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Analysis of Reefer Madness

Setting the stage for anti-drug propaganda in the 30s, an analysis of 'Reefer Madness' explores the ridiculousness of the doc.

Few movies are as ridiculous as Reefer Madness, a 1936 "documentary" featuring fictionalized characters who, after smoking marijuana once or twice, behave in a manner that would only appear realistic if you've never seen a person get high in your life before. Which, of course, is probably what happened.

While the film failed upon release, it has since developed a cult following that has ensured it a long life even in our enlightened times where only a few (high-ranking) politicians claim that marijuana is just as bad as opium. So, in the name of fear-mongering and ridiculous paranoia, it's important to take a step back and analyze Reefer Madness.

The "Truth" Behind Fiction

Long before this film was produced, marijuana had suffering a downswing in popularity. In part due to racism in that time, marijuana was associated with both illegal immigrants and the African-American community. Now, in these simple (read: racist) times, no one really knew what marijuana really was. People used hemp as fabric for years. Abraham Lincoln, Victor Hugo, and other noteworthy intellectuals and leaders smoked hash in pipes all the time.

But when the immigrants used it? The non-white folk who people stereotyped as violent and thuggish? Well, marijuana became an instrument of violence, enough to compel people to violent ends. And thus writers, smoking pipes filled with hash, wrote that marijuana made you evil.

This was escalated even further in 1933, when, in a highly publicized murder case, a teenage boy named Victor Licata chopped up his parents, two brothers, and sister up with an ax. 

Like many unexplainable tragedies, the media had to find some external source as to why this boy would suddenly go crazy. But, as video games, heavy metal, and Dungeons and Dragons were a few decades away from inception, they fell onto his marijuana smoking.

Of course, the fact that Victor Licata had undiagnosed schizophrenia with homicidal tendencies put a damper on the whole marijuana case. Until some expert claimed "Hey, did he have schizophrenia before smoking? Maybe the marijuana GAVE him schizophrenia!"

Of course, anyone with half a brain would think that sounded ridiculous. Unfortunately, angry mobs of concerned parents lack even that among them. They raged and raged until, in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Act of 1937, outlawing marijuana and marijuana products nationwide. 

It was by that point that the hash-smoking reporters realized they done fucked up.

Reefer Madness, released in 1936 (though some sources place it anywhere between 1933 and 1938), was made by concerned (read: uninformed) adults who wanted to protect their children from, as they saw it, a drug produced by illegals and "colored" folks that made you act thuggish, go schizophrenic, and murder your entire families.

Yes. We're dealing with that much stupidity people. Strap yourselves in.

The Making

Originally titled Tell Your Children, Reefer Madness was produced by George A Hirliman. He and his religious group filmed the whole thing in about three weeks. All of the teens, as one can probably imagine, were all adults who had never smoked marijuana. 

According to Thelma White, one of the actresses in the film, RKO, a major film studio at the time famous for films like King Kong, gave them several thousand dollars to produce the film. The biggest name in the film was an actor playing the judge in the film, who, prior, had played a judge in the Three Stooges movie, Disorder in the Court. Even Ed Wood could get Bela Lugosi in his awful films, even after Lugosi died.

Midway through production, however, exploitation director Dwain Esper purchased the rights to the film, and added in extra exploitation material to bring seats into the theater. Many of these shots upped the violence and sensationalism in the film (even if, by today's standards, these shots were incredibly mild, and, by any standard, makes little sense in the logic of the film).

Everyone involved with the film was white. This was not surprising, given that it was made in the 30s, but, to a modern perspective, it can be very disconcerting.

The film, though completed and even filmed before, was announced in Variety Magazine in 1938. It was sold to many distributors, who released the film on a state-by-state level, under various names. The original name, Tell Your Children, was deemed not sensational enough. The Burning Question became the name in some regions, but, ultimately, Reefer Madness is the name that stuck.

The film was largely forgotten a few years after release, until the 60s, when film producer Robert Shaye bought the film rights to the film, and started distributing it through theaters and college campuses, where Reefer Madness found a new audience among stoners and film aficionados due to its so-bad-it's-good qualities. With the rise of the Midnight Movie, thanks to films like El Topo, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead, Reefer Madness found a new audience among cult film fans.

