Much like Birdemic, I had never seen this without RiffTrax providing some form of commentary. Fortunately, like Birdemic, this is the kind of beautiful trainwreck that doesn’t really hurt much to watch without comedians giving commentary.
During my review of other bad movies, I’ve said the key to making a “so bad, it’s good” movie is that everyone doing the movie has to believe they’re doing a good movie. That way, nobody comes off as second-guessing or lacking dedication. This movie definitely nailed that. I believe that everyone involved in this movie was totally on board. Maybe not with the message the movie was sending, but they believed that they were doing a worthwhile film. I therefore dedicate to their memory this review, which will largely consist of belittling their sad, misguided efforts.
Okay, so, some background notes on this movie:
Reefer Madness is an anti-cannabis (or, as they spell it in the movie, marihuana) film which was originally designed to be shown to parents to warn them about the dangers of pot. And yes, it was absolutely serious. However, while the original movie was just an educational film with an embedded morality play, it was bought by another filmmaker who specialized in exploitation films, who apparently inserted a bunch of the other, racier (by 1930s standards) shots into the movie and gave it wider distribution. Since nobody involved actually cared that much about the movie’s longevity, it wasn’t copyrighted properly, and lapsed into the public domain.
It apparently became popular in the 1970s when people used it as a way to drum-up funding and support for the California Marijuana Initiative (which failed). But, because it’s so gloriously awful, it started to gain a cult following, and eventually got a musical adaptation and a ton of humorous commentaries. In 2004, someone colorized it, and since that version was the first one to come up on my Amazon search, that’s the one I watched.
The beginning of the movie is a text crawl warning people of the approaching threat of marihuana in the US, which is called a “violent narcotic” and “the real public enemy number one!” I guess Frank Nitti just really wasn’t holding up Capone’s legacy.
It describes the effects of pot: Uncontrollable laughter, then dangerous hallucinations where time slows down, then “conjuring up massive extravagances,” emotional disturbances, the inability to think, leading to acts of violence, and, finally, INCURABLE INSANITY. The movie then explains that it’s totally based on scientific research into pot addiction, and begs you to do something, because “the dread marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter… or yours… or YOURS!” Yes, they typed that out, as if you read as multiple people.
So, the movie’s frame tale is a lecture given at a PTA meeting by a high school principal (Josef Forte). This guy is glorious. He says everything like he’s preaching a sermon while a pit to hell opens around him. It’s so serious, so urgent, and so blindly, obviously, wrong. He tells the audience that morphine and heroin are less dangerous than marijuana. Also, he tells them that he’s going to inform all of them of the places where you can find/buy drugs, which was definitely not the normal path to take at an anti-drug meeting. That’s like telling MADD where all the good bars are.
The rest of the movie is supposedly a story that happened in the town where the PTA meeting is taking place, which seems really weird, because the events in the movie are either A) not something he could know about or B) so bizarre and huge they would have been the talk of the town and he wouldn’t need to tell anyone. But, it’s the 1930s, so I guess no one had anything better to do than listen to this guy and try not to get polio.
So, the main story starts with Jack and Mae (Carleton Young and Thelma White), an (*gasp*) unmarried couple living together in sin selling marijuana to make ends meet (and apparently buy Jack’s super snazzy suits). Mae doesn’t want to sell drugs to kids, but Jack figures it’s easier than finding adults. He’s helped by Ralph and Blanche (Dave O’Brien and Lillian Miles). Ralph is a college student who is clearly insane (though, they say that’s because he smokes pot) and Blanche is… I think a prostitute, but money never appears to change hands on screen.
Ralph and Blanche invite two students, Jimmy and Billy (Warren McCollum and Kenneth Craig), to come back to Jack and Mae’s. Bill warns Jimmy against it. We then find out that Bill is dating Jimmy’s sister Mary (Dorothy Short). Their romance scenes are corny, even by 1930s standards, but it’s made even weirder by the fact that Mary’s mom pervs on the couple when they’re kissing (no, really, she’s clearly really into watching them make out). After Bill leaves the Lannister household (really Lane, so close), Jimmy talks him into going to Jack’s house.
Oh, and despite the fact that Jimmy and Billy are supposed to be portrayed as kids, they are both clearly in their 20s or 30s. Actually, one of them is older than the “adult” actresses.
So, they go to the “Reefer Den,” and, I gotta tell you, this seems like a fun place. Everyone’s laughing, smiling, hugging, kissing, and, oh yeah, they suck at playing music. Also, they make the pot smoke multicolor, which… doesn’t seem like something pot does. Oh, and 420 flashes onscreen at one point.
