Reefer Madness (1936). 68 minutes. Directed by Louis J. Gasnier. Starring Dave O’Brien (as Ralph Wiley), Dorothy Short (as Mary Lane), Kenneth Craig (as Bill Harper), Carleton Young (as Jack Perry), Lillian Miles (as Blanche), Thelma White (as Mae Coleman), Warren McCollum (as Jimmy Lane), Ed LeSaint (as judge), Mary McLaren (as Mrs. Lane), and Josef Forte (as Dr. Alfred Carroll).
Reefer Madness has been called one of the best worst movies ever made, ranking alongside such legendary failures as Ed Wood’s dreadful Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) in terms of its ability to provide campy thrills. The 1936 propaganda film’s crazed vision of marijuana abuse, with wild, wide-eyed users who hallucinate, kill, commit suicide, run over pedestrians, attempt rape, and have illicit sex is clearly meant to be a lesson to us all, but it is so over the top as not to be believed. Filmmaker Louis J. Gasnier made Reefer Madness with funding from a religious organization whose goal was to educate parents on the dangers of teen drug use; the movie was eventually recut and repackaged by director and producer Dwain Esper, the exploitation filmmaker responsible for other colorfully titled B movies such as Sex Maniac (1934), Marihuana (1936), How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937), and The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler (1948). The survival of Reefer Madness is largely owed not to its initial humorless release but rather to its proliferation as an ironic classic in this form on the midnight movie circuits throughout the succeeding decades.
The story may already be familiar to you: Mae and Jack make a living selling marijuana to young people by hosting drug parties in their apartment. Another couple, Ralph and Blanche, help Mae and Jack to run their business. One day Blanche invites teenagers Bill and Jimmy up to Mae and Jack’s. Blanche introduces Bill to the drug, and Jimmy gets his first taste while driving Jack around to pick up more goods. Jimmy plows into a pedestrian who ultimately dies of his injuries. Bill sleeps with Blanche, and on the same day his girlfriend Mary visits Mae and Jack’s and smokes marijuana for the first time. A high Ralph attempts to rape her. Bill emerges from the bedroom and hallucinates that Mary is stripping. Attempting to intervene, he struggles with Ralph and is pulled away by Jack, whose gun accidentally goes off and kills Mary. Bill is framed for murder, tried, and found guilty. Meanwhile Ralph hides out at Mae and Jack’s and goes insane, eventually killing Jack and being hauled off by police. Blanche is apprehended and tells all, then commits suicide by jumping out of a window. Ralph is locked away for life in an insane asylum.
Reefer Madness is actually known by many titles: Tell Your Children, The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and Love Madness. Normally a multiplicity of titles is a strong indicator that a movie is going to be fairly bad. But this movie was doomed by more than these misguided attempts to rename and repackage it. For one thing, the characterizations are simplistic and crude, supplemented by over-the-top performances—most notably by anyone whose character is attracted to the piano in Mae’s apartment. Famously, there is a wild-looking anonymous keyboard player under the influence there in the early scenes, and later while Blanche is tinkering at the piano, Ralph fixates on the instrument while high, commanding her to play “faster! faster!” Additionally, the sets are cheap-looking and interchangeable, and the audio (at least in the version I saw) was crummy and inadequate.
The script is short on ideas and so uses abundance as a strategy to overwhelm us with fictional evidence that marijuana is a supremely dangerous substance. Reefer Madness catalogues the drug’s purported evil relentlessly and without much thought: a hit and run on top of near rape on top of a shooting. Perhaps the filmmakers were practicing restraint—I did not notice child slavery, incest, or torture, so I suppose it could have been worse. But at the same time, weirdly, the movie actually lets opportunities to show still more fanatical drug use go by. For example, when Bill takes his first hit of marijuana with Blanche, we might think that the camera would linger on Bill without cutting, revealing his reaction to the drug that has by now been established on screen as dangerous and unpredictable. Surely his experience at this moment would be of interest to us—but instead the movie cuts away. We never see Bill’s reaction to the joint he smokes. This indicates both bad editing practices and bad dramatic plotting, a deficient sense of build up and pay off. It is as if the filmmakers do not understand what is at stake or important in the warped universe they are taking pains to create.
The movie’s lurid tabloid qualities are famously awful. In order to make its case that marijuana is evil, Reefer Madness sensationalizes drug use, making it seem dramatic and newsworthy. The effects of marijuana on users and their society in this film are cataclysmic, menacing, and universal. But it is hard to argue successfully that addiction to any drug produces such a hysterical sequence of events. I think of addiction as being a sometimes gradual and complicated descent into self-destruction and isolation, whereas Reefer Madness envisions it as instantaneous, flashy, and very public, something that affects others more than it does users. It is as if for the filmmakers, the psychic interiors of people using the drug are irrelevant, the effects of drug use only conceivable in terms of what happens to those around the addict. Although drug use most definitely affects society adversely, it is odd that the movie seems only to care about the public facet of the phenomenon it explores.
In addition to sensationalizing its subject matter, Reefer Madness strives to frighten us into agreeing with its perspective. It implicates its own characters in tragic wrongdoing but also aims to shock us by including us in its scope. Consider the final words of school principal Dr. Alfred Carroll whose address bookends the main story: “The next tragedy may be that of your daughter… or your son… or yours… or yours…” and then, pointing directly at the audience, “or YOURS!” Inspiring fear in an audience, while perhaps effective dramatically, is weak rhetorically. Such a tactic strives to manipulate the audience’s emotions cheaply rather than appeal to our logical side. So in other words, the movie seeks to persuade us through means that are not particularly rational.
Part of what makes Reefer Madness feel especially absurd, though, is not just that we can theoretically argue with its poor construction, overzealousness, and faulty use of logic. It is rather the way that it relies on misinformation to make its point. Regardless of your feelings about whether people should use marijuana or not, and for whatever purposes, many of us know people who consume it. None of the movie’s violent behavior will seem a likely outcome of contact with this drug to anyone who has used it or witnessed people using it. Even the casual observer of someone who has recently smoked marijuana will probably conclude that users are slowed down and seem slightly stupid, not transformed into the crazed fiends of this movie.
The very phrase “reefer madness” has become synonymous with mainstream intolerance and hysterical overreaction. Audiences have typically responded to the movie with laughter and skepticism. I am tickled that in spite of its earnest pretensions, Reefer Madness quickly became a cult treat on college campuses. To be frank, it made my head hurt, with its poor sound, gritty print, cheap apartment sets, and histrionic argumentation. Watching it was like watching the most extreme and the most conservative thing all at once, something that screamed at me about the horrible, extravagant things that would happen to me if I so much as looked at marijuana, while at the same time using the minimum resources, thoughtfulness, and sophistication to do so. It makes other propaganda films, such as 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy (which also gave me a headache), look like works of art in comparison. At the end, I was grateful to be able to leave the movie and come back to reality. Given that Reefer Madness sought to transform my impression of that reality, I consider it a failure, albeit an amusing one.