"Yes, I remember; just a young boy. Under the influence of the drug, he killed his entire family with an axe."
That's an actual quote from Reefer Madness, the 1936 film that sought to instruct parents about the evils of marijuana, the demon weed destroying our nation's youth. A single puff is all it takes to start cackling maniacally, turn murderously violent, and incurably descend into madness. That hyperbole is part of the reason Reefer Madness has the "cult classic" label slapped on it, but it doesn't hurt that it's so astonishingly inept, peppered with hysterically dated dialogue like "Oh, why don't you button up your lip? You're always squawkin' about something. You've got more static than a radio!" and overearnest, high-school-drama-club-production-of-Godspell-grade acting.
Reefer Madness weaves the tale of Jimmy, an upstanding young man with a swell girl and a keen future who loses it all after falling in with a couple of pot peddlers. Oh, it seems innocent enough at first, but what starts as THC-fueled ragtime culminates in murder, and...yeah. Although it doesn't exactly accomplish its mission of scaring kids into not smoking the marijuana like a cigarette, it inspired Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney to think "hey, we should make this into a musical!", and so they did. Their off-Broadway play with Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, John Kassir, and Robert Torti stuck close to the original story, even keeping the ridiculous dialogue and overearnest acting intact. Showtime aired a feature-length movie based on their musical earlier this year, bringing back most of the original cast, upping the production values, and even tossing in a new song. So, here's the DVD.
For the first half-hour or so, I had a big, doofy smile smeared across my face, sucked in by the infectiously catchy pop songs and over-the-top, kitschy acting. After that...well, it's like sitting down with a bag of Pixy Stix and wolfing 'em down one after another. It's sugary and sweet and different, but after a while, you want something...anything that's not a Pixy Stick. That's a terrible analogy, but I'm sticking with it, and after a half-hour, I'd gotten the joke. We'd shared some laughs, Reefer Madness and I, but I'd had my fun and was ready to move on. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't even a third of the way into the movie.
Reefer Madness is kind of the same thing over and over again: intentionally corny acting and dialogue, jabs at the '30s-era fearmongering of race, misogyny, and drugs, some really blatant innuendo, and pop songs that sometimes run far too long. There's a lot to like -- the choreography's great, the cast is immensely talented (and Kristen Bell, TV's Veronica Mars!, steals every scene she's in), and most of the songs are catchy, but the formula quickly stale really quickly. It does liven up near the end, but my interest was so far gone that alas, even cannibalism, hordes of zombies, barrel drums of blood, tightly-bound cleavage, and FDR couldn't salvage it. Trimming down a couple of the musical numbers, tossing out a couple entirely, and keeping the runtime much, much shorter would've made it...I dunno, great! Instead, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is merely okay and really kind of tedious.
Video: The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video is alright. Much of the movie sports a bright, Technicolor-ish palette, and the movie's high-def photography leaves it looking clean and smooth. The DVD authoring is a bit on the clumsy side, though. It's hardly unwatchable or anything like that, but I'm not used to seeing artifacting or mosquito noise much these days, even if they are fairly light and lurk in the background. The photography looks slightly diffused, and although it's probably a safe bet that that's intentional, it does keep the video from looking as sharp and detailed as it otherwise may have. Okay, but not as impressive as I was expecting it to be.
Audio: There are two soundtracks: one in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps) and the other in plain-jane stereo. The 2.0 mix pumps up the dialogue and lets the music slink into the background. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sports punchier bass and a multichannel roar, but it's not quite as big and full as I thought it'd be, and sometimes lines from the songs are a little overwhelmed.
I don't know how much appeal a musical has to the hearing impaired, but the DVD is closed captioned anyway.
Supplements: The main extra is an audio commentary with director Andy Fickman, producers Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy (no, not that Kevin Murphy), and actors Christian Campbell and Amy Spanger. It's pretty much the five of them ripping on each other and the rest of the cast, quipping about Alan Cumming's Scoh-ish brogue and Christian Campbell's awe-inspiring dancing, playing Point-Out-The-Girlfriend, commenting on the origins of different dance numbers, and pointing out some of the ridiculous stuff in the story like the cops leaving a gun and dead body at the scene of a crime. So, no, it's not a stone-faced, intensely serious discussion about the movie, but who'd want it to be?
The sixteen minute featurette "Grass Roots: Behind the Scenes" mixes the usual lightweight, promotional interviews in with a surprisingly large amount of background information on the original Reefer Madness and the political environment behind it. Like most of these featurettes, it's more heavily geared towards people who haven't seen the movie than those who've already shelled out twenty bucks for the DVD. The original film from the '30s is also tacked on, and if you haven't seen the original before, you really should watch it first to get the most out of the musical. It's from a really battered print, and sticklers for quality would be better off picking up one of the other DVDs floating around out there. Rounding out the extras are a still gallery with a dozen photos, a set of cast bios, and promos for a few other Showtime releases.
The DVD includes a set of animated 4x3 menus, and the movie's been divided into fourteen chapters. The disc comes packaged in a brown, scented keepcase, which I'm pretty sure is a first for me. Too bad Showtime didn't stick with some of the earlier promo art -- it looks considerably better than the low-rent cover art they chose for this DVD.
Conclusion: An over-the-top musical rendition of Reefer Madness sounds like it'd be a campy, hysterical blast -- a hoot, even! -- and it is...for a while, but it's the same joke over and over again, changing the setup but continually delivering the same punchlines. The cast is great and the songs are catchy, but Reefer Madness burns out way too quickly. Rent It.