You Have to See This! Reefer Madness (1936)

Reefer! Pot! Hash! Dope! Ganja! Weed! It may be in our country! It may be in our city! It may be in our backyard! Your backyard! It might be raping your dog right now! What? Rape jokes are over the line? Well, what will happen when marijuana becomes the downfall of western civilization? It won’t seem so ludicrous then, now will it? We as good American citizens must snuff out this epidemic destroying our world before it’s too late.  Women cry for it–men die for it! Part of the “Youth Gone Wild” sub-genre of cautionary melodramas from the fifties, this is the woeful story of one young man’s entanglement with the dreaded drug known as reefer, and how it spelled a life of crime for him. After being preyed upon by a married couple that live their lives dealing drugs to teenagers, eventually murder and crime rear their heads.

Tell Your Kids.

“Reefer Madness” came at a time where Hollywood was now enforcing a lot of strict rules and codes for films. And before that film was then like it pretty much is today. There featured drug use, and sexual content, most of which has been observed and collected on DVD thanks to Turner Classic Movies. After 1934, Hollywood had strict rules for movies. One of the most hilarious rules was that no matter what or how contrived, the villain in a movie couldn’t win. In the end, they’d either have to die, or learn their lesson and turn over a new leaf. That’s why in “Public Enemy” James Cagney is suddenly killed in the finale, and it’s why in “The Bad Seed” the film ends on a very contrived note with young Rhoda being struck by lightning and the entire cast coming out to greet the audience and relieve the tension.


In a perfect world, the movie would have ended on Rhoda’s mother dying in the hospital after the failed suicide attempts, and Rhoda eventually murdering her kind aunt for her precious bird. But alas, “Reefer Madness” is part of the wave. Initially made by a church group to warn of the dangers of reefer and inform god fearing parents about how this odd drug would ruin the world. It begins with a lawyer lecturing a group of concerned parents, urging them to strike down the epidemic, and then leads in to the central narrative device. Director Dwain Esper purchased the film and tailored it to a more exploitative audience, including trashier scenes of young teens using cannabis and partying in to the night eventually giving way to heavily suggestive sexual encounters, thanks to the influence of weed.

“Reefer Madness” is only one of dozens of exploited youth’s movies that were released in the forties to the sixties, which featured horrific tales about young teens giving in to the temptations of sex, drug use, crime, and abortion. Many of those films are also available on DVD releases from companies like VCI, but you can pretty much see them corrupt major releases, as mentioned above. “Reefer Madness” is the vicious tale of a young happy man named Jimmy who gets involved with a dame named Mae and a guy named Jack who happens to be embroiled with a sinister mobster. Mae and Jack, of course, “Lives in sin” since they’re not married, but they’re also conservative enough to sleep in separate beds. Man, these people should be in hell.


Jack wants to sell to teenagers, while Mae prefers her own crowd. Defiant, Jack uses his connections with the young crowd to hold a reefer party, and Jimmy gets involved with young Blanche, while submitting to the allure of marijuana. When Jimmy’s sister comes looking for him, she is tricked in to smoking reefer and is almost raped. Jimmy, thanks to the weed, hallucinates she is stripping for her attacker and after the two fight to the death, Jimmy kills her attacker, and is pinned for the crimes including the weed dealings, while Jack and Mae attempt to make out like bandits. “Reefer Madness” is not known for its high quality story as most of the writing is anxious to convey a hard lesson about life and the scum that are drug dealers.

While it’s true drug dealers are in fact scum, the notion of reefer being the downfall of humanity is the basis for hilarity, as the filmmakers exaggerate the effects of the drug, and do so with so much laughter that it’s almost embarrassing to consider that anyone took this seriously, even concerned parents. Kids can tell when they’re being lied to and talked down to. The smart kids anyway. I can’t believe anyone, but the most repressed and controlled of Christian youths, took this seriously. That doesn’t mean it lacks cult clout, though. It’s still one of the most entertaining shock movies ever made, and one that exploits the nature of drug abuse rather than warn you of its ill effects.

It will surely garner some healthy laughter from its audience. Ironically, from the ones that love to watch bad movies while stoned. “Reefer Madness” is a film that has cult and kitsch appeal, and is a guaranteed good time for movie geeks who love alternative movies that try to shock the viewer in to believing ridiculous falsehoods that would become a trend later in to the forties and fifties with Youths Run Amok films. It’s a gaff and a half.