Fashionably Late: Some Sinfully Campy “Madness”


Published February 18, 2010

In the early 1930s, a public service announcement was released with the intention of informing naïve parents of the consequences of the use of “the devil’s weed.” With a rumored production financed by a church group, the film told the story of seven teenagers who were lured into the insane and depression-era subculture of sex, drugs and… jazz. (Of course, rock and roll wasn’t big yet).

With a particularly charismatic and authoritarian presence, the film’s narrator, a high school principal, ends the film, pointing at the viewers and stating that “the next tragedy may be that of your daughter’s or your son’s.” A title card is then snapped onto the screen attempting to engrain the film’s title, “TELL YOUR CHILDREN,” in all the heads of the film’s viewers. However, the film never had much of an audience.

Actually, the film did have an audience, just not the intended one. With movie posters that read “Women Cry For It, Men Die For It” and “Drug-Crazed Abandon!” the PSA was rereleased in 1936 after being bought and recut by film maker Dwain Esper.

The new film, “Reefer Madness,” focused more on the exploitative nature of the film, which included murder, rape, and suicide, along with the obvious drug use. Although the film had gained some appeal within its own circuit, Esper found himself in the same situation as the original filmmakers—with no money, no audience, and no copyright of the film.

The film’s real fame came in the 1970s when it was discovered at the Library of Congress by National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) founder, Keith Stroup. Stroup bought the exploitation film for $297 and rereleased it in 1971, instantly making it a pop-comedy hit among stoners and college students alike.

Its mass college appeal came from the film’s campy overacting and horrible production value. The film, which appears to be edited in the style of a first grader cut-and-paste project, contains many scenes and lines that were awkwardly cut short. Let’s not forget about the seizure-like dancing and (literally) insane piano playing that is best described as a set of hands typing 100 WPM a couple of inches above the piano keys. In general, the content of the film doesn’t make much sense to the rational minds of all us 21st Century-ers, but that’s the beauty of this cult classic.

With just a little over an hour of content, “Reefer Madness” is jam-packed with overacted scenes that detail the insanity created through marijuana use and over-the-top consequential sequences, that include a hit-and-run and a murder motivated by hallucinations. In the film’s “climactic” moment, the character Bill emerges from a bedroom and hallucinates that his sister, Mary, is stripping for Ralph. Bill fights Ralph, looking more like a cartoonish Olympian wrestling match. The fight is broken up when character Jack enters the fight, hitting Bill over a head with the butt of the gun and setting off the gun, killing Mary. That’s just part of the story! Bill is framed and sent to prison, Ralph kills Jack and is sent to an asylum for the criminally insane, and the whole “criminal gang” is eventually arrested, leading to the suicide of the character Blanche (phew). All of this because they smoked some weed.

“Reefer Madness” has spawned two stage adaptations (one of which was a musical spoof of the original staged show) and a 1992 made-for-television film based off the musical. The film was also released in 2004 in a newer and extra-campy, colorized version of the film that displayed the smoke in unrealistic green, purple, orange and blue coloration as well as quick subliminal messaging that include the numbers four and 20. Since its ’70s rerelease, “Reefer Madness” has remained a staple among cult film fans and people who might be curious to see one of the “worst” movies ever made (worst doesn’t imply unenjoyable—let’s get that straight).

However, it goes without saying that “Reefer Madness” still carries a lot of weight in American political culture. Esper’s original “Reefer” release could easily be analyzed as being a response to the movie industry, which developed the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930. This code prohibited such things as “nakedness and suggestive dancing, sex perversion and methods of crime” (among others), from being released in films. When Esper released “Reefer Madness,” he edited in many suggestive scenes that included French kissing, a murder scene, and a female character adjusting her stocking as she got changed (How racy!).

Stroup’s 1971 release came just two years after Nixon announced his infamous “War on Drugs.” Since then, NORML has had to fight through this “War” and even a 1996 petition that would threaten second time smuggling offenders with the death penalty. NORML even petitioned last year to end the use of the term “War on Drugs” and by May 2009, the Obama administration implied they would stop using the term and focus more on the health issues of drug abuse rather than criminalization.

With just over 10 states that have decriminalized marijuana, the discussion of the legalization of marijuana, including a current push in California, keeps the “message” of “Reefer Madness” alive. Although it is in the realm of camp, it holds a lot of weight when talking about the true nature of marijuana. In comparing the ridiculous nature of the film to current standards, audiences are forced to question the true implications marijuana has and the proposed consequences that ensue.