director Louis J. Gasnier
By the time I had heard of it, back in the 1980’s probably, Reefer Madness was already a cult phenomenon. A popular one at that.
Rediscovered in the Library of Congress in 1971, the film already in the public domain, found the original cult circuit: college campuses and burgeoning midnight movie shows. By the 1980’s it even found placeis ment on cable television (which is where I’d encountered it), and the whole thing was as if it was an Ed Wood, Jr. production. In fact, it quite likely could be filed at the time right next to Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), in the modern era’s right to laugh at the naivety, hilariously bad acting, and unintentional comedy.
What it didn’t offer to a youth of that time was any sort of perspective. Probably back then, I would have assumed that it was made in the 1950’s, as so many teenage-oriented feature films seemed to be, especially with the film’s perspective on small town America and the “threat to our children”.
But this would be wrong. While I don’t know that I would have had the perspective myself to appreciate the difference between a film produced in the 1950’s and one produced in the 1930’s back then, I certainly do now. Access to resources around the web and especially Wikipedia and IMDb, means never not having to be in the dark about things, which is something that I embrace wholeheartedly. And much is to be learned from this.
Most interestingly, this 1936 public service propaganda/exploitation film was independently produced by a group looking to warn America about the dangers of cannabis. But it was the efforts, reshaping, renaming, and distributing the film by early Exploitation film maven Dwain Esper that is why we have Reefer Madness today. Dwain Esper is a fascinating and intriguing character whose own films Narcotic (1933) and especially Maniac (1934) were blasts from the 1930’s cultural Id. What is so fascinating to me is exploitation literature or film in periods long before it became well known. It’s ahead of its time and so much more outside of culture, hidden, yet highly representative.
The other thing that struck me about it is how this film would have come on the heels of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. With alcohol no longer the illegal demon (though ironically Prohibition gave rise to the mafia in the United States and ultimately all of their post-Prohibition businesses like drug cultivation and distribution), new scourges were to be had. And while marijuana had been in popularity for some decades before, this was the time to vilify it in popular media, I suppose.
Of course, what is most funny, over the performances themselves, is the naivety over marijuana. The people that smoke it in Reefer Madness don’t act like anyone that anyone has ever seen in real life acts like under its influence. It’s not to say that there are not drugs that have seriously adverse and perverse influences on human behavior and lead to lives to dissolution and crime. It made me think that you could well make a movie (at least a year or so ago) called “Bath Salt Madness” and try to play it along the Reefer Madness template and get even more outrageous results.