“What a night! I was in more laps than a napkin.”
The Scoop: 2005 R, directed by Andy Fickman and starring Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming and Neve Campbell
Tagline: The feel-good event of the year!
Summary Capsule: Modern musical spoofs ancient propaganda flick about the evils of wacky tobaccy, with remarkably entertaining results.
Drew’s rating: Is it weird that the Lecturer reminds me of Stephen Colbert? Potheads, you are on notice!
Drew’s review: If you polled the Mutants, I’m sure we all have stories about the strangest way we’ve ever been introduced to a movie. Thumbing through a bargain bin, wandered into the wrong theater, should have paid off the mob… whatever. Personally, I’ve got a new winner: a casual friend from a message board wrote to me saying he’d gotten a refund credit from Amazon but didn’t want anything, so he was using it to send a few fellow posters copies of this movie he’d fallen in love with. Frankly, I was skeptical — wouldn’t you be? Some cult movie I’d never heard of, a musical no less, spoofing an old anti-marijuana propaganda film? I said yes because it wasn’t costing me anything and, hey, you never know; but it would be safe to say my expectations were not high, no pun intended.
Well, let this be a lesson to you, children: never turn down free stuff. Ever. Because you never know when the next undiscovered gem will stumble through your door, bleary-eyed and giggling.
To awaken a group of parents to the single greatest threat facing America’s youth — namely, marijuana — the Lecturer (Alan Cumming) presents the story of Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell), high school sweethearts in the ’30s destined for a lifetime of sunshine, kittens and chaste love. That is until Jimmy falls in with Jack (Steven Weber), a dope pusher who opens up a sordid world of hallucination and depravity to the innocent youngster. Before long he’s a bona fide junkie, raiding church collection boxes to feed his habit and receiving personal reprimands from Jesus Himself. But when Jimmy’s new lifestyle threatens the girl he loves, can he kick the habit in time to save Mary? Or will she lose her purity, or worse, to the predations of Jack and his pot-smoking cronies?
For a movie I’d never heard of, Madness has generated a large cult following over the last couple of years, to the extent that it’s often referred to as “the new Rocky Horror.” And while I’m sure it’s not the first cult film to be described that way, everything I’ve seen suggests there just might be some staying power to back up that claim. If nothing else, it is rather reminiscent of RHPS; or more accurately, what happens when Rocky Horror meets Grease. Zany musical numbers, a flippant attitude toward authority, some good old-fashioned sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll… what’s not to love?
In fact, what’s nice about Madness is that it contains something for everyone. For your more discerning intellectual types, it has a delightfully satirical bent with clever, tongue-in-cheek songs skewering paranoid McCarthyism. And for men, it has Kristen Bell wearing not so many clothes. That’s what we call “win/win.” All of the cast members impress with their vocal range, and the musical numbers, with few exceptions, are incredibly clever. One in particular, where Jimmy hallucinates Jesus trying to get him to kick the habit, is perhaps slightly blasphemous but, Lord forgive me, absolutely hilarious. I dare you not to laugh at a song that rhymes “I’m the face on the Shroud of Turin” with “Do I need to test your urine?”
So the music is up to snuff, but what about the rest? The actors play their roles appropriately exaggerated… in another film their performances might seem over-the-top, but they fit the tone of Madness just right. Jimmy’s freakouts at school and at home after his first hit are hilarious — Christian Campbell really nails the crazy eyes and shifty movements — and Kristen Bell is due tons of praise for her voice, her dancing, and those great facial expressions when Mary is first introduced to the demon weed. And while the plot is simplistic, the story never fails to deliver the funny or make the film’s message clear: it neither promotes nor glorifies marijuana use, but it effectively skewers how easily the flames of fear and ignorance can spread when properly toked. Er, stoked.
