...probably the granddaddy of all so-bad-it's-good cult films. I'm not sure it started a welcome trend.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

How do you rate a film that's so bad everybody loves it? "Reefer Madness" from 1938 is probably the granddaddy of all so-bad-it's-good cult films. I'm not sure it started a welcome trend.

The movie really is awful, yet it's been around as a favorite of film buffs for as long as I can remember. Heck, it was already infamous when I was in high school in the late fifties, a film so appalling there was nothing to do but laugh at it.

It was produced by nobody (G & H Productions), directed by nobody (Louis Gasnier, who, in his defense, did a whole series of low-budget, B-grade exploitation pictures between 1905 and 1941), and starring nobody (unless you count Kenneth Craig, Dorothy Short, Warren McCullom, Dave O'Brien, Josef Forte, Carleton Young, or Thelma White as somebodies).

Originally released under the title "Tell Your Children," it was re-released as "The Burning Question," "Dope Addict," "Doped Youth," and "Love Madness" until it finally acquired its present appellation in 1947. It is, of course, as "Reefer Madness" that most of us have always known it.

The movie's forward probably says all that needs to be said. I quote in part: "The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful tale of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug--a violent narcotic--an unspeakable scourge--the Real Public Enemy Number One!

Its first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then comes dangerous hallucinations--space expands--time slows down, almost stands still....fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances--followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions...leading finally to acts of shocking violence...ending often in incurable insanity." And so on.

The film is meant as a cautionary tale on the evils of smoking marijuana (alternatively spelled "marihuana" throughout the film), but it's so exaggerated, so totally, uncontrollably overstated, that one can only be amazed that it was made at all. Add to its preposterous plot some of the worst acting and most amateurish filmmaking seen this side of Edward D. Wood, Jr., and you get one really dreadful movie. Yet we know today that that's the point of watching it: To make fun of how dreadful it is. Which wouldn't be half so bad, in fact, if it wasn't a one-note wonder. Once we get the point that the film is inflating to ridiculous proportions the alleged dangers of pot smoking, and once we see how terrible the acting and sets are, there isn't much left to laugh at. In other words, the joke wears thin really fast, a lot faster than the movie's sixty-five minute running time. The first moments are silly and cute, to be sure, and there is a bizarre, sock 'em ending, it's true, but there's mostly a lot of tedium in between.

For the benefit of those who might actually be interested, the plot concerns a group of teens (played by actors in their mid-to-late twenties and looking older) who are lured into the sins of marijuana while frequently one of those dens of inequity, the local soda parlor. Once hooked on the diabolic dope, the teens turn to everything promised in the forward: promiscuous sex (implied), violence, murder, and complete insanity. Well, I'm sure you've already seen this chain of events occur among your own family and friends, so I don't need to remind you of the horrors the drug brings with it.

Each of the characters is an accepted stereotype: The handsome, innocent young man; the beautiful, innocent young girl; the older, experienced youth; the deranged piano player with an obsession for the devil's jazz; the dope fiends; and the pushers who lure naive youngsters to their apartment with promises of good, clean fun. OK, I admit to taking a guilty pleasure from the facial expressions of those under the weed's influence; both the guy early on and the girl later wear looks that are priceless. Enough to carry an entire picture? You're joking, right?

"Reefer Madness" has seen any number of previous incarnations on tape and DVD, but this restored edition is the best one I've seen yet in terms of its technical quality. That still isn't saying much, however, because the initial print was undoubtedly of substandard character to begin with. Anyway, the restorers have not only cleaned up the major age spots, lines, flecks, cracks, scratches, and whatnot, but they've provided the disc with the original black-and-white movie and a new colorized version as well. Usually, I abhor colorized films, but in this case the color adds a new element of sport to the proceedings by making the smoke the actors exhale appear in different colors. Sometimes they're breathing green smoke, sometimes pink, sometimes yellow. It adds to the cockeyed merriment of the occasion. Unfortunately, what the restorers couldn't make up for was the inherent fuzziness and blurriness of the original print and the soft image contrasts, in color or in black-and-white.

Incredibly, and I'm not sure if it's part of the joke or not, the film's soundtrack is said to be remastered in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. It all sounded like monaural to me, but what do I know? I didn't want to turn up the volume loud enough to find out if there was really anything coming from the rear speakers or even from the front left and right speakers because the audio was so bright, hard, and edgy. Still, the sound was quiet, with any possible background noise having been successfully muted out.

Perhaps more important than the feature film are the two audio commentaries that accompany it. The first is with the Legend Film restorers who worked on the movie, and they generally have a good time mocking it. The second is with Mike Nelson of TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000," who's an old hand at deriding bad old films. I listened to about a half an hour of each commentary and found them more entertaining than the movie under discussion. Next, there's a 1999 short film by Evan Keliher (sorry, don't know him) called "Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook" that has a few amusing bits in it. Finally, there are sixteen scene selections and a recently made theatrical trailer. English is the only spoken language offered, and English subtitles are available for those viewers looking to avoid the soundtrack.

Parting Shots:
So, "Don't Bogart that joint, my friend; pass it over to me," where it can be disposed of properly before it takes the life of yet another helpless victim. Our maximum-security prisons and state-sponsored insane asylums are overflowing with the wretched vestiges of young people whose degenerate lives began with that one first puff. All the same, if you really have to try it, take Bill's advice: Don't inhale.


Film Value