Reefer Madness (1936)

“The Real Public Enemy Number One!”


Directed by: Louis J. Gasnier

Starring: Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles, Dave O’Brien

In a Nutshell:

Originally funded by a church group, Reefer Madness is a clodhopping piece of anti-ganja propaganda that found a second life on the midnight movie circuit and among denizens of the very counterculture it supposedly exposed. It is partly a finger-wagging sermon about the dangers of weed (the most heinous and dangerous drug in the known universe, according to this movie), and partly an inept melodrama about two good all-American boys who are drawn into the depraved lifestyle of the stoner.

According to the hellfire opening text, the story is based on “actual research”, but seems so completely out of touch that you have to wonder if the researchers even encountered any stoners at all. By turn unintentionally hilarious and deathly dull, there is some poetic justice that this pious trash has since become a stoner classic.

Reefer Madness

 

The Plot:

A drug-dealing couple hatches a heinous plan to start getting local high-school kids hooked on marijuana, using a reefer-addicted college drop out Ralph (O’Brien) to lure the targets to their apartment. Clean cut, chipper Bill (Craig) and Jimmy (Warren McCollum) innocently fall into the trap. Once they’ve fallen under the spell of the Devil’s lettuce, it’s a quick descent from jazz music and dancing to hit-and-run driving, sex, murder and insanity…

Reefer Madness

 

Notable Performances:

The performances in this movie are absolutely atrocious. However, two stand out for various reasons…

Josef Forte as Dr. Alfred Carroll. The kids’ teacher and the de-facto voice of the movie. This Gestapo-looking motherfucker has a real hateful sneer on his face while he’s lecturing the audience, as if he genuinely hated the idea of God-lovin’ kids getting spliffed up. By the time he summed up his argument saying the next tragedy could be my kid, having the audacity to point directly down the camera at me, I wanted to jump through the screen and snap his pencil neck. Although that could be the murderous lasting side-effects of weed talking…

Dave O’Brien is pretty hilarious as Ralph. After a few tokes he starts looking like a man auditioning for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and his performance just gets wilder and crazier as the story progresses. It’s a pretty demented depiction of someone who’s high, almost as if he had no point of reference to base his portrayal on.

Reefer Madness

 

Dated/Troublesome Stuff:

Since the church originally stumped up the cash for Reefer Madness, the thinking behind it was probably outdated before the cameras even rolled. Everything else about the movie has dated incredibly too. Whenever I shared a spliff around my drug dealer’s flat, we’d be sitting around cross-legged on the floor, listening to music and tapping off in an empty beer can. Certainly no-one was jumping up to do the Jitterbug, especially not in a three-piece suit. The portrayals of high people are wildly out of touch, typified by how these characters laugh when they’re stoned. This isn’t a fit of the giggles, it’s a demented, maniacal laugh. It’s insane, and I’ve never seen anyone do that on weed. Apart from maybe myself once, when I was so high that I thought my secret bagel recipe would help me take over the world. 

Strangely, the film’s portrayal of stoner behaviour is so wide of the mark that it inadvertently gives a fairly accurate insight into how square, non-drug people think drug people actually behave.

 

Verdict:

Reefer Madness is a real curio and there’s also tons of interesting stuff you can read about its history, strange afterlife and continuing legacy. Unfortunately, it is far more entertaining to read about the film than it is to actually watch it. There is some funny stuff there, but mostly it’s like watching a really bad episode of a true crime show.

However, if you’re interested in weed culture it’s probably worth an hour of your time just to get it under your belt. Maybe smoke a fatty for Dr Carroll while you’re at it – that poor bastard looks like he needs it.

 

Rating: Two bong rips out of Ten

 

Trailer:

 

Reefer Madness is in the public domain and you can find a just about watchable version HERE

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