Whether Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical will someday be recognized as one of the great cult classics remains to be seen. Still, I know this: it’s a movie that will appeal wildly to a certain segment of the population but be completely bizarre or incomprehensible to many — in other words, the very definition of a cult film. And if you’re a regular reader of this site, odds are you fall into the former category. You don’t need to be a pothead to enjoy Reefer Madness, but at least one viewing is required for anyone who dares call himself a cult fan. Go score yourself a copy, I’ll bring the snacks.
- If Ralph’s cackling sounds familiar, it’s because John Kassir voiced the Cryptkeeper on Tales from the Crypt.
- The Lecturer’s presentation is called Tell Your Children, which was the original title of the 1936 film.
- Ever wonder what would happen if the cast of Thriller got stoned? Question answered.
- Anslinger High School is named after Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics.
- The notorious marijuana number “420” crops up several times throughout the movie, including being every number on the church sign, the number of Mae’s house, and the time that Jack and Mae return from getting Chinese food.
- Me: C’mon, doesn’t he look like Stephen Colbert?
Lady Luck: No, he looks more like Alan Cumming to me.
Me: He… is Alan Cumming.
Lady Luck: Oh. Well, uh, I guess I was right.
- The original Reefer Madness was a propaganda film released in 1936 to educate people on the evils of “marihuana” use. It gained notoriety in the ’70s when it was rediscovered and became a camp classic among the cannabis culture. In 1997, writers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney were driving to L.A. and listening to Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” when they heard a line about Catholic schoolgirls smoking reefer behind the rectory. From that, they came up with the idea of reinventing the original Madness as a musical, and had already written the first song by the time they reached L.A. The play opened off-Broadway and enjoyed enough success to be turned into a film, with all of the primary actors returning. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2005.
- Several changes were made in adapting the play to the silver screen. Among them, the song “Mary Jane/Mary Lane” replaced a more static solo number (and went on to win an Emmy), and the Five & Dime clerk Mr. Poppy — played by the Lecturer, AKA Alan Cumming — became Miss Poppy in order to create a role for Neve Campbell. Similarly, Robert Torti reprised his role as Jesus but was replaced as Jack by Steven Weber.
- Sally: What a night! I was in more laps than a napkin.
Lecturer: Do your children enjoy jazz music? For I’m here to tell you that Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and the whole weed-blowing lot are merely masquerading as musicians, and are in fact agents of evil. Reefer slows down a smoker’s sense of time, allowing him to squeeze in unnecessary grace notes, giving this voodoo music the power to hypnotize white women into indulging in acts of unspeakable degradation!
Sally: If I can’t turn him on, he ain’t got switches.
Sally: How tall are you anyway?
Jimmy: Uh, five feet nine inches.
Sally: Let’s forget the five feet and concentrate on the nine inches.
Joan of Arc: Welcome to Club Celestial! I am your host, Joan of Arc. No Christian martyr works it harder!
Jimmy: You were just kidding, right? You didn’t really sell your baby for reefer money, did you?
Sally: It’s okay, I got another one on the way.
Mary: Jimmy, what are you doing here in the middle of the night? It’s almost nine pm!
Mary: Say, is this a fraternity sweater? Is Jimmy hanging out with college boys?
Ralph: Why yes, yes he is. We at Phi Beta Cannabis were so taken with Jimmy that we decided to pledge him… early, while he’s still in high school! Avoid the rush.
Warden: James Fenimore Harper, you have been convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution, in accordance with the laws of this great state. Any last words?
Warden: Well put! Pull the switch.
FDR: You know, a little orphan girl once told me that the sun would come out tomorrow. Her adopted father was a powerful billionaire so I suppressed the urge to laugh in her face, but now, by gum, I think she might have been onto something!
All: It’s time for parents to take a stand/for the preservation of this great land/’til the things that scare us are burned or banned/or smashed to smithereens! And once all reefer has been destroyed/we’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud/and sex depicted on celluloid/and communists and queens!
Lecturer: When danger’s near, exploit their fear!
All: The ends will justify the means!
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- Reefer Madness
- Evil Bong
- Rocky Horror Picture Show