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Reefer Madness - Restored and In Color

Fox // PG // April 20, 2004
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 11, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly-increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug -- a violent narcotic -- an unspeakable scourge -- The Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come dangerous hallucinations -- space expands -- time slows down, almost stands still...fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances -- followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions...leading finally to acts of shocking violence...ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate. The scenes and incidents, while fictionalized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction. If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose...Because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter...or yours..or YOURS!
-- Foreward, Reefer Madness

I admittedly have not delved into intensive research regarding the effects of marijuana consumption, so the efforts of the producers of 1938's Reefer Madness are greatly appreciated. It's disheartening to learn that I've been so lead astray by the commercial efforts being churned out of Hollywood in more recent years. Although I've never lit up, my cable provider does offer Comedy Central, meaning I've seen Half-Baked and Up in Smoke a couple hundred thousand times, and those lesser movies never once touched upon the side effect of incurable insanity (well, aside from Jim Breuer, I mean). How High led me to believe that pot would be my ticket to the Ivy League, not a gateway to murder. We live in a world where an Academy Award winning actress uses an apple as a bong. What kind of message are we sending to the future of our great nation? Thankfully, Legend Films has lovingly restored Reefer Madness, a film daring enough to cast a shining beacon of truth on the thrice-damned marihu...marijuana plant. The aptly-titled film is about both reefer and madness, specifically the madness that so frequently stems from reefer. The movie stars prolific actor Carleton Young (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) as a drug pusher who continually berates his pot-peddling moll Mae and ensnares students of a nearby high school into his web of cannabis, an approach that is somehow profitable despite apparently never snagging any money in exchange for the scores of joints he tosses their way. Addiction! Insanity! Lust! Murder! Bloodless gunshot wounds! Eighth-story tapestry leaping! Disassociation of ideas! Thrill to all this and more in the 65 gripping minutes of this immaculately researched documentary.

Cult classics can generally be divided into two categories. The first is the underappreciated movie, a film that's well-crafted, frequently offering an underlying intelligence and biting humor. Reefer Madness is the other kind. Despite its slim runtime, barely breaking the hour mark, it's at times excruciatingly dull. Too many characters talk about the effects of marijuana, and Reefer Madness only really shines when we're treated to a glimpse of these effects, such as teenagers in their mid-'30s flailing their arms and legs to THC-fueled ragtime. It isn't over-the-top frequently enough for my tastes, but when the screen is bathed in smoke and its characters cackle maniacally, it doesn't take a genius on the level of Silas P. Silas or Jamal King to see how Reefer Madness gained its notoriety.

Reefer Madness first leapt into pop culture after entering the public domain, and as bargain basement DVD houses are prone to do, several cheap, low-quality discs have been shat out from various companies. Legend Films' DVD may cost a few dollars more, but it boasts a markedly improved image, a digitally colored version of the movie, a pair of audio commentaries, and a nearly half-hour long marijuana handbook. Kudos to Legend for setting a release date on 4/20 too.

"Here is an example: a sixteen year old lad, apprehended in the act of staging a hold-up. Sixteen years old and a marijuana addict. Here is a most tragic case."
"Yes. I remember. Just a young boy. Under the influence of the drug, he killed his entire family with an axe."

Video: Legend Films has whipped out their digital Crayolas again for this DVD, using the drug-addled state of Reefer Madness' cast of characters as an excuse to really get creative. The hues are bright and vibrant, looking almost like a vintage comic book, as noted in Legend's audio commentary on the disc. Each character even has his or her own distinctively tinted marijuana smoke. As intriguing and impressive as the final result is, I still found myself preferring the original black and white. For purists, a restored version preserving its original presentation is also provided on this disc under the "Special Features" menu. For a quick comparison between the two:

Reefer Madness, like many movies that have languished in the public domain, has typically been released with transfers culled from murky, battered prints. This DVD still suffers from some flaws, but I'd be amazed if it's not considered a dramatic improvement over previous releases. Speckling is essentially non-existent, though a series of thin vertical lines are present throughout. Some intermittent print damage can also easily be spotted. Though not a constant nuisance, it's impossible to ignore when it lurches on-screen. The elements appear to have shrunk unevenly over time, giving the image somewhat of a jittery appearance, made worse by some skipped frames. Clarity varies from shot to shot but is generally decent, although detail is limited. It's noted in the technical commentary that Legend wanted to leave some rough edges remaining, and accordingly, the image is still grainy. I smirked at one point when I noticed a chunk of grain freeze, presumably to mask damage in a series of succeeding frames. Given how great the majority of Reefer Madness looks, especially compared to my exceedingly low expectations going in, its flaws are easy to take in stride.