While at Jack’s place, Jack runs out of pot, so Jimmy, who has borrowed his sister’s car, drives Jack to get more. When they stop at Jack’s dealing boss, Jimmy asks Jack for a cigarette (which, by the way, everyone is smoking in the movie, including the “underage,” since some states sold cigarettes to minors in the 1930s). Jack then gives Jimmy a joint, which leads Jimmy to drive recklessly (he almost goes 50!) and run over a pedestrian without stopping. Jack then talks to Jimmy again and tells Jimmy that the guy died (he didn’t), but that he’ll keep Jimmy out of trouble if he never tells anyone about Jack’s business. AND THEN JIMMY IS OUT OF THE MOVIE. Seriously, Jimmy gets high, runs a guy over, and then disappears.
The movie then cuts to the Principal talking to an expert about pot, and he lists a number of pot-related incidents, including a guy murdering his family with an ax, and a woman sleeping with five men at the same time. These are treated as equally bad.
It then cuts back to another pot party where Bill sleeps with Blanche. At the same time, Mary comes over to the pot house looking for Bill (but not her brother). She sits with Ralph, who then proceeds to get stoned and TRY TO RAPE HER. And yes, this is portrayed as being a result of cannabis. The rape scene has a lot of weird cuts in it, which might be from not being able to film it in one take, or from inserting extra frames of the violent attempt to force Mary into sex, or holy shit, this movie stopped being funny. Also, I found out later that Mary and Ralph were married in real life, and I don’t know if that makes it better or worse.
So, Bill finishes having sex with Blanche and comes out to find Ralph trying to force himself onto Mary, but Bill then hallucinates that Mary is stripping down to seduce Ralph, despite Mary loudly screaming “NO.” Bill fights Ralph (again, not over raping, but over the thought that he’s being seduced by her, because what the hell 1930s?), and Jack intervenes, which… results in Jack pulling out a gun which goes off while pointed at the floor, but apparently ricochets to instantly (and bloodlessly) kill Mary. Jack then knocks Bill out and plants the gun in his hand, leading Bill to be charged with her murder.
The trial scene is great, because it’s pretty much entirely about pot, and almost all of it is so wildly inappropriate for trial that the one objection that’s made is memorable for being about 2 minutes after the improper testimony concludes. The jurors basically decide to convict him not over whether or not he murdered Mary, but over whether or not he smokes pot which… is probably one of the most accurate jury rooms in film. Bill is convicted of killing Mary and sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Ralph, who apparently actually shot Mary, is feeling guilty and wants to confess. Jack is told by his boss to kill Ralph. While waiting at Jack’s place, unaware, Ralph keeps telling Blanche to play the piano faster. No, really, that’s it. He just keeps telling her to play it faster and laughing. It’s apparently supposed to indicate that he’s now incurably insane. Jack shows up, but Ralph’s new pot-senses tingle that danger is near and Ralph beats him to death.
Blanche then tells the cops that Jack or Ralph actually killed Mary, not Bill, signs a statement, then kills herself. Ralph is then committed to an asylum forever. Bill is released based on the statement Blanche made right before her suicide. So, Jimmy and Bill both commit various crimes and get off scot-free, but Mary’s dead.
The Principal finishes the lecture, and tells everyone they need to work to thwart the menace of marijuana, or it could come after “your son or daughter… or yours… or YOURS!” See, this time, he’s pointing at people, including, finally, the audience, which actually makes sense. Then the words “TELL YOUR CHILDREN” appear on screen.
It’s not the worst movie ever, not by a long shot, but Reefer Madness is still really bad. Looking at it as a cautionary tale, it’s almost worse, because the pot house is huge, there are always people there having a good time, and Bill and Jimmy both avoid any real punishment, despite the fact that they commit multiple crimes including what one of them thinks is vehicular manslaughter. In retrospect, it’s even a little worse, because alcohol and cigarettes are portrayed as being perfectly fine, and heroin and morphine are presented as less harmful than marijuana, which… is wrong. Like, super wrong. Also, pot making you a rapist and murderer should have been ridiculous even in the era of playing with mercury.
I don’t even know what to say about the acting. I’d say it’s terrible, but I think they were all doing exactly what they were told. How would any actor realistically respond to the command “crazily tell someone to play the piano faster?” Or “have a criminal amount of fun?” I mean, they’re over the top, but they’re such ridiculous characters that there’s no other way to play them. However, the exception is Jack. Jack is bad regardless of direction. Jack mangles his lines hilariously about a quarter of the time.
It’s campy, it’s ridiculous, it’s based on a premise so insane that it could only have been conceived of by a Southern Church Group (and was). The RiffTrax was much better, so I recommend going straight to that, but the movie is pretty fun on its own. Or go to the musical… tomorrow.
