Reefer Madness (originally released as Tell Your Children and sometimes titled as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness) is a 1936 American propaganda exploitation film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try "marijuana" — from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and descent into madness. The film was directed by Louis Gasnier and starred a cast composed of mostly unknown bit actors. Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, the film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use. However, soon after the film was shot, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film for distribution on the exploitation film circuit. The film did not gain an audience until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and gained new life as a piece of unintentional comedy among advocates of cannabis policy reform. Today, it is in the public domain in the United States and is considered a cult film.
What can one say about a comedy that isn’t in on the joke? Certainly, you can’t accept Reefer Madness on any other terms: painfully earnest from the get-go and deploying obvious shock tactics in the most clumsily amateurish manner possible. It’s a royal hoot, despite the fact that everyone associated with it really truly seems to mean what they say. One wonders how the original producers would feel if they knew their anti-pot polemic has been embraced by the very demographic they tried to warn their children about.
A small church group covered the original costs of the film; they wanted to stop marijuana use and intended to scare the holy crap out of anyone who ever considered lighting up. Exploitation producer Dwain Esper tarted it up with a few extra scenes and distributed it on the same circuit as films like She Shoulda Said No. The combination produced a howler for the ages, veering madly between leering details and pious finger wagging linked by the worst overacting this side of Ed Wood. The unintentional irony beggars belief. Did they know what they were unleashing when they named their heroine Mary Lane? Did they really think that anyone called “Dr. Alfred Carroll” would be taken seriously as an expert on pot? One desperately wants to deny it and yet all the facts onscreen say otherwise.
The plot is as predictable as it is overheated. Sinister pot pushers Mae (Thelma White) and Jack (Carleton Young) hook a pair of dewy eyed teenagers on the devil weed, driving them to murder, madness and suicide before succumbing to the consequences of their own decadent lifestyle. A framing device depicts Dr. Carroll sternly lecturing horrified parents about the evils of marijuana. It’s all a crock, of course, from the “one puff and you’re theirs” take on addiction to the notion that marijuana somehow results in terminal psychosis. Cravings for Cocoa Puffs go criminally unmentioned, and while onscreen pot smokers develop a signature case of the giggles, the scenes are so ineptly over-played that only copious use of The Forbidden Product? by the audience itself can get us through it safely.
And therein lies its secret power, for while Reefer Madness fails in every conceivable legitimate way, it stands second only to The Rocky Horror Picture Show for midnight cult credentials. It reverted to common domain decades ago, resulting in several variations on DVD (as well as the inspiration for a truly hysterical musical version which has the good sense to treat the material as the punchline that it is). The 75th anniversary edition, released this year, declines to gild the lily. It holds no tongue-in-cheek commentaries, no documentaries explaining the movie’s fascinating screen history. Instead, it piles on over two hours of similarly themed films from the era. Most of them adopt a similar anti-pot hysteria, as with Esper’s own take on the topic, Marihuana. A few, however, prove bizarrely supportive, including a painfully square World War II propaganda film, Hemp for Victory, and a surreal Betty Boop cartoon. (The 45-second Marihuana: Threat or Menace? stands as an all-too-brief highpoint.)
The DVD’s simple, yet all-encompassing coverage sets it apart from previous releases, allowing its various contents to make their own gravy and trusting the viewers to figure out the jokes themselves. The transfer is surprisingly clean, providing a sharpness of image while retaining the scratches and cigarette burns reminiscent of old 16mm reels. For those who prefer their irony straight up, it makes an enticing cocktail: wonderful for getting drunk to (or dare I say enjoying a little Longbottom Leaf) in the wee small hours of the morning. Reefer Madness may rank as one of the worst movies ever made, which — like so many of its cohorts — makes it one of the best times you’ll ever have watching a movie.