Tuesday, June 9, 2009

On DVD: "Rifftrax: Reefer Madness"

Our journey to Rifftrax: Reefer Madness is a long and storied one. It begins with a little show called Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran lo those many years ago on Comedy Central and then on Sci-Fi (or as it's stupidly known now, SyFy), and a guy and two robots watched movies and made fun of them (or, in the jargon, "riffed" them), and many of us laughed, but it was one of those "cult sensations," which means it was eventually cancelled. But then old episodes were released on DVD, and because most MST fans are obsessive collectors, they sold well.

Here's where Legend Films came in. The San Diego-based company's primary focus, via its "Off-Color Films" imprint, is colorization (and, thankfully, pre-process restoration) of black and white films, but some of their early DVD releases included an MST3K-style commentary track by that show's head writer and latter-seasons star, Michael J. Nelson. Nelson's commentaries weren't promoted to look like much more than an afterthought for those releases, which were almost entirely films in the public domain (Carnival of Souls, The House on Haunted Hill, Plan 9 From Outer Space), but Legend soon found that his participation was a big selling point.

Soon after, with a direct-to-video MST-style project called The Film Crew in limbo, Nelson began a new collaboration with Legend: Rifftrax, a project in which he records .mp3 audio commentary riffs for popular films available on DVD, which viewers can then sync up and watch with the movie. The original Rifftrax were usually done by Nelson solo, with occasional guest riffers; he then started working in his MST and Film Crew co-stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, and the trio now front most of the site's new releases.

Here's where it gets complicated: Nelson's solo commentaries for the Legend Films DVDs were among the first batch of Rifftrax downloads made available. Later, those film's were "re-riffed" in "three riffer editions" with Murphy and Corbett, which could be downloaded as either .mp3 files or (since the films were all in the public domain) in video-on-demand format. Why was this done, since there are so many bad movies that Rifftrax hasn't touched yet? I'm presuming the reason is money; they can make a lot more of it on the VOD versions, and there's no additional overhead, since the video content is free.

And now, as if to convolute matters even further, Legend Films is releasing DVDs of the three-riffer versions of those PD films (perhaps with an eye on the brisk sales of the "Cinematic Titanic" discs being rapidly released by Nelson and crew's fellow MST3K alumni). Some fans will undoubtedly feel like they're being taken to the cleaners; personally, I bought the Reefer Madness Mike-only disc, and then bought the three-riffer .mp3 from the site, so springing for this DVD amounts to a triple-dip. But for folks who have held out on taking the Rifftrax plunge (perhaps due to the semi-complicated logistics of watching a movie with the downloaded commentary), this disc is a great place to start.

For my money, the three-riffer version of Reefer Madness is one of the best Rifftrax out there; it's the kind of target that these guys take on most successfully. Lately, they're been in a strange stretch where they're riffing good movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Dark Knight, and while there are scattered laughs in those, the films just aren't very fertile soil for mockery. Their tracks for modern stinkers are noticeably sharper and funnier--dreck like The Happening and The Fantastic Four are kind of asking for it.

But hearing them destroy a vintage turkey like Reefer Madness gives me a special joy; it could just be that it feels like an MST3K episode, but I'm more inclined to believe that there was a purity to the bad movies of old. They're goofier in their badness, more affable in their sloppy storytelling and creaky craftsmanship, as opposed to a slick piece of shit like Transformers, where the stupidity is just depressing.

But in a movie like Reefer Madness, they're clearly having a ball; the movie is so over-the-top and incompetent, half the work is done for them. Made in 1936 with the financing of a church group and intended as a serious morality tale (its original title was Tell Your Children), the film begins with an endless crawl explaining the dangers of this "new drug menace," "marihuana" ("This was ten years before the invention of the letter J," notes Mike). It then takes us to a PTA meeting in which a bespectacled doctor lectures a group of parents, at length, about the evil of "this scourge." He then tells them the story "of something that happened right here in our city."

We next meet Mae and Jack, drug dealers who argue constantly about Jack's interest in selling dope to "kids"--played by some suspiciously middle-aged amateur thespians ("Not a real actor!" quips Kevin after one horrifying line reading). After the sickeningly sweet set-up of Bill and Mary, an annoying young couple ("Here's proof that dweebs haven't really changed much in 71 years"), we follow Bill and Mary's brother Jimmy to Mae and Jack's apartment, where they're soon sucked in to the dangerous reefer scene. The apartment is a hotbed of bad music, insane dancing, and illicit sex; these scenes, in which one puff of the demon weed turns the smoker into a deranged lunatic, are among the funniest in the film (particularly for smokers in the audience).

Jimmy finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, driving Jack on a weed run when they run over a pedestrian. It's the first of many unfortunate turns for these poor "kids," punctuated by more lecturing, including an uproarious visit by the bespectacled doctor to the "Federal Offices Bureau of Investigation" ("Yay, he's back," Bill muses unenthusiastically). Throughout, the Rifftrax crew tears the film to shreads, handily mocking its clunky transitions ("and... scene. Brilliant!"), terrible writing ("Whoah, a little slang overload there"), laughable performances ("Scared? Sad? Bored? Gassy? It's hard to tell with old Bill here"), awkward staging ("Must we see her mix the drink? Show her holding the mixed drink, and I'll infer that she mixed it earlier"), and incurable whiteness ("The mood is somewhat lightened by the fact that he's wearing pants up to just below his nipples"). The riffs fly fast and furious, with a continuing stream of laugh-out-loud punch lines and well-aimed mockery of a highly deserving target.

Those, like me, who sprung for Legend's previous DVD release of Reefer Madness will want to think twice before ponying up another ten-spot for this newer release; the $4 download on the Rifftrax site is probably a smarter investment. But taken as its own release, it's well worth the coin; this is one of the great bad movies of all time, and the addition of an uproarious Rifftrax commentary makes it even funnier.

"Reefer Madness," and several other Rifftrax DVDs, hit shelves on Tuesday, June 16th.

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