Published Aug 11, 2013A younger, modern generation likely associates the National Lampoon brand with crap like Cattle Call, Dorm Daze or Van Wilder rather than the genuinely funny material it was responsible for in the '80s. Now, a cheap header to sell low quality comedy, it's unlikely that anyone born after 1990 would have any idea that it was once associated with a movie as revered as Animal House.
1983's Vacation, the second of the franchise's lengthy list of films, finds the Griswold family hitting the road in their fancy new station wagon for a vacation. Chevy Chase assumes the role of Clark, a typical, overly bumbling, American Dad eager to share the wonders of family togetherness and the open road with his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and children Audrey (Dana Barron) and Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall).
As the family heads west from Chicago to California, they face countless issues many families have encountered at some point: missing credit cards; getting lost in a bad part of town; and the inevitable awkward moment where horny parents are caught trying to find some time away from the kids to rekindle the flame.
Being an R-rated affair, though; Vacation took things quite a bit farther than the traditional family movie, throwing in darker themes about death, theft and casual infidelity. It was quite edgy for its time, packing nudity – sadly, not Christie Brinkley in the swimming scene, instead showcasing a soaking wet D'Angelo in the shower—alongside cursing, recreational drug use amongst teens and the indifferent manipulation and abuse of a dead body.
Even more adult-oriented was the introduction of Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), Ellen's backwoods cousin whom adds the topic of incest to the film's story. His daughter Vicki (Jane Krakowski), in conversation with her cousin Audrey, shares that she learned to French kiss from her father. This doesn't phase Audrey, which prompts Vicki to point out, "But Daddy says I'm the best at it."
It isn't until the family makes it to their ultimate destination of Wally World (a clichéd version of Disney Land) that things go off the rail. After travelling two-thousand miles and encountering so many bumps along the road, the Griswolds go off the deep end when they find their beloved park is closed for maintenance. Inevitably, their dalliance with illegalities is given the deux ex machina treatment standard of '80s comedy, but it doesn't hinder the anarchic sensibilities of a film distorting the traditionalist sanctity of the nuclear family.
This dynamic, which worked quite well for two subsequent installments, ultimately wavered by the time the dreadfully executed Vegas sequel, but up until then—prior to Chevy Chase's eventual Hollywood downfall—the franchise promised some of the best mainstream comedy studios had to offer and solidified Chase as the ideal everyman with a penchant for physical comedy.
Vacation was also the starting point for writer John Hughes, who went on to make The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, while director Harold Ramis would go on to write Ghostbusters and a slew of other films that have remained relevant so many years later. And while Vacation can be seen as an over-the-top comedy, it was the ever-present dark humour and politically incorrect tone that made it so successful, both in 1983 and even now in 2013.
Vacation screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the TOGA: Reinvention of the American Comedy retrospective on August 11, 2013 at 7:30pm. (Warner)