The High Legacy of Reefer Madness

The High Legacy of Reefer Madness

For anyone interested in experiencing a piece of pure Americana, look no further than 1936’s Reefer Madness.

This outstanding example of the wild possibilities that emerge when camp is played straight has left a legacy for midnight movie crowds and lovers of cult cinema. As a piece of pop culture, Reefer Madness offers a timeless example of a certain American sensibility that has permeated this relatively young country since its inception. Reefer Madness captures a cultural touchstone by exposing the underbelly of anti-insight through the form of an exaggerated lecture on morality.

The creators of this you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me piece of propaganda present their thunderingly virtuous message immediately by the hectoring scrawl that rolls at the top of the picture. You know you’re in for a good talking to right away, and the filmmakers waste no time before plunging into a series of warnings and rebukes. You encounter a distinctly insufferable personality type that is, and always has been, pointedly American; the same kind of priggish worldview that has perpetuated witch-hunts for both witches and Communists. To watch Reefer Madness is to contend with an outraged, intellectually rigid, self-righteous, gossipy, fear-mongering Torquemada.

Thankfully, inevitably, every attempt to frighten the viewer into a state of fear over “Marihuana — The Real Public Enemy Number One!” backfires completely. Instead, the entire film feels like a counterintuitive campaign designed to intrigue and seduce even the most skeptical thinkers into experimenting with this supposedly deadly drug. It’s almost impossible to watch this hour-long tirade without thinking that all the characters in the film would hugely benefit from smoking a little recreational marijuana.

Highlights abound in this tightly buttoned and laughably biased picture. Revel in the wooden dialogue, the uncomfortably stiff exchanges, and gleaming grins that are meant to signify sudden weed-induced psychosis. Observe how quickly the piano player turns into a deranged, wild-eyed wreck after several heavy puffs from a joint. It’s quite enthralling, watching these actors from a bygone era deliver absurd lines with hardbitten simplicity. “Under the influence of the drug, he killed his entire family with an axe,” Dr. Carroll warns, and he means it. There’s isn’t the slightest hint this actor is aware that the line he just delivered is hysterical.

Viewing Reefer Madness is an enjoyably schizophrenic experience. The film insists that this deadly drug has the power to decimate the upstanding fabric of an entire culture of young people. The filmmakers would have us believe that smoking weed can lead to attempted rape, violent outbursts, fist fights, gunfire, sudden death, and intermittent amnesia; that freewheeling, marijuana-fueled fun puts all participants on the fast track to tragedy.

But viewed today, it seems that the most promising result of inhaling this spectacular plant is unbridled, even unhinged, dancing that spills into euphoria and leads, understandably, to carefree arousal. Because Reefer Madness is dated and conceived through naive methods that are unthinkable today, it stands the test of time — even though it flies in the face of the vision and purpose of its own creators.

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