Retro Review: Succumbing to REEFER MADNESS; Be Sure to Inhale the 1936 Cult Propaganda Classic at The Plaza

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2013 By:

REEFER MADNESS (1936); Dir: Louis Gasnier; Starring Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig; Starts Friday, February 15.; The Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

REEFER MADNESS is invading your town. Your children could be next….or yours…. or YOURS.

REEFER MADNESS is one of those films that cast a huge shadow for reasons that have nothing to do with quality: the plot of the movie is pretty standard for a 1930s hand-wringer, the cast is clumsy, and the production values are Ed Wood-cheap. Still, the film’s campy charm and incredibly sincere doofiness has helped elevate it to true cult status. REEFER MADNESS was cult before cult was cool.

The plot is suitably scandalous. Bill (Kenneth Craig) and Mary (Dorothy Short) are teenagers in love. They play tennis together, take walks together, and even discuss Shakespeare while sipping hot chocolate on Mary’s idyllic patio. But when a sinister drug dealer lures Bill into the corrupt wonderland of an apartment run by Mae (Thelma White), just one puff of “marihuana” is enough to send Bill down into a spiral of sex and murder that dooms the sweet, chaste Mary as well. The film’s cautionary tale is spun by a stern high school principal demanding parents warn their children about the dangers of smoking reefer—a drug more dangerous than opium, heroin or any other narcotic known to mankind!

This is all fairly standard propaganda, but REEFER MADNESS stands apart by virtue of its total, dedicated dunderheadedness. What the hell are these kids smoking? To hear the film tell it, smoking marijuana causes fits of maniacal laughter followed by hallucinations, temporary insanity, rabid sexual urges and even permanent psychosis. But, despite apparently being laced with Joker gas, marijuana was then and remains today a cornerstone of the counterculture. People know the plant, we know what it does, and it definitely looks like a different weed in REEFER MADNESS. Few things cheer up the underground as when the mainstream gets it so terrifically wrong.

The origins of REEFER MADNESS are hazy. A church group supposedly funded the film to promote marijuana awareness, but there seems to be no real record of which church paid the money or how they acquired a budget hefty enough to hire a bunch of Hollywood B-movie players. A rumor claims the film was really bankrolled by the federal government as part of Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst’s anti-marijuana campaign, but there’s more speculation than evidence to support this. The film seems to have appeared in a puff of truly excellent smoke, cashed in by filling a few programming slots under titles like TELL YOUR CHILDREN and THE BURNING QUESTION, and then faded into obscurity.

Enter Bob Shaye, a young entrepreneur in late-1960s New York City. After getting a good laugh at a screening of REEFER MADNESS, he realized that one could get mighty rich screening a hilarious anti-weed polemic on college campuses. And get rich he did. Shaye’s newly-founded production company, New Line Cinema, made millions screening the public domain film, and the cult of REEFER MADNESS has been growing ever since. Today, a fan can find REEFER MADNESS posters, merchandise and colorized versions of the film. In 1998, Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy (of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 fame) created the musical version, REEFER MADNESS!, which later received its own film adaptation.

Since the original REEFER MADNESS is in the public domain, there are oodles of ways to see it. You could see it alone right now on your couch if you chose to, but why would you do that? REEFER MADNESS is a group project. Like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), THE ROOM (2003) or the up-and-comer MIAMI CONNECTION (1987, and also back at the Plaza this week), most of the joy of REEFER MADNESS comes from hearing a crowd full of people in the know laugh their heads off at whatever unbelievable scene they just saw. You should definitely see REEFER MADNESS with a crowd at the Plaza, but if you do, please remember that marijuana is a scandalous, dangerous drug and unfit for public consumption. What you do in Mae’s apartment, or your own, is completely up to you.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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Retro Review: MIAMI CONNECTION: Congratulations, The Plaza Got You Motorcycle Ninjas for Christmas

Posted on: Dec 8th, 2012 By:

MIAMI CONNECTION (1987); Dirs: Y.K. Kim & Woo-sang Park; Starring Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch; Plaza Theatre, HELD OVER for second week through Dec. 13; Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The first thing you need to know is that MIAMI CONNECTION takes place not in Miami, but on or around the beaches of landlocked Orlando.

Still listening? Then the other thing to know is that MIAMI CONNECTION is a movie out of time, a gift from the past that you didn’t even know you wanted. Congratulations, The Plaza got you motorcycle ninjas for Christmas, but you have to go this week to pick them up.