The film funded Shaye's film studio, New Line Cinemas. The studio would later use almost everything they earned redistributing Reefer Madness to produce a small horror film that no one thought would ever work: A Nightmare on Elm Street. The success of this film led New Line Cinema to become a mainstream institution of the film industry, allowing Robert Shaye to produce the film saga that no one else wanted to touch, The Lord of the Rings. 

So yes. Freddy Krueger and Peter Jackson's magnum opus would not exist if not for Reefer Madness.

Why the Film is Awful

Even at the time, critics realized that Reefer Madness was ridiculous. But let's understand why it's a work of madness.

The film starts (following a boring credits crawl) with a concerned professor-type high school principal talking to an audience about the dangers of marijuana (spelled in the film as marihuana). The principal makes the brave declaration that marijuana is the worst drug corrupting the youth of America at that moment. Not alcoholism. Not opium. Not cocaine. Marijuana. 

So, in order to combat the infestation of the devil's lettuce, he goes on to outline how to properly hide marijuana in normal, mundane objects. Fake heels in shoes. Inside books. Really, for five minutes, the movie turns into a guide as to how to properly smuggle weed. The intent is to educate people on how to spot people smuggling weed, but I fail to see how any of this would help everyone unless your intent is for people to kick the heels out of ladies' shoes or snatch books from people's hands to check for secret marijuana.

For a film so concerned with eradicating the spread of marijuana, they sure seemed eager to teach you how to spread it.

The principal then tells the audience a case inspired by the Licata murders. An unmarried couple living together ("living in sin") smoke and deal marijuana. The man in the relationship sells to teenagers, none of whom look younger than 35.

The teenagers, beforehand, are so uncomfortably wholesome that maybe marijuana would do some good for them. Characters from Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch are more realistic than these bizarre people. They're all "Gee willickers!" and "Gosh darn it," and "This is really swell, pop!" It's kinda creepy.

So they go to parties and what have you with the pot dealers, often in the company of a creepy piano player who is often veiled in clouds of smoke while grinning like a demon. One of the teens, Jimmy, smokes weed behind the wheel of a car, loses control of his car, and runs over a person. Naturally, he gets away with it.

This is followed by a weird series of events. In a weird series of events, Jimmy's sister Mary goes to look for her brother in the home of the pot dealers, ends up almost being raped by one, while Jimmy's friend Bill, who is there banging the pot dealer's live-in girlfriend, walks in, hallucinates Mary stripping for Bill thanks to pot (because marijuana is a hallucinogen, apparently), and then draws a gun. Of course, in the struggle, Mary is shot dead.

Bill is accused of murder, framed by the drug dealers, and... hilarity ensues. It is at this point that the film gives up any attempt at cohesiveness, and just starts losing control, like some weird acid dream. We have crazy piano playing, drug gangs trying to silence witnesses, and insanity by pot smoking. Also, random suicide.

It all ends with the principal from the beginning telling us that "the next tragedy may be that of your daughter or your son... or yours... or yours..." Points at the camera. "OR YOURS."

The Fanbase

A film this ridiculous could only be a cult classic. The insane writing, silliness of the plot, and terrible acting may turn off critics looking for quality cinema, but there's a certain subset of people who adored this film.

And, ironically, it's high college students.

The fact that the film rose to popularity in the 60s is not a coincidence. At this time, marijuana culture had become a stable, widespread concept. Grateful Dead and The Beatles spread the popularity of the Devil's Weed, and the rise of Nixon's War Against Drugs led to people needing a good laugh at the fear mongering mentality of so many authority figures.

Thus, Reefer Madness: the cult classic.

Such a misleading, poorly informed, paranoid film as this could never really convince anyone that marijuana was half as dangerous as the film claimed it to be. So, rather than run from Nixon and later Reagan's unfair and destructive war against marijuana, they laughed at it through the lens of Reefer Madness. How can anyone take Reagan's War on Drugs seriously when it's standing on the same alter as this insanity?

The film would later be colorized to look even goofier than before, and, in 2005, was remade into a musical starring Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell. 

As for the critics, well, even they have helped elevate it to a level of so-bad-it's-good popularity. Noteworthy critic Leonard Maltin called it the "grandaddy of all worst movies," ranking it alongside Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. Popular internet critic Doug Walker claimed "It’s so misinformed about what it‘s trying to inform you about that the hilarity speaks for itself."

Reefer Madness remains a masterpiece of terrible cinema. It's misinformed, misleading, but incredibly funny.

Watch Reefer Madness Now