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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"We administrators can't do anything until the public is sufficiently aroused."
DVD ReviewFor nearly two centuries, hemp (cannibas sativa) was one of the biggest cash crops in America. But in the 1930s, the plant was utterly demonized and taxed out of circulation through a conspiracy of the Hearst syndicate, DuPont, big liquor, the cotton growers and the lumber interests, depending on which tinfoil hat you're wearing. But it was certainly one of the most successful public relations campaigns ever, with the anti-drug hysteria that it created still alive and well 70 years later, a testament to the propaganda skills of the anti-marijuana forces. This film, originally entitled Tell Your Children but re-released under a multitude of titles, was a centerpiece in the crusade against pot and remains a hilarious cult classic under its most familiar title.
Pusher Jack Perry (Carleton Young) is busily addicting America's high school students to marijuana through pot parties at the apartment of Mae (Thelma White). Although Dr. Alfred Carroll (Joseph Forte) engages in a straight-faced campaign against Satan's smokes, young Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) and Jimmy Lane (Warren McCollum) fall under Jack's spell. Before long, they are not only involved in vehicular manslaughter, attempted rapes, and murder frame-ups, but excruciatingly bad dancing, weird ragtime piano playing, and maniacal laughter to boot. Oddly enough, no Doritos or pizza are anywhere to be seen. Marijuana use in 1938 must have been much more difficult than today.
Reefer Madness is justly reviled for its utterly terrible script and acting. Most of the performances here would be rejected off a high school stage, ranging from wooden to lethargic, with a smattering of gross overacting to spice things up every now and then. The latter is especially the case with hophead Ralph (Dave O'Brien), who is consistently leering maniacally, when he's not actually groping teenage girls. The pot escapades are interwoven with endless lectures from Forte, who lacks any kind of conviction other than a determination to bore his listeners to death. One clearly understands how time is slowed down under the influence, for the opening crawl goes on, slowly....slowly.....slowly.......for what seems like an hour. Static camera, uninteresting compositions, pathetic effects and incredibly cheap production values combine to make this a painful viewing experience in any kind of serious frame of mind. Even at a mere 67 minutes, the picture is mercilessly padded with the drug pushers mixing drinks, making dinner, and other boring scenes of domesticity that add nothing whatsoever to the mix.
This picture was produced at the behest of a group of church leaders, who no doubt were seriously disturbed by the notion that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. It's difficult to believe that the producers of the film exactly shared that sentiment. One subsidiary newspaper headline proclaims "G-Man Dick Tracy in Sensational Raid," a tip that things aren't exactly on the level here. And that's probably why the drug sequences seem like so much fun (if arbitrarily weird) and the straight ones are so deathly dull. For generations of viewers, this film has had the opposite effect from that which was intended by its sponsors, being viewed almost universally by the heavily stoned. Your reviewer, I will point out, maintained complete sobriety through three viewings, as difficult as that may be to believe.
As camp classics go, Reefer Madness is right at the top of the list. It goes way beyond "So bad it's good" clear through good and back into very, very bad again. Take another toke, and maybe that'll make sense.
Rating for Style: D-
Rating for Substance: C-
Image Transfer Review: The primary feature is provided in a colorized version (no doubt to provide a copyrightable aspect to this PD staple), done in psychedelic colors in the style of 1930s picture postcards, complete with multi-colored puffs of smoke. The source print is in surprisingly nice condition, although there's a bit of a shake to the picture. There's also the original black-and-white version for the purists, but it doesn't have all the extra features and juiced-up audio tracks. Considering its very-low-budget origins and PD status, this looks pretty good, though the colorization won't be for everyone. The picture here is much better than on any other home video version to date.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The disc producers have gone way overboard on the audio, giving the noisy and crackly mono not only a DD 5.1 but DTS treatment as well. Frankly, the effort's pretty much wasted, since there's no audio quality to work with in the first place. Music is tinny, and there's plenty of noise and hiss throughout. The surround aspect sounds unnatural and unnecessarily tricked up, with exaggerated directionality on occasion. The black-and-white version is in the original mono, which doesn't sound any better, but at least it doesn't jerk about strangely.
Audio Transfer Grade: D+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Michael J. Nelson 2) Legend Films colorizers
There's also a 24m:32s humorous 1999 short featuring Evan Keliher, author of Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook, discussing the history and use of pot. It's pretty amateurishly shot on video, but still manages to be moderately amusing. A set of outtakes of Keliher screwing up his lines will probably appeal most to the more completely baked audience members. Finally, there's a trailer for the colorized version of the film.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsAlthough there are plenty of PD versions of this film out there, the extras and the quality of the print make this one the obvious choice. It's perfect for riffing with your friends, or you can just let Mike Nelson do the heavy lifting for you.
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