Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Reefer Madness (1936)
As of this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime listed that 12.2% of citizens from ages 15-64 in the United States claimed to use the drug known as marijuana. This seems shockingly low.
But maybe it would still feel like a failure to the creators of Reefer Madness – a true attempt at false education that was repackaged as an exploitation film and finally found a home being mocked and derided for its absolute, ridiculous portrayal of drug use. It’s funny because it’s not true!
Bill and Jimmy are in trouble. They’ve fallen in with a foursome of pot dealers, and their lives are about to be thrown into a whirlwind of loose morals, febrile piano playing, and rape. The dangers of the plant on screen! Tell your children!
I realize that a decent amount of college students with Bob Marley posters on their walls already gather together and watch the film as a cult phenomenon, but part of me wanted to attempt to pitch the thing to general audiences, or general film fans, as a good film through its own merit.
I think I’m going to fail.
Despite never, ever, ever hearing of marijuana until this weekend (seriously, Mom), I decided to investigate and get a good idea of the dangers that the drug carries on its back alongside that monkey. And I learned a lot from this film. For one, weed makes you play piano really fast. For two, weed makes you have a really fun time, but that fun time might evolve into driving like a drag-racing teenager and/or attempt to rape someone.
These aren’t my own observations; they’re the observations of this film. Whether you see the black and white original or the colorized version, the same schmaltzy, absurd nature shines through and teaches you a ton of false lessons about what marijuana use is really like. That’s why it ends up being so hilarious to people who have done the drug, of course, but on its own, the film isn’t all that shoddy. For one, it’s shot really interestingly. It’s old so the quality isn’t exactly hi-def (that’s right, I resisted making a “high-def” joke), but at some points, it’s clear that the filmmakers were attempting to recreate the drug experience for the audience – which is pretty admirable when you think of it. It’s not very realistic, but it makes for a movie devoid of staleness. We also might find the dialog and acting about as appealing as hearing Mickey Rooney recite the instructions for setting up a VCR, but it’s actually a good example of movies of the mid-30s. An acting style born directly from the theater.
Who am I kidding? This movie is only entertaining if it’s being mocked.
But film fans owe a lot to it. Fans of the Lord of the Rings movies specifically.
In the early 70s, the film had all but disappeared from awareness, because it probably didn’t earn much of a culture spot on its own, but the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws found the film in the Library of Congress, and bought it. For almost nothing. The film earned much-coveted cult status, and made enough money to help get New Line Cinema off the ground.
So next time you watch that extended 7-hour cut with Frodo and Gandalf, you can thank this ironically funny, propaganda-filled, soap opera of a film. And maybe you can thank it by watching it. And trying to enjoy it for what it is.
But it’s fine if you just laugh the entire way through, man.