Total Recall

National Lampoon's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the best-reviewed productions from National Lampoon.

by | July 29, 2015 | Comments

With this weekend’s Vacation, Ed Helms and Christina Applegate bring the long-suffering Griswold clan back to theaters for the first time in nearly 20 years. A lot has changed since the first time we met the family in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, which has us feeling nostalgic for all their previous adventures, so we decided we’d go ahead and dedicate this week’s feature to the National Lampoon filmography. They can’t all be the original Vacation, of course, but chances are you’ve laughed more than a few times at the movies on this list. Jump in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, kids — it’s time for Total Recall!


 10. Transylmania (2009) 0%

Transylmania

National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze scored a perfect zero with critics during its brief theatrical run in 2003, and its piddling box-office gross meant that Dorm Daze 2 went direct to DVD — but that movie’s sequel, 2009’s Transylmania, somehow returned the franchise to theaters. Sadly, the results were pretty much the same: Transylmania grossed a reported $408,229 while earning universal scorn from critics who must not have been in the mood for a horror/comedy hybrid about college students whose semester abroad in Romania gets them mixed up with a 17th-century vampire curse. As Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times warned, “If your idea of a good time is laughing with repulsion at a humpbacked Romanian nympho with a torture-loving midget dad, or tittering every time a bong appears, a darkened theater awaits you.”

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9. National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj (2006) 7%

Rise of Taj

Kal Penn got a few laughs as pandering stereotype/second banana Taj Mahal Badalandabad in the original Van Wilder, and by 2006, he’d picked up some career steam through roles in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and the Fox hit series House, so why not make him the focus of a sequel? As Steve Carell would learn with Evan Almighty the following year, elevating a supporting character to a starring role for a sequel doesn’t always work out the way it’s supposed to, and so it was with Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, which managed to do even worse with critics than its widely scorned predecessor. “Taj,” gagged Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News, “plays like a very bad combination of Revenge of the Nerds and Harry Potter.”

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8. Vegas Vacation (1997) 13%

Vegas Vacation

Nearly a decade lapsed between the third and fourth installments of the Vacation franchise, but judging from the on-screen results, not enough of that time was spent coming up with fresh ideas: Both critically and commercially, this limp dud is a mere shadow of its predecessors, stringing together a series of mild jokes whose lack of daring was reflected in the film’s PG rating — and whose overall lack of imagination is summed up with a sad callback to the first Vacation’s “girl in the Ferrari” subplot. This outing’s dismal box office receipts chased the series out of theaters for nearly 20 years, and it wasn’t missed by critics like Sin Magazine’s Austin Kennedy, who pointed out, “Despite Chevy Chase’s decent effort trying to revive the Griswold franchise, Vegas Vacation is just a big disappointment. This one could have just premiered on TV, as it resembles that sort of mediocrity.”

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7. National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 (1993) 21%

Loaded Weapon

By the early ‘90s, the buddy cop action thriller genre had more or less devolved into a parody of itself, but that didn’t stop National Lampoon from throwing a bunch of rapid-fire gags and celebrity cameos into a cinematic blender to produce Loaded Weapon 1, starring Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson as a pair of mismatched cops trying to take down the bad guy (William Shatner) whose pursuit of a secret recipe for turning cocaine into cookies has already resulted in the death of Jackson’s former partner (Whoopi Goldberg). Less aggressively offensive than some of the company’s other efforts — yet just as scattershot — Loaded prompted disinterested shrugs from critics as well as audiences; as Roger Ebert wrote, “It’s hard to satirize a satire. That’s what National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 wants to do, but the target proves elusive. This is a would-be comedy that’s not as funny (nor as satirical) as the movies that inspired it.”

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6. National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002) 18%

Van Wilder

On the surface, it might seem that 2002’s Van Wilder is an attempt to recapture the wildly subversive anti-establishment humor that fed into early National Lampoon triumphs like Animal House. But even if they share a college setting, these two films are separated by a crucial difference: Instead of being a schlubby, disadvantaged outsider with an axe to grind against the Man, Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is simply lazy, a seven-year “student” whose only real problem is losing access to his dad’s largesse (a problem from which he’s amply distracted by the charms of a campus reporter played by Tara Reid). It did well enough to generate a sequel, but by mistaking T&A for heart, Van Wilder highlighted one of the big disconnects between the company’s classic films and its misguided latter-day efforts. “Once upon a time, anything associated with the name ‘National Lampoon’ generated as many chuckles as a can of nitrous oxide,” lamented the Kansas City Star’s Dan Lybarger. “Now the effect is more like a laxative.”

