It was shortly after I started my first semester at college that Todd Phillips came to Austin to show “Frat House” and it was shortly after that, I knew I wouldn’t be pledging to a fraternity. The screening was a rare one since HBO, which had commissioned it for their “America Undercover” series, decided against airing it after questions were raised about its authenticity even after it won the Grand Jury Prize for nonfiction at Sundance in 1998. (Additionally, since I wasn’t the notetaker I am now, I’m glad Anne S. Lewis at the Austin Chronicle commemorated the occasion with an equally rare and extensive interview about the film with Phillips.)
Of course, it was a breakthrough for the future “Hangover” director, who co-directed the film with fellow troublemaker Andrew Gurland (“The Virginity Hit”), and one he seems to have been chasing for the rest of his career. To great success, we might add, culminating in this week’s release of “Project X,” a film Phillips didn’t direct — it’s the debut of music video helmer Nima Nourizadeh – but continues his exploration of boys behaving badly and their tribal rituals. Whether it was staged or not, and Phillips has always argued that it wasn’t, “Frat House” was the purest distillation of this most recurring of themes in the filmmaker’s work from "Road Trip" to "Due Date" and quite possibly is still his funniest since it’s completely unvarnished in showing boys-not-yet-men who are aggressively nasty towards each other before ultimately bonding because of what they’ve experienced together. To call it his most personal work isn’t a stretch either since he and Gurland actually film themselves going through the pledging process themselves.
Though it’s never seen a proper release, it seems only appropriate that “Frat House” has gained a cult status as its been passed around first on the types of bootleg VHS tapes that used to be the currency of college dorms and then on the Internet, which has allowed for the film to be seen below and while what’s in theaters makes use of found footage, in the case of “Frat House,” it really is footage worth finding.