Legend Films // 1936 // 65 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // June 4th, 2009
"The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you."
Not too long ago, Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans (so-called "MSTies") had little to look forward to besides the series' next Rhino DVD release. These days, the show may be dead but its creators live on in various comedy splinter groups, carrying the MST3K "movie riffing" mantle into the suddenly much more enjoyable 21st Century.
The first of these splinter projects to hit DVD was Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett's Film Crew series, in which they played employees tasked with recording commentary tracks for every movie that never got one. After four releases, the Crew closed up shop and the trio moved into the digital space, starting RiffTrax.com, a web site that sells downloadable mp3 versions of their irreverent commentaries. The beauty of RiffTrax is that, because the consumer is responsible for providing the movie, Nelson & Co. can offer mp3s for two or three dollars, instead of the $15-20 they'd have to charge for a disc. The site also allows them to riff on movies they couldn't afford the rights to, including blockbusters like Casino Royale and the new Star Wars movies.
Not content to rest on their e-laurels, the RiffTrax crew is releasing a series of DVDs that combine both commentary and movie. As of now, the selection is limited to public domain material, but not having to own the movie or worry about getting the audio synced correctly makes this an attractive alternative to fans who avoided RiffTrax until now.
Included in this first batch of RiffTrax DVD releases is the 1936 drug-scare cult classic Reefer Madness, whose age, subject matter, and earnest squareness makes it perfect for the riff treatment. Especially since Mike Nelson already recorded his own solo commentary for the movie, which was included on the Legend Films 2008 "restored and enhanced" DVD. That would be the same Legend Films that partnered with Nelson to create RiffTrax, and who are putting out all these DVDs. As the RiffTrax crew makes clear on their site, their three-man track is different than Nelson's, though it's worth noting that the version of the film on this DVD is the same as the 2008 release, and not one of the inferior public domain prints floating around. Considering the complaints about the visual quality of some of the other RiffTrax releases, getting this good a version of this bad a film is a definite plus.
Even better than the good-looking transfer is Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett's commentary. They bring the funny from the beginning to end of Reefer Madness's brisk 65 minutes, rivaling the best of MST3K in both quality and quantity of jokes. Reefer Madness falls in that sweet spot of awful-but-not-too-awful that makes it perfect fodder for riffing.
Reefer Madness follows the descent into drug-addled madness of one Bill Harper, a gosh 'n' golly good boy who falls in with a crowd of reefer addicts -- miscreants who giggle uncontrollably, have implied off-screen sex, and play flawless ragtime piano while stoned. Bill's tragic story -- which ends with him on trial for the accidental shooting of his beloved -- is presented by his crotchety principal, who offers it up as the most cautionary of tales. The movie is filled with awkward slang and gratuitous shots of a woman putting on a stocking. The RiffTrax boys have a blast tearing it to shreds.
Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett poke fun at the movie's outdated spelling of "Marihuana" ("It was 10 years before the invention of the letter 'J'"), the main drug dealer spending so much of the movie eating ("That guy must've had 400 meals during filming!"), and the film's alarmist take on the reefer menace ("Nowadays, you only get this kind of police response if grandma downloads a Nelly song"). My favorite bit involves a character who refuses to drink soda, then turns around and gets a root beer. The pop culture references are kept to a minimum, and those that slip through work pretty well. For every Robot Chicken or Dane Cook joke, there's a reference to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
Like the other RiffTrax releases, there's the option to watch the movie with or without the commentary. That means if you don't already own Reefer Madness, you get the best-looking black and white transfer available (the Legend "Special 'Addiction'" disc also included a colorized version of the film). The downside is that the RiffTrax release does not have any of the extras from the 2008 Legend DVD, so if you want that supplemental material -- including the Mike Nelson solo track -- you need to look elsewhere. If all you want is the Nelson commentary, you can buy it from the RiffTrax site, and I'm sure they hope you will. It's not surprising they left it off this release, but it would have been a nice bonus for fans -- especially considering how short the feature is compared to the other RiffTrax discs.
The only problem I found with the presentation was the audio. I had to crank the sound on my TV to hear the dialogue. The balance between the original and riff tracks is fine; it's just an overall quiet mix. The disc also comes with a coupon to download the RiffTrax mp3 for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Although RiffTrax: Reefer Madness is aimed at a specific demographic of MST3K fans -- those who never bought the Legend edition of Madness and who aren't comfortable with the whole download-and-sync thing -- it's not only a great way to get your riff fix; it's also just plain great. Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett are at the top of their comedic games. As long as you're willing to spend full price for a relatively short feature, the riffing here stacks up against some of the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 had to offer.
Good thing they didn't pull the judge from the movie. He's a real jerk. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2009 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 65 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated