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RiffTrax: LIVE! Reefer Madness
Thank God for the Internet. When it finally left the air way back in 1999 (though it hung around in reruns for another few years), Mystery Science Theater 3000 was seen as a show that never got its due, that never had the chance to reach beyond a specific cult audience which was clearly not large enough to sustain the series' necessary broadcast/cable TV mandates. Along with a chorus of "the right people get it" and a wealth of critical praise, it was destined to die out among fan trading sites and occasional guest shots by cast members. Then the World Wide Web, the catalyst for all medium rebirths, got on the bandwagon. Eventually, the creators broke off into their own individual projects, Rifftrax being one of the first and most successful. Today, a division exists between the MST3K membership, the Mike Nelson/Kevin Murphy/Bill Corbett constituency going head to head with the Joel Hodgson/Trace Beaulieu/Frank Conniff/J. Elvis Weinstein/Mary Jo Pehl people. Both are brilliant, and thanks to Messageboard Nation, both have turned their talent into viable, viewable product. This time up, the Rifftrax guys take on the horrific anti-drug screed Reefer Madness. The results are indeed divine!
For those who don't know, Rifftrax are Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett, the MST3K exiles, so to speak. They appear before a live audience and offer up the following evening of evisceration:
An absolutely dreadful cautionary tale, Reefer Madness tells the story of a group of high school kids (many of whom look ready for retirement) who head up to Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry's (Carleton Young) place for hot tunes, good times, and lots and lots of marijuana cigarettes. She doesn't believe in selling to teens, while he seems as interested in contributing to the delinquency of minors as putting on the feedbag (read: the man is constantly eating...). A few of the favorites include the hot rodding Jimmy Lane (Warren McCollum) and his Squaresville pal Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig). Also around are crazed addict Ralph Wiley (Dave O'Brien), and the free with her virtues Blanche (Lillian Miles). After too many joints, a tragic accident leaves Bill on the line for murder. This causes school principal Dr. Alfred Carroll to go on a scattered rant about the dangers of drugs, the horrific properties of weed specifically, and the need for a massive crackdown on the juvenile population ASAP. As Bill stands trial, we watch as pot perverts everything that is good, wholesome and honest about life in 1936.
Before the film, we are treated to three educational shorts of varying degrees of dementia. Along with these attempts at audio visual enlightenment, we get a couple of stop motion animated films from Rifftrax friend Rich Kyanka, based on his daughter's random fairy tale ramblings. They are very reminiscent of the "Penny" cartoons from Pee Wee's Playhouse. As for the main events, they can be summed up in the following manner:
More Dangerous than Dynamite - one of the most bizarre instructional videos ever, this 'explosive' expose tells housewives why it's never wise to do your own home dry cleaning...with GASOLINE!?!?!
Frozen Frolics - a horrible cartoon mess which features various members of the Arctic's animal population dancing around like idiots, continuity and character design be damned.
At Your Fingertips: Grasses - a true educational triumph, this short suggests ways to use common grasses and weeds to design headdresses and other yard clipping arts and crafts.
No matter the setting, no matter the configuration (MST3K circa local UHF/Comedy Channel/Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel/Syndicated Hour, Cinematic Titanic, the Film Crew, Rifftrax), no matter the movie, there is something sublime about watching talented comedians take apart a big beefy slab of motion picture mediocrity. Whether it's bad speculative fiction, failed horror, a low rent combination of the two, or some other celluloid affront, entities like those listed above made talking during the movies cool - nay, sometimes necessary. Think about it, oh you fans of Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, and the rest: when you walk out of a screening of something like Jonah Hex, or Mr. Popper's Penguins, don't you wish you'd had a silhouetted figure and his robot (or human) pals providing a corrective comic commentary throughout the tedious experience? Sure, there are those who liken any kind of satiric quip during a film as an abomination, a disservice to the very nature of the artform. In response, when something like Reefer Madness is up there in mind-boggling 35mm, messing with your concept of entertainment and tolerability, a little light criticism is not only warranted, but necessary as part of some joke-based Geneva Convention.