The history of MIAMI CONNECTION is so unbelievable that it’s already a movie legend. In 1987, Korean immigrant and self-described “modern philosopher” Y.K. Kim collected a modest budget and a gang of amateur actors and taekwondo students to craft a martial arts epic about a black-belt rock band’s struggle against drug-dealing ninjas, starring Kim, of course, as the improbable college student hero, Mark. After failing to find distribution, the movie disappeared into obscurity, never officially released.

Twenty-five years later, an employee of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, stumbled upon the last remaining film print on an online auction site. The Drafthouse is a kind of national church for movie fans, and they’ve been aggressively searching out and stockpiling 35mm film prints for years, defying the conventional wisdom that film is dead. After negotiating a $50 price for the MIAMI CONNECTION print—sight unseen—the Drafthouse decided to show the film as a random oddity for their midnight crowd. The audience erupted and, somehow, MIAMI CONNECTION became a hit. Now, the Drafthouse has made the movie an official release for their distribution arm, remastering it and shipping it to theaters nationwide. They’ve even mounted a tongue-in-cheek Oscar campaign and produced a new trailer, cut by Jason Eisener, director of CONNECTION’s spiritual soulmate, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011).

For decades, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) was the king of ironic entertainment, beloved for being bad long enough to become an institution, but today’s audiences have been seeking new guilty pleasures. First, we had SHOWGIRLS (1995) and its silly drinking game, and then TROLL 2 (1990) became popular enough to spawn its own documentary. Most recently, crowds pack the Plaza for regular showings of THE ROOM (2003), bringing forks and costumes to make themselves part of the experience.

And now, for these folks, MIAMI CONNECTION feels almost like a culmination. It’s an honest-to-godawful classic, something that’s normally found and championed by the few, now delivered by a major theater entity in a pristine presentation. It’s a movie literally plucked off the scrap heap, polished and mass-produced. Ready-made cult movies tend to flop because audiences are savvy and they know when they’re being pandered to (REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA, anyone?), but the vibe around MIAMI CONNECTION is completely different. This is one group of movie-fanatics speaking to others and saying “you have GOT to see this,” just as they’ve done for years, but never before on this scale.

Part of the film’s charm is that it’s so damn sincere. Y.K. Kim’s college student is just one member of the band Dragon Sound, all of whom are badass taekwondo students/total dorks. For some reason, Dragon Sound’s very existence seems to be standing in the way of a growing drug cartel based out of Miami, but doing business through the band’s club in Orlando. This thin premise kicks off an escalating series of martial arts battles between the band and the cartel’s thugs and, yes, eventually leads to a confrontation with motorcycle-riding, cocaine-dealing ninjas.

In between attacks, the band hangs out at their favorite eateries, spars on campus and fails to score with chicks at the beach. Oh, and one member of the band has about three scenes dealing with the search for his long-lost father, handled entirely via mailbox. Did I mention that the band also writes and performs a song about friendship? That song shares stage time with a ditty about fighting ninjas, which they sing before any member of the band has encountered even a single one.

But no plot synopsis can completely capture MIAMI CONNECTION’s charms. Sure, there are laughs to be found in the schlocky gore effects, bizarre plot twists and bad dialogue (“…because of that stupid cocaine…”), but people don’t go to these movies again and again to simply sit and make fun of them. That’s a mean-spirited reaction, and the crowd with whom I watched MIAMI CONNECTION showered it with love. No, what makes the movie resonate with people is that it’s an endearing reflection of the types of movies it wants to be. When you watch MIAMI CONNECTION, you can recognize the notes the film is trying to play, even if it comes off more than a bit tone deaf. Film is a language, and this is an American urban action movie made by someone who doesn’t quite speak that language, but who was passionate enough to try anyway. This is true, too, of the Italian ambition behind TROLL 2 or, um, wherever the hell Tommy Wiseau came from to produce THE ROOM. If any of these filmmakers had managed to make the movie they attempted, the result would have been a magnitude less interesting. Are these movies bad in the strictest sense? Sure, but they’re also minor miracles. In a sea of low-budget mediocrity, it takes a special spark of passion to fail this spectacularly and entertainingly.

MIAMI CONNECTION doesn’t make much sense as a story, but the action is fun and for real, and it’s a blast to watch the random plot threads bang together and make noise. Most of all, it’s a reminder that films inspire and speak to all of us, even those who don’t quite know the words. Come for the irony and the motorcycle-ninjas, but don’t be surprised if you get caught up in the fun of going to the movies.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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