VHS Revival revisits the inaugural adventure of Hollywood’s favourite dysfunctional family
Long before The Simpsons made their mark on American culture, Warner Brothers gave us the Griswolds. There had been dysfunctional families before, but as a symbol of America’s faltering moral climate, Clark and his band of three proved something of a landmark in outlining the time-honoured cross-country road trip in all of its failed glory. Time may have diluted the movie’s irreverence, and events may border on the caricaturistic on occasion, but these are relatable characters caught in an all-too-familiar environment of outdated sentiments and eternal disappointment. The fact that they never give up on attaining the unattainable is what endears us to them so strongly.
Clark: Despite all the little problems, it really is fun, isn’t it?
Ellen: No. But with every new day, there’s fresh hope.
Patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) is the person responsible for spearheading their idealistic conquest to take in the sights and sounds of the good ol’ U S of A. His bubblegum-popping offspring may have preferred the relatively stress-free option of flying, as may his long-suffering wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), but Clark is all about making memories, and memories they will surely make. In preparation for their monumental trip, old man Griswold visits a car dealership with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall). He is there to pick up a very specific car in a very specific colour, but instead leaves with an inferior model that looks like a snot rag. The shyster who tricks him is our first example of a society that has slipped into the moral toilet, and as a lowly byproduct of modern society Clark has no choice but to eat it.
Things are about to get a whole lot worse for the Griswolds as they visit monument after pointless monument — not because they particularly enjoy it, but because they’re Americans and that’s what they’re supposed to do. For Clark, this is a chance to mingle with the good, honest folk of the country’s heartland, but he seems to recall his own childhood adventures through the rose-tinted lens of adolescence, and those people are not as noble or as accommodating as he remembers, a fact that becomes increasingly hard for him to shrug off.
Not only are his fellow patriots uninterested in vacational good cheer, they are beset on making his trip miserable by making a quick buck at his expense. First they want money in exchange for directions, then they overcharge him for accommodation, car repairs, anything they can attach a dollar sign to, and when Clark wanders into the vast and unforgiving desert in search of help the natives neglect to aid his perilous predicament, instead calling him an asshole and leaving him at the mercy of a potentially fateful midday sun. This isn’t a country united by pride and sentiment, it is a savage landscape of selfish beasts.
The film’s comedy is derived from a love-hate relationship with the motherland and its moral decline, highlighting the kind of everyday misfortunes we can all relate to. Still, National Lampoon’s Vacation is almost four decades old, and some of its humour has no place in the modern world — ironic, since this is basically a commentary on declining values. If a scene in which a gang of black, inner-city hustlers steal the family’s hubcaps is borderline offensive, then an incestuous revelation from Audrey’s hillbilly cousin is the kind of discriminatory gag that makes for some unpleasant viewing. But times change, and in this case for the better.
Other ‘poor taste’ jokes are much more palatable. A scene in which Clark is pulled over having driven off with his dog still tied to the bumper is cringeworthy but harmless, while the image of their dead aunt tied to the roof of their station wagon is the stuff of comedy legend. The movie was based on the short story Vacation ’58 by cult director John Hughes. Hughes was relatively unknown back in ’83, and his original screenplay was altered to shift the focus to Chevy Chase’s character, which may go some way to explaining the somewhat surreal introduction of Clark’s Ferrari-sporting admirer, a blonde bombshell who was initially meant for the hormone-afflicted Rusty. It is perhaps no surprise that the immensely talented Anthony Michael Hall would become Hughes’ go-to-star.
The story was initially told from Rusty’s perspective, and it was a smart decision from director Harold Ramis to shift the movie’s focus. Chevy Chase’s career had suffered something of a downturn at the time following commercial bombs Class Reunion and Movie Madness, but this is very much his movie, and its themes are much more relevant to the head of the family. Nobody delivers this particular brand of dry wit like Chevy, one that explodes in a side-splitting torrent of bad language as his ideal dreams collapse all around him, resulting in a brief flirtation with infidelity and a ludicrous, cops-and-robbers style stick-up.
Clark: I think you’re all fucked in the head. We’re ten hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out. Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes!
In the end, the movie pangs of midlife crisis as an increasingly wild-eyed Clark sees his tenuous command on proceedings slip agonisingly away. In a newly globalised world of long working hours and growing technological advancement, Clark rarely gets to see his kids, who would much rather smoke pot and play video games than explore what the great outdoors has to offer, and in their ill-fated trip he sees a chance to put things right.
In reality, Clark is a middle-aged father who has begun to feel that the world is passing him by, and his trip seems to be about rediscovering his own youth, if not from the make-believe sentiments he initially clings to, then from the thrill of freedom and female attraction, superficial desires that only serve to strengthen the notion that family is everything, no matter how overbearing or dysfunctional.