Reefer Madness—originally titled (more prosaically) Tell Your Children when it was “released” circa 1936—attained cult/camp status in the 1960s and ‘70s for reasons that have nothing to do with any intended qualities. The film—directed by Louis J. Gasnier, whose style never developed much past his work in 1914 on The Perils of Pauline—is a lunatic treatise on the evils, dangers, pitfalls and plain not niceness of marijuana use. Though made with facilities provided by short-lived Grand National Pictures (who must have been easily satisfied, since they appear to have signed Gasnier to helm less disreputable fare), this is strictly states’ rights, four-wall stuff. That’s to say, it wasn’t really released; it was shown in rented theaters and auditoriums various and sundry as “educational” material. Maybe the approach fooled the credulous, but this is tabloid trash that made it past the censors by never being shown to them. It was aimed at the hick market based on sensationalism, sex and maybe a flash of nudity.
This is neither the best nor the worst of this sort of thing—nor even the most salacious. It may, however, be the silliest, as marijuana ruins these suspiciously old-looking young people’s lives. But it’s worth it just for Dave O’Brien going mad after a few tokes on the “weed with roots in Satan’s garden.” (These folks are remarkably active for stoners.) The presence of O’Brien (who went on to play the hero who uttered the immortal line, “It’s not so funny when it’s your jugular vein,” in the Bela Lugosi picture The Devil Bat (1940)) adds some interest, as does Gasnier’s historic (if not artistic) significance. As a bonus, there’s Lillian Miles, who had a moment of fame singing “The Continental” in the Astaire-Rogers film The Gay Divorcee a couple years prior to Reefer. Seeing as how she was down to doing this sort of thing within two years, it’s not hard to see where her career was heading. The real question is: Did anyone ever take this movie seriously? (Ask yourself that again when someone tells you The Blair Witch Project is a true story.)