DVD side. The jewel of the supplements is the 25 minute mockumentary "Where Are They Now: A Delta Alumni Update." John Landis narrates, referring to "Animal House" as a "documentary about one semester in the life of the Delta Chi fraternity." Catching up with several graduates and perfectly in step with the film's famous "where-are-they-now" ending, the "Update" finds class-stud Eric Stratton in his gynecologist's overcoat, about to administer an exam to a beautiful blonde, Babs pointing out famous tables on the Universal Studios tram and Hoover as a Baltimore PD, anxiously telling the interviewer "don't tell the others where I am." There's also a more traditional retrospective documentary with new (as in 2003) video interviews from practically the entire cast and major behind-the-camera personnel. Running 45 minutes, the anecdotes fly fast, free – and with great affection for the movie that, for most of them, started their careers. "Did You Know That?" is a subtitle feature, providing pithy factoids about the movie. Informative, but they appear so infrequently that after a while I was anticipating the next trivia tidbit instead of watching the movie.

I'm wondering why Universal chose to release a hybrid disc. Why not simply fold the existing extras into the HD presentations? Why two transfers for a title that's already been released? I guess it's probably easier (read: cheaper) to fuse the DVD – with all the extras – onto a HD-DVD disc and make it a flipper. Just curious…

The HD transfer for "Animal House" is, for my money, a marked improvement over the SD DVD. But is it worth buying again? Hard to say, but if having the best possible rendition of a film is your goal – and you have an HD-DVD player — I say "Go for it!" Toga, toga, toga…