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Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (A Movie Review)


Starring Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Neve Campbell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer, John Kassir, Amy Spanger, Robert Torti, Steven Weber, Kevin McNulty, Stephen J.M. Sisk, Stephen E. Miller, Robert Clarke, Ruth Nichol, Lynda Boyd, Harry S. Murphy and Christine Lakin.

Screenplay by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney.

Directed by Andy Fickman.

Distributed by Showtime. 109 minutes. Rated R.

In 1936, there was a very straightforward anti-drug movie being made by a church group in which an extremely stern looking man warned the white bread parents of Anytown, USA of a new scourge which was targeting their kids. However, in general church groups can't make movies, so they had the film made by a cheesy exploitation producer who tarted up the storyline with gratuitous sex, violence and a really disturbed-looking piano player.

The authority figure scared the PTA by showing them the effects of their all-American teens after smoking the demon weed Marihauna (their spelling, not mine...). Good, old-fashioned, clean-cut, A-student kids start to fall into all sorts of deviant behaviors including cackling wildly, eating too much, not studying, playing the piano abnormally fast, playing tennis poorly, fornicating, driving 45 miles an hour on city streets and eventually taking an axe to chop up their entire family.

Of course, watching the film it is pretty hard to miss the producers' hypocrisy. They are loudly decrying the immoral acts while they are leeringly cataloguing them and fetishistically sharing them on screen. Reefer Madness was just one of those exploitation flicks that came out in the era. Others included Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Cocaine Fiends and Sex Madness. However, Reefer Madness became particularly popular as campy entertainment many years after the film was released as a quote-unquote serious parental warning.

Still, it's an odd thing to turn into a musical.

However, apparently someone did. This is the movie version of an off-Broadway musical that is apparently – according to the press info and the fact that they'd bother to film it – rather popular (though I have to admit I'd never heard of it before.) The movie musical played at the Film Festival circuit before debuting on Showtime earlier this year. Now it is being released on DVD. I can sort of see what they were going for – a campy old-fashioned incredibly ironic songfest like Little Shop of Horrors (which was also based on a schlocky old movie) or Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was inspired by the old films, though not specifically based on one.)

For almost an hour, it works pretty well. The songs are catchy and kind of funny. The jokes are obvious but clever. The dialogue is purposefully clunky (some of it pilfered directly from the original film but delivered for ultimate irony.) The acting is supposed to be broad as are the jokes.

The mostly unknown cast (female lead Kristen Bell has since gone on to star in the critically acclaimed TV series Veronica Mars) mostly came from the stage cast of the musical and they obviously love the material. A few Hollywood ringers join in on the fun; Alan Cummings (X-Men) plays the stern and impossibly conservative lecturer, TV vets Steven Weber (Wings) and Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live) play the drug-dealer and his moll and Neve Campbell does a good-natured cameo as a diner waitress with gams that go on for days. Campbell undoubtedly did the part as a favor for brother Christian, who plays the male lead – a good-boy-gone-insanely-bad due to the wacky tobaccy. Interestingly, Neve gets top billing on the box, despite the fact that she is actually onscreen for less than ten minutes.

In the end, the point is made long before the movie is through. As the action moves forward the film gets more out there, and not necessarily in a good way. There are lots of odd post-modern touches that come out of nowhere; zombies, burning books, sadomasochism, extreme gore, even cameo appearances by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Devil and Jesus. It quickly seems that the story has gotten away from its creators. By the time that it comes to the very trenchant but incredibly obvious modern socio-political point of the film the audience has pretty much lost interest about 45 minutes earlier.

Oh, and while it was a nice touch and a great bonus, the biggest problem here is that the DVD also includes the original 1936 film. Watching the old Reefer Madness, you quickly realize that it is still much more amusing than this musical spoof of it – and it's not even trying to be funny. (10/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: November 9, 2005.

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