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Here’s the full film:
Preliminary notes: Sober. Angry. If I smoked pot, I would definitely be smoking it right now. Let’s kick this pig.
6:15 – Okay, so I could only find the colorized version without having to look harder than the first result. The opening credits are therefore in a very weed-friendly green color. Also, I really hate that they spell it “marihuana” in the opening crawl.
6:17 – I refuse to believe this many people showed up to parent-teacher conferences even back in the 1930s, when there was nothing better to do. Suit game is on point, though.
6:18 – Guy basically just said “I think it would be helpful for all of you to know how to get drugs into the country, and where to find them.” Mixed messages here…
6:20 – The movie is literally comparing morphine, heroin, and marihuana as if they’re equally harmful drugs. Again, this was designed to be serious.
6:23 – I’ll admit, I love the suits. And Mae looks pretty good, for blurry film.
6:24 – I know this was re-colored, and now I desperately want to know if the lime-green suit was actually what the guy was wearing.
6:26 – “Better not go with him, he’s a little too old for us.” Says the actor who is clearly in his 30s about another actor in his 30s.
6:27 – Okay, so, everyone smoking regular cigarettes apparently aren’t doing anything wrong. Way to lose credibility, nineteen thirties.
6:28 – Everyone has two straws, just in case one of them breaks down (I miss Mitch Hedburg, who also liked weed).
6:29 – The guy who played the parody version of Ralph was more realistic than the original. Impressive. Also, the pot smoke being green might make it a bit easier to convince parents that you’re just smoking tobacco in real life. Thanks, movie! (update: Sadly, wasn’t colorized until 2004).
6:31 – The mom is kinda perving on her daughter kissing Billy. That’s more than a little creepy. Also, even the kid at home is wearing a sportscoat. Man, the 30s were a lot of effort.
6:34 – Ah, Jazz during its “let’s just strangle some cats” period.
6:35 – The number 240 just flashed big and neon on the screen. Weird. (Update: Apparently it was 4 and then 20)
6:37 – Okay, the smoke from weed just comes out in any technicolor shade. Purple, pink, green, yellow, blue. Man, this makes me really want to try pot.
6:38 – OH MY GOD, HE’S DRIVING AT THE INSANE SPEED OF 45!!!!
6:39 – And vehicular manslaughter is apparently the first sign of pot use.
6:41 – Apparently, another sign is butchering your family with an ax. The next example is an orgy… which, seems like a very odd thing to pair with ax murder.
6:42 – Yeah, honestly, these pot parties seem more fun than a life where your big weekly event is playing doubles tennis. Dancing, music, spontaneous laughter, beautiful women pulling you into bedrooms. Pot truly is a menace.
6:43 – This guy’s directorial instructions clearly were “act like you really, really should have some pot.”
6:44 – I don’t know exactly what Bill and Blanche just did, but she appears to be having a stroke after it.
6:45 – There are a lot of frames missing in the rape scene, or they really couldn’t film it in one take. Also, this is a pretty awful rape scene. (Update: Holy shit, they’re married).
6:46 – So, you hallucinate that your girlfriend, who is literally screaming no, is consenting and stripping, and THAT is what makes you want to stop it? Man, Pot makes you the devil. Well played, movie.
6:47 – And now random gunshot aimed at floor instantly, and bloodlessly, kills Mary.
6:49 – Could you butcher that line harder, Jack? It might still have some words almost coherently expressed.
6:54 – Great objection, attorney. It was only about 2 minutes after he finished giving the improper testimony.
7:02 – Ralph wants to confess to murder, so they’re going to murder him so that people don’t blame pot. As opposed to the entire trial happening which is blaming pot. Gangsters are not smart in this movie.
7:08 – I’m frightened that the jury scene is accurate.
7:10 – Ralph was more likeable as a cannibal.
7:12 – This crazed maniac keeps asking a woman to play the piano faster. My god, pot is worse than I thought.
7:14 – “Okay, Blanche, you’re laughing and crying at the same time, so make your face look like neither of those things.”
7:15 – Alright, we’re going to just take her out of court, unsworn testimony as being sufficient evidence to overturn Bill’s conviction without any judicial action required. Man, the 30s knew how to work a justice system.
7:17 – “Kids, if you smoke pot and have sex, you should just kill yourself.” – This movie, apparently.
7:18 – For the record, Jimmy apparently is going completely unpunished for the hit-and-run that he ACTUALLY DID.
7:19 – Okay, they did actually bring a judge in to overturn Bill’s conviction. Based on a single statement by a now-dead witness who very easily could have been lying for multiple reasons. But, I’ll assume Ralph has confessed at this point and everyone just didn’t care anymore.
7:20 – Point at me… point at me… YES HE POINTED AT ME. I will tell my children, sir, of all the evils of marihuana.