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5. National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985) 34%

European Vacation

In theory, National Lampoon’s European Vacation should have been great, but the reality proved puzzlingly lame — starting with the way our bumbling protagonists’ proud surname is inexplicably (and temporarily) changed from Griswold to Griswald, this sequel seems to have many of the ingredients of a fun Vacation movie, but can never quite seem to figure out what to do with them. Of course, with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo back together, things can only be so bad, and the setup — which sends the clueless Griswalds off to Europe, where they live down to every ugly American stereotype — is good for a handful of giggles. On the whole, however, it proved a disappointment for most. “Personally, it’s my favorite out of the four Vacation films,” insisted Larry Carroll for Counting Down. “Many people don’t agree with me, however.”

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4. Blackball (2003) 41%

blackball

Definitely one of the more esoteric entries in the National Lampoon filmography, 2005’s Blackball rounds up an impressively eclectic cast (including James Cromwell and Vince Vaughn) to wring some chuckles out of a story about a young, brash professional lawn bowler (Paul Kaye) who sets about dethroning the reigning champion (Cromwell) with the aid of a sleazy agent (Vaughn). If Blackball shamelessly mines the same class dynamic humor that drove Animal House, it still manages to get a few good laughs out of the joke — and it isn’t like that setup hadn’t already been reused countless times anyway. “Is it an accurate representation of English lawn bowls? Who knows,” shrugged Film4. “But satire, gags and the unexpectedly exciting business of bowling itself are blended into an enjoyable whole.”

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3. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) 67%

Christmas Vacation

The Vacation franchise veered a little off course with 1985’s European sequel, but it enjoyed a happy rebound with Christmas Vacation — a sweet-hearted chapter in the Griswold family saga that jettisoned the slightly anarchic spirit of the original for 90 minutes of goofy fun that puts family patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) in the middle of the painful (and universally identifiable) gap between idealistic expectations of holidays with the family and the messy chaos of real life. The end result, argued Ryan Cracknell for Movie Views, is “The ultimate family holiday film, playing on both the heart strings and the horror to capture a genuine Christmas spirit.”

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2. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) 90%

bluto

The company’s name eventually became synonymous with T&A-obsessed direct-to-video efforts, but National Lampoon’s cinematic efforts started off strong: 1978’s Animal House united some of the era’s brightest comedic talents (including breakout star John Belushi, producer Ivan Reitman, and co-writer Harold Ramis) in a proudly ribald look at the alcohol-soaked underbelly of collegiate life that laid the foundation for dozens of subsequent “snobs vs. slobs” comedies while forging a new frontier for subversive humor. “The Lampoon people,” observed TIME’s Frank Rich, “understand the darkest secret of an American college education: one of the noblest reasons to go is to spend four years studying sex.”

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1. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) 93%

vacation

After Animal House, National Lampoon fumbled around in search of a suitable follow-up for a bit, releasing the underwhelming National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and National Lampoon’s Movie Madness before finally wising up and adapting the John Hughes short story “Vacation ’58” for 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. Starring Chevy Chase as the perpetually clueless Clark Griswold, Beverly D’Angelo as his faithful wife Ellen, and an ace supporting cast that included old pros like Imogen Coca, more established talents like John Candy and Randy Quaid, and future stars like Jane Krakowski and Anthony Michael Hall — not to mention an eye-catching cameo from Christie Brinkley — Vacation took the early ‘80s vision of suburban America’s ideal summer sojourn and twisted it into a nightmarish (and oh so funny) hellscape of shoddy goods, wrong turns, rotten relatives, and broken promises that’s still making us laugh more than 30 years later. “The Griswolds,” decreed Fred Topel for Crave, “are a national treasure.”

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Finally, here’s the trailer for National Lampoon’s second cinematic effort, National Lampoon’s Movie Madness, which barely managed to sneak into theaters in 1983 after spending a couple of years in limbo. See if you can figure out why the studio sat on it:

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