Audio: The colorized version of Reefer Madness features two six-channel mixes, one in Dolby Digital 5.1 and the other in DTS, which are about as immersive as expected from a movie whose seventieth anniversary is a few short years away. There's not really a score, very little diegetic music is used, and there are hardly any sound effects. What little activity there is largely remains anchored up front, and directionality is limited to characters and cars heading off-screen. The rear channels are used sparsely, and the material obviously doesn't really lend itself to foundation-threatening low frequencies. Dialogue sounds fairly harsh and distorted, infrequently tough to fully discern. The DTS audio doesn't sound astonishingly different from the original monaural track that accompanies the black and white version of the movie, and both presentations offer optional English subtitles and closed captions.

Supplements: The biggest reason I picked up this DVD was the audio commentary from Mike Nelson, which picks up pretty much where he left off with Mystery Science Theater 3000. After lobbing a brief bit o' background on the movie, he spends the rest of the runtime riffing on the inane dialogue, dismal acting, and some of the frequently overlooked side effects of marijuana abuse, such as proficiency at piano and a tendency to mangle neckties. This is probably the best way to watch this DVD -- Mike only speaks when riffing on the movie, so most of the dialogue can still be heard pretty clearly. It would've been nice if he had someone to play off of or if the quips came at a more rapid-fire pace, but rabid MST3K fans still ought to enjoy it enough to make Reefer Madness at least worth a rental. It's also worth noting that Mike's returning for future Legend DVDs, including Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead.

The second commentary features some of the staff of Legend Films, including head honcho Barry Sandrew, creative director-slash-sock puppet overlord Rosemary Horvath, and David D. Martin. Sandrew opens the commentary by stating that he wanted the track to be more fun than just an academic discussion of the coloring process, although...yeah, that really doesn't work out. The emphasis is squarely on the coloring, delving into the motivation behind the use of certain hues, how the project was initially laid out, and noting some of the more difficult shots to complete. They also point out some of the more laughable aspects of the movie -- the miniscule sets, the middle-aged teens -- but despite their best efforts (such as sucking helium from a balloon for no particular reason), it's not nearly as entertaining as Mike's commentary. Decent background noise, but nothing I'd sit down and actively watch. Both commentaries are only available with the colorized version.

The newly-produced and borderline-unwatchable Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook: The Movie runs close to twenty-five minutes, featuring a sixty-ish stoner prattling on incoherently about every conceivable aspect of marijuana. For those who can't get enough of Grandpa Ganja, four minutes of outtakes, including a stab at a Spanish version, are also included. Finally, there's a two minute trailer for the DVD. Reefer Madness sports a set of animated 4x3 menus with the song "Reefer Man" swinging underneath. The movie has been divided into sixteen chapters, and there wasn't an insert tucked into the keepcase of the review copy I received.

Conclusion: A solid release of a legendarily awful movie, Reefer Madness features about as nice a presentation as this flick is ever likely to see, a decent assortment of extras, and, available online for well under $10 shipped, a surprisingly slim price tag. At that price, Reefer Madness is worth picking up as a curiosity, if nothing else. Mike Nelson's presence also makes this a near-essential purchase for MST3K's rabid fanbase.

Related Reviews: DVD Talk also has reviews for Legend Films' DVD release of A Christmas Wish as well as Whirlwind Media's Madness Trilogy, a set of vintage cautionary tales that also includes Reefer Madness.

Stupid Joke I Meant To Force In: One of the movie's central characters is named Mary Lane, and I was eagerly awaiting an excuse to make a reference to Moxy Früvous' similarly-titled song "Poor Mary Lane" until I decided I didn't want to anymore.
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