RiffTrax Live: Reefer Madness

Rifftrax Live - Reefer MadnessSynopsis: On August 19th, thousands witnessed what can only be described as one of the top two RiffTrax® Live! events of 2010. RiffTrax Live! Reefer Madness was that show, and now you finally have the chance to relive all the laughs, chortles, and fancy headresses on DVD!

In RiffTrax Live! Reefer Madness, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett of RiffTrax.com® and Mystery Science Theater 3000®, deliver their trademark form of rapid-fire comedy in front of a live audience! Lines could be flubbed! Tomatoes could be thrown! Mountain lion attacks are entirely possible!

The performance not only includes the classic anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness, but also three shorts which quickly became instant classics: More Dangerous Than Dynamite, Frozen Frolics, and At Your Fingertips: Grasses. Among the most insane things the guys have ever riffed, they’ll clear up any questions you might have about washing your clothes in gasoline and whether corn is grass.

RiffTrax Live! Reefer Madness: it’s the perfect chance to hear all the jokes that you missed because you were laughing too hard the first time!

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RiffTrax Live: Reefer Madness 7.5

eyelights: the phenomenally insipid shorts. the hilarious riffing.
eyesores: the stripped-down show. the muddy audio mix.

I’m a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and, as such, have followed what the guys from MST3K have been doing since the show ended its run. Joel Hodgson went on to do Cinematic Titanic with some of the gang, whereas Michael J Nelson went on to create RiffTrax with two of the others.

Recently, I purchased and watched the blu-ray of the first live broadcast of RiffTrax, for ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space‘. It was a bloody riot. I enjoyed that experience so much that I finally decided to go on the RiffTrax website and buy a bunch of their other stuff – after years of complacency.

Since they have tons of releases, I decided to stick with the ones that have video attached to it (they usually only release audio commentaries, without the corresponding film), and I primarily focused on the Christmas-themed ones as well as the live shows – I knew that those would be sure-fire hits.

I watched most of the Christmas ones during the holidays, as well as their wickedly funny riffing of ‘Psycho II‘, but I was waiting to see the live ones with friends because the shows are Vaudevillian and I figured that they would be more fun to watch as a group – it’s like going to a nerdy variety show, with people who actually get it.

However, I don’t know as many people as eager as I am to watch these, so the BDs gathered dust longer than I’d have preferred. But, when I finally watched the unwittingly hilarious ‘Aphrodisiac!‘, I could wait no more: I just had to break the RiffTrax version of ‘Reefer Madness’, the counterpoint to that other propaganda film.

But what is RiffTrax? For those of you new to the party, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy provide side-splitting commentaries to all sorts of films, poking fun at them from all possible angles. In recent years, they decided to hold live events, showing these risible movies to audiences while they blasted them from the sidelines.

Needless to say, it makes for quite the unique night out. And ‘Reefer Madness’ is no exception.

Nelson had already done a hilarious commentary on the “Special Addiction” version of this 1938 cult classic (which was released by 20th Century Fox in 2004). I knew it was going to be wickedly funny: flagged by co-riffers Corbett and Murphy, it could only surpass his solo take (part of the reason why I decided to make this purchase, actually).

Like ‘Plan 9′, this blu-ray is very much a no-frills disc. But, whereas the previous one had a short image gallery, this one has a 90-second intro by our riffin’ trio. Similarly, the disc doesn’t offer much on the technical side of things: the audio is not lossless and the image quality is a bit soft – thereby defeating the purpose of a BD release.

I watched the show with the optional intro first, which was amusing enough but inconsequential, after which we were transported to the jam-packed Center for the Arts, Escondido. There were no preambles or frills: the trio were announced, came in and introduced the evening’s set themselves (there was no MC this time).

Then they got started with the show (for this presentation, the trio were frequently shown to the right of the screen, while the films were playing – not always, of course, but much more frequently than for ‘Plan 9’).

The first short of the night was a little ditty call ‘More Dangerous Than Dynamite’. A black and white educational film, its focus are the hazards of gasoline, heaters and other flammables in the home. This one was hilarious because its core notion was that too many housewives were cleaning their clothes in gasoline (that, and many other extreme scenarios). I don’t know how significant this concern was back in the day, but the Riffers appropriately went to town with this one. Unfortunately, the audio on the original short was really poor, distorted, so you couldn’t really hear what the narrator was saying – you could only hear the RiffTrax guys. 8.0

