Before Rifftrax: the Original Mike Nelson DVD of Reefer Madness

Most of you guys probably know Mike Nelson started on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and then went on with two of his cast-mates to perform Rifftrax online. But there's kind of a long gap in there... MST3K ended in 1999, and Rifftrax started roughly in 2006. During that time, he wrote a couple books, starred in a similar riffing project called Film Crew, and he recorded a few audio commentaries for DVDs. Those commentaries were all for a label called Legend Films, which put out a lot of cheap and public domain films - their last one to date is a 2014 DVD of King Kong and Friends. But you probably know them best as the company behind Rifftrax.

Before all that, though, in 2004, Legend put out a special edition of 1936's Reefer Madness. Now, one of Legend's specialties, before riffing movies, was colorizing old black and white films. I believe their first was A Christmas Wish in 2003. And that's what they've done here, but they've also gone out of their way to make this a special edition, which makes sense considering how many times it's been released by other companies before and since. And one of the things they did was to bring Mike Nelson back to the riffing table.
Reefer Madness has become a cult film, but it wasn't made to be one. It's an earnestly meant public education film about the dangers of marijuana, titled Tell Your Children. It starts out with scrolling text, a stern lecture and documentary footage before finally kicking into the narrative. Some innocent young high school students are invited back to a party where they're convinced to smoke dope by a couple of gangsters, as they're wont to do. The pot drives people crazy in a highly unrealistic manner, and soon everybody's having affairs and getting shot. It's all played deadly serious and is of course completely ridiculous, and the appeal of the film is to laugh at it rather than with. It's actually a pretty short film, just over an hour, which might also be why Legend felt compelled to add some extras to their disc.

So, we actually get several things, not just Mike's commentary. We get their new colorized version, which they've given both a DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mix to. And we get the original black and white version, with just a Dolby 2.0 track. Then, and this is something I was really not expecting, the president of Legend films and his assistant (plus another uncredited Legend employee named Dave) provide their own audio commentary, all about colorizing the film. It's actually pretty interesting, and while they're not the greatest commentators you'll ever hear, they're not too dry or stiff, having a few laughs along with the film. Then there's also a 25 minute(!) video of someone calling himself Grandpa Ganja giving you facts and bad jokes about weed. There's even a little outtakes clip for his section. There's also a nice insert and a new (made by Legend), silly trailer for the film.
Then there's Mike's commentary, and it really is a proper riff, as opposed to say Joel Robinson and co. on The Heat DVD, where they just wing it and wind up having nothing to say. It does feel a bit slower and pause-heavy with just him alone on the track, but he has a pretty decent go at it.

After Rifftrax officially kicked off in earnest, and Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett were brought on board, Legend released an official Rifftrax DVD of Reefer in 2009, with an all new, "three riffer commentary." I know comedy's subjective and all, but I think I can safely, objectively this one's funnier. It's faster paced, and while many of the same jokes are retold, there's more and things are just livelier with a trio. This DVD only uses the black and white version of the film, but does give you the option of watching the film with the riff or the original audio track. The zany extras are gone, but the three guys do sing an original comic song about pot as The Rifftones over the DVD menu.
In 2010, they made Reefer Madness one of their live shows, and Legend released that version on DVD in 2011. They also put out a blu-ray edition, but only months after the DVD, without letting fans know it was coming. So everybody had already bought the standard def version, and basically Legend really shot their blu-rays in the foot, which is disappointing. Because I would've definitely preferred a blu-ray if we weren't pushed into a double-dip. Oh well, there's not many extras on the DVD, but the show itself also includes riffs of three short films which are possibly more hilarious than the feature itself, plus two new, animated shorts that they don't riff and frankly should've skipped. And the DVD (or the blu) does have one exclusive extra you'd miss if you just downloaded the show, a comic introduction by the guys in front of a green screen. I wouldn't run out and buy the DVD just for that, but if you got it, it was a fun bonus treat for the fans.
1) 2004 Legend DVD, b&w version; 2) 2004 Legend DVD colorized;
3) 2009 Rifftrax Legend DVD; 4) 2011 Rifftrax Live Legend DVD;
5) 2011 Rifftrax Live Legend DVD; 6) 2007 Westlake DVD.
Apparently this 2004 release features a restored print by Fox, who co-produced the original DVD with Legend. It looks pretty good for an old educational film from the 30s, and the DVD doesn't have any of the usual interlacing, watermarks or other problems that tend to plague cheaper DVDs. Legend seemed to care enough to put in the effort and set themselves above the Alphas and Brentwoods of the world. In fact, I went to the trouble of picking up one of those releases - specifically Westlake Entertainment's 2007 DVD - and you can see how much worse it is: blown out with flared out whites and crushed blacks, and some nasty interlacing.  Legend's 2009 DVD seems to be using the same transfer as the 2004, and of course the live version includes tons of new footage and really isn't a viable way to watch the movie on its own terms, but also seems to be using the same transfer when it's got the whole screen to itself.  One disappointing factor is that the blu-ray, while a genuine HD image that noticeably steps up the picture quality of the live on-stage material if not the film itself, is interlaced.  So that's a bit of an unfortunate compromise, but it still beats the DVD version overall.

But we've got to talk about the colorization, because it. Is. Ridiculous. Pot smoke is sometimes green, sometimes purple... the color shirt a character is wearing will change from one shot to the next. From the commentary, though, we learn this was intentional "to see if you were paying attention." All the color choices are goofy, because they wanted to make fun of the film along with us; but I'm not a fan of that idea. It's one thing to laugh at the (myriad) flaws of the film, but it feels like cheating to change it and then laugh at those changes like it's the original filmmakers fault (which is something MKB do, by the way). Eh. Nobody should colorize old movies anyway, it ruins the original the film's intended style and doesn't look authentic anyway. But for a goofy film like Reefer Madness, where the cinematographer may've poured a little bit less than his full heart and soul into the thing, I suppose it's harmless. At least they included the original version anyway. It's curious, though, that they went back to the original black and white version for the Rifftrax DVD, and then dusted off the old colorized version again for the live show.
If you're buying any of these, it's probably for the Rifftrax rather than the film itself. And it's a fun one - I'd particularly recommend the live version of the three, and you can even get that on blu. But if you're just after the film, these Legend DVDs are actually pretty respectable. No other label has ever really done a fancy special edition restoration or anything, so this might actually be best edition out there. I know I've seen at least one that was a lot worse (beat up, noisy and taken from some old tape). And if you're a big time Rifftrax fan who's got all their releases, the 2004 DVD does have a unique, exclusive Mike Nelson riff that you might want to think about hunting down, if only to round out your collection.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I remember Nelson did solo commentaries/riffs for House on Haunted Hill and Night of the Living Dead. They were pretty lame.

    But Nelson did another solo riff for a Three Stooges film called Swing Parade, and that one's fantastic. Almost every joke is a killer.