It’s probably safe to say that there isn’t really a need for yet another DVD featuring the film “Reefer Madness”. Just type in the title on any major DVD retailer’s site and at least a half dozen versions of the film are likely to spring up. Many of which are packaged as a double feature, partnering with the equally heavy-handed “Cocaine Fiends”. However, Off Color Films’ excuse for re-release is a first time offering of a colorized version of the cult classic. All colorization arguments aside, the DVD does additionally contain a restored version of the original black-and-white film. Perhaps most appealing, the disc also features a commentary by Mike Nelson of “Mystery Science Theater” fame.
Originally released in 1938 with the title “Tell Your Children”, the film was supposedly financed by a church group who were looking to instill a little fear in America’s youth and, more importantly, in their parents. A contrary story claims that the U.S. government, with similar intent, funded the film. Either way, the propaganda piece was re-released and renamed (supposedly by “Celluloid Gypsy” Dwain Esper) “Refer Madness” shortly after its initial distribution, but was soon forgotten. However, due to its camp quality, it was revived in the 1970’s and after many showings at marijuana legalization festivals and similar events, the film obtained cult classic status. It is even rumored that the distribution of a restored print of the film (the original producers supposedly never obtained a copyright) contributed to the financial jump-start of New Line Cinema.
“Reefer Madness” is initially presented as a documentary and opens with a high school principal who delivers an almost apocalyptic message regarding the evils of marijuana use. As is quickly demonstrated by Bill (Kenneth Craig) and Mary (Dorothy Short) and their no-good suppliers, Jack (Carleton Young) and Mae (Thelma White), smoking even the smallest amount of pot will quickly cause you to become the victim or perpetrator of rape, murder and/or suicide, possibly all three. At the least it will cause you to sit in a chair and laugh uncontrollably while twitching all over and moving your shoulders up and down in a rather creepy manner.
The color version of the feature, while seemingly unnecessary, does have some entertaining moments, such as different colors of smoke attributed to each character. In addition, the colorization job is vibrant and overstated enough that it is interesting to look at. More disappointing is the fact that Nelson’s commentary is only mildly amusing. It is fairly sparse and, as might be expected, plays more like an episode of “Mystery Science Theater” than a traditional commentary. Included are the obligatory David Crosby, Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Clinton jokes. As well as comments such as, “I wish this film was half as concerned with showing the dangers of marijuana as it was with showing people prepare drinks and meals” and “even though they don’t exist yet, she wakes up craving Doritos”. If you’re already a fan it’s worth a listen, if not, don’t bother. A second optional commentary by Legend Films’ Barry Sandrew and Rosemary Horvath is also available. Sandrew and Horvath specifically discuss the colorization procedure and not much else. Although they state that, in light of the material, they’re going to conduct the commentary in a laid back fashion, I’ve felt less tension at a wake. The disc is heavy on technical information (specific to the colorization process) and attempted humor, but very dim in regards to historical content of any kind.
The “Special Addiction” disc also contains the short film “Grandpa’s Marijuana Handbook”, which is basically a video interview with author Evan Keliher who isn’t funny or informational and the film isn’t short enough. This added feature made the meager color design commentary seem utterly fascinating. Also included is a “Refer Madness” trailer and, of course, a chapter menu. If you’re looking to pick-up a copy of “Reefer Madness” this disc is arguably the one to grab, or, considering that the film is classified as public domain, chances are you could find a site and legally download your own copy. I do not intend to insight violent retaliation, but I should also mention that while a colorized edition of “Reefer Madness” is tolerable, Off Color Films has also recently produced a color version of “Night of the Living Dead”. No further comment seems necessary.