By taking on this stupefyingly awful and horrible unrealistic look at drug use circa the Great Depression, the members of the Rifftrax team are doing everyone in attendance at this live event a huge favor. They merely vocalize a responsorial to what you subconscious is already thinking the entire time. For those who first witnessed this worthless attempt at scholastic shock treatment and THC hysteria while in college or on late night pay TV, the Rifftrax treatment is tremendous. Sure, there are a few too many Seinfeld jokes and the constant referencing to other outside cultural lynchpins will only grow more dated as time ticks by. But for the most part, an incredibly lousy movie is lifted by the level of humor and wit on display. We laugh along as the guys shriek upon seeing the be-spectacled evil of Dr. Alfred Carroll, giggle the same goofy way as Bill is "seduced" by the flop house honey Blanche. Once the main 'plot' kicks in and we end up in court, the lunacy of Reefer Madness merges with the craziness of the trio's commentary, leading to one of the most polished pieces of bad movie deconstruction ever.
Even better are the various shorts - two standing toe to toe with previous classics like Alphabet Antics, Catching Trouble, and the brilliant Mr. B Natural. The Frozen Frolics is the odd man out, since it's just a bunch of badly drawn animated characters scurrying around the screen. On the plus, Plus, PLUS!!! side is Dynamite, which makes the compelling case that pre-WWII housewives should never use petroleum products to rub the stains out of their unmentionables. Contrasted with the real dry cleaning industry, which appears ready for a nuclear strike when it comes to safety precautions, it's no wonder our clueless heroine ends up looking like a mummy's mommy. It's a wonderful lesson in flammability, and funny business. But the all time greatest bit here is Grasses. Lifted directly out of the 'Free to Me You and Me' dynamic of the '60s and '70s and flawless in its found art nonsense, there is nothing more hilarious than seeing droopy eyed tweens making homemade rat's nests to festoon their oily, unctuous heads. Every comment from Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett is dead on, delivered in a nonstop stream of hysterics that will make you weep with joy. The rest of the DVD is delightful. At Your Fingertips: Grasses is format definitive.
First off, Reefer Madness is presented in a colorized form. The only interesting aspect of this otherwise mindless revision is the fact that every character "breathes" different colored pot smoke. One will exhale blue, while another will offer up pink or orange. It's funny in its own right. Otherwise, the movies are transferred to the anamorphic image expertly, providing a near pristine recreation of the live/in-theater experience. Every once in a while, the 1.78:1 transfer will get tricky, placing the item being riffed on to the side, and then providing a triple split screen to see...Mike, Kevin, and Bill reading from their scripts. Unlike Cinematic Titanic, which keeps the cast visible the entire time, we just get occasional snippets of the Trax boys. Remember, the material they are utilizing is bottom of the barrel grade stock...don't expect too much from it and the rest is gravy.
Dolby Digital Stereo externally, flat Mono modulation internally. The show material is superior, the films themselves an often awkward combination of age issues and wear and tear. Still, the set-up lines are always easy to understand and the overall presentation is polished and professional.
There is a brand new introduction from Mike, Kevin, and Bill and it's quite funny. While the connection to the event itself is a tad suspect, it's still very enjoyable. Sadly, that's all the added content included.
Reefer Madness is an inherently dumb movie. It questions issues that rarely come up in real life while warning of problems that parents should prioritize on the same level as "future serial killer" or "potential Republican Presidential candidate" as part of their child rearing. The three shorts are sensational, and the added bits really shine. All that's missing is the kind of skit sequences that turned MST3K into a timeless gem and you'd have a near Collector's Series entry. Instead, this is a Highly Recommended romp which will leave you longing for more (like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, The House on Haunted Hill, or the upcoming Jack the Giant Killer). Sure, it would be sweet to see the entirety of Mystery Science nation put their differences aside, step up, and deliver one whopper of a bad movie breakdown. Until then, we can "suffer" with sensational side projects like this. Rifftrax Live: Reefer Madness is outstanding. It represents the best in rotten cinema satire.
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