Have you ever seen “Reefer Madness”? If not, then why not? Sure, critics have called it “One of the worst films ever made” but hey, what do they know? In our opinion, it’s the greatest comedy ever made. (It wasn’t meant to be a comedy, of course, but that’s beside the point.)
Reefer Madness is a 1936 anti-Marijuana movie, and … well, it’s insane. It’s completely and utterly insane. In fact, when it comes to propaganda, the producers of Reefer Madness make the Nazi party look like complete amateurs. During this movie, it’s gently suggested that smoking pot may lead to other things … you know, like hit-and-runs, suicide, manslaughter, attempted rape, hallucinations, and complete and utter psychotic breakdown.
The trailer is quite simply terrific. We see a bunch of teenagers attending a dance, and they’re the kind of teenagers that are so sickeningly wholesome that you immediately wish they would meet some kind of horrific fate. You know the type. They say things like “Gosh darn it” and “That’s really swell”. In fact, they make the kids from “Saved by The Bell” look like a gang of cannibalistic serial killers.
Soon enough, however, our very concerned voiceover guy tells us that their innocence won’t last for long, due to “a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors.” “Marijuana!” he declares. “The burning weed with its roots in Hell!” This line is accompanied by a man smoking a joint, cackling to himself, and looking like Doctor Jekyll after one too many potions. Voiceover guy follows this up by telling us how this vicious plant can be rolled into an innocent looking cigarette and hidden in an innocent shoe or watchcase.
Did you get that? This anti-Marijuana film tells us the best way to hide our weed.
Yeah? OK, just checking.
Voiceover guy finishes his trailer by doing his best to put our minds at rest, by shouting “Debauchery! Violence! Suicide! And the ultimate end of the marijuana addict … hopeless insanity!”
Right. So you’re saying we shouldn’t smoke it then?
Reefer Madness was originally intended to teach parents about the “dangers” of cannabis use. It was financed by a church group, who initially christened it with the title: “Tell Your Children” … but then exploitation film producer Dwain Esper bought the film, recut it, added a few extra racy scenes of women rolling down their stockings, and a classic was born.
Esper was fairly well known in the “exploitation” genre, and you can get a sense of the man’s artistic integrity by looking at the titles of his other movies: “Freaks,” “Narcotic”, and “Sex Madness”. So, yes, he wasn’t exactly Ingmar Bergman. In fact, he was somewhere below Ed Wood, Roger Corman, and Ron Jeremy on the ladder of classy film making. Esper has also been described as a cheat, a crooked businessman, and a notorious liar … so he was clearly the perfect guy to listen to if you wanted life advice.
But the trailer only really lets you dip your toe into the insanity of Reefer Madness. For the full effect, you really need to watch the entire movie. In the opening scene, a high school principle tells us exactly what’s wrong with the nation’s youth. “Not alcohol,” he wisely proclaims. “Not opium, not cocaine … but marijuana is the worst drug corrupting the youth of America.” Strong words for a man who looks like Mr Rogers on smack.
It’s not long until we’re learning all about the evils of weed (which is subtly referred to as “Public Enemy Number One”) through the prism of Ralph and Blanche, an unmarried couple, “living in sin” who also sell marijuana to teenagers. Well, they say they’re teenagers, but nobody in this film appears to be under the age of forty-three. In fact, some of the teenagers are older than the middle-aged adults.
Anyway, none of the teens come out of this well. There’s Jimmy (who decides to smoke and drive, loses control, and runs someone over), there’s his sister Mary (who almost gets raped by Ralph, and then accidentally shot and killed by a guy called Jack) and then there’s Bill (who gets framed for the murder, and found guilty). Just the kind of thing you’d expect from a nice, chilled out sesh.
As you can imagine, there are many wacky scenes in Reefer Madness, but a particular stand-out moment is the “piano” scene. Ralph isn’t feeling great, so Blanche decides to play him some soothing music to help him relax. First, however, she utters those demonic words: “Honey, give me a smoke, will you?” They both spark up, and that’s when the horror, or comedy, really begins. “Faster!” cries Ralph. “Play faster!” So Blanche plays faster … and faster … and faster … looking more and more unhinged, creating clouds of smoke, and sucking on her joint like some kind of gluttonous weed demon. Ralph, on the other hand, seems to be coming apart at the seams, looking like a cross between someone who’s being fellated and having a heart attack. And then, in the middle of this, Jack shows up, and Ralph decides to beat him to death with something that looks like a long churro.
I’m not sure why. I’d stopped paying attention by that point.
At the end of the movie, we’re once again treated to the company of the high school principle, who has this to say: “The next tragedy may be that of your daughter or your son.” And then, the moment that sends shivers right down your spine. “OR YOURS,” he says, pointing straight at us. It’s truly terrifying … or at least, it would be … you know, if it wasn’t so fucking funny.
Unfortunately, even though Reefer Madness is clearly a bit of a joke, it was successful and infamous enough that it helped lay the foundations for cannabis prohibition, not to mention the image of marijuana as a plant of pure evil. And that went on for approximately eighty years. Let’s be honest, it’s still going on in some places. In fact, the film was made just as anti-Marijuana rhetoric was reaching a climax, which ultimately resulted in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
Ironically, however, it also helped to de-stigmatize it, because as we’ve already pointed out, it’s an unintentional comic masterpiece. As an unwitting satire, it’s frankly unbeatable. For instance, in 1971, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Keith Stroup, bought a copy of the film, and started screening it on college campuses. It soon became an ironic classic for stoner kids, and raised a lot of money for the cause … which is tricky … because now we don’t know whether to love it or hate it.
Ultimately, however, its existence is one of the best examples of how ludicrous the marijuana laws were … and still are in places … so on behalf of the rest of the world’s cannabis-loving population, Buzzlync would like to say: “Thank you, Reefer Madness.” Thank you for being such a shit movie that you managed to change the lives of pot smokers everywhere.
We salute you!