Before the laughter died down, the show continued with ‘At Your Fingertips – Grass”. Yes, an informative short on the stuff growing on your lawn: all you might want to ask about grass, but with no answers being provided. As Mike says: “What is more boring than watching grass grow? Watching grass not grow!”. Thankfully, polka, bossa nova and classical music embellish things nicely. Ahem. And to top it all off, the film goes on a tangent and forces us to watch kids make crappy arts and crafts with grass. The result: total madness. Brilliant!!! 9.0

To break things up, a brief cartoon called ‘The Story of the Fairy Mermaid‘ was shown. Animated by Lauren Kyanka and narrated by her 5-year-old (if I got that correctly), it’s super weird, incoherent… just like a kid on a sugar fix. The animation is interesting, appealing in its own way. 7.5

The Riffers returned with ‘Aesop’s Sound Fables: Frozen Frolics’, a 1930’s animated short that they riffed on the ‘Christmas with RiffTrax: Santa’s Village of Madness’ DVD. It’s hard to describe this thing: it’s a black and white musical cartoon adventure in the North Pole with a couple of nondescript protagonists and all sorts of Arctic animals. Basically, it’s like an old-school Mickey Mouse cartoon… on acid. What it had to do with Aesop is beyond me: I checked a list of his fables and none seem to apply here (the Riffers regularly commented on this throughout). Amusingly, Kevin botched a line at one point, uttering it before its time. Ah, the joys of live performance. 7.5

Finally, the Riffers took a final break before the show’s feature to screen another amusing cartoon by Lauren Kyanka called ‘The Story of the Glitter Doll‘. As with the previous one, it was weird, but funny and cute (the little girl reading it is particularly adorable). 7.5

By this point, 35 minutes had breezed by and it was time to get on with the main draw of the evening: ‘Reefer Madness’.

Produced in the late ’30s by a church group as a cautionary tale for parents to watch, the film’s original title was ‘Tell Your Children’. Its history is a bit muddled, but it appears that an exploitation film producer bought it out at some point and started showing it around the United States under various titles, including ‘Doped Youth’, ‘The Burning Question’ and, of course, ‘Reefer Madness’. It got lost in a haze for a few decades, but it eventually popped up during the early ’70s when it was used to finance the California Marijuana Initiative, proponents of legalisation. Since then, it has become a cult classic on an unprecedented scale.

One can see why: ‘Reefer Madness’ plays like an after-school special designed by people with no taste or critical skills. And on drugs. With its adult teenagers, over-the-top performances, poor staging, plot contrivances, moralizing authority figure, stock footage and extremely peculiar take on the consumption and effect of marijuana, this film is absolutely ripe for mockery – and, thus, fails miserably as a purported propaganda piece. How the filmmakers thought that they had a winning formula here, is totally beyond me.

The gist of the story is this: After some melodramatic introductory titles, some ominous warnings from a fictitious high school principal and stock footage of law enforcers showing us the ins and outs of the drug trade, we follow the stories of a few teenagers as they respectively get tricked into using the devil’s weed by some no-good drug pushers, thereby destroying their lives – which, until then, were obviously oh-so-promising.  It’s got murder, a hit-and-run accident, suicide, a dramatic court case, crying women – it’s got everything you need to scare people out of smoking pot. And it did such a wondrous job of it, evidently.

The Riffers savage the film.

How could they not? Even I, as a sworn straight edge individual, find this film risible: The crazed expressions of the drug users, the green smoke that blows out of their mouths (this is the colorized version of the original black and white picture), the melodramatic warnings (Mike comments: “Hey, that’s the effects of being hit by a train!”) and the outrageous plot developments, are just too funny all on their own. With Mike, Kevin and Bill, it’s uproariously so.

And yet, I found Mike’s solo commentary even funnier than this group one. I’m not sure if it’s because the live setting affected his performance (something a studio recording and the many takes it affords wouldn’t) or if dividing the task diffused the focus, but there were many more laughs per minute in the original version. I even went back to listen to it to confirm this. Sure enough, I was laughing incessantly right from the get-go; Mike’s sardonic comments and the tone in which he delivers them, are too much.

Still, ‘RiffTrax Live: Reefer Madness’ remains a very funny performance. My only problem is that the audio is poor: we can rarely hear the film’s soundtrack clearly – only the Riffers come through unmuddled. The crowd is also buried in the mix, which is unfortunate because it would add quite a lot to be surrounded by their laughter. Having said this, the soundtrack doesn’t deter that much from the experience if you’ve seen the film before or if you can grasp enough to make sense of it – after all, it’s not  exactly the most erudite or sophisticated screenplay around.

Either way, skewered by Mike, Kevin and Bill, you can’t help but have fun. Now I’m really looking forward to the next one on my list, the Vincent Price classic, ‘House on Haunted Hill’…

Date of viewing: January 21, 2014

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