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It’s Friday. Time to let loose, have some fun, maybe get a little high. But wait! Before you light that spliff, think about the consequences. Maybe you’ll get into a car accident. Maybe you’ll rape somebody. Or maybe, worst of all, you’ll play the piano really really fast.
Yes, these are among the terrors you will see enacted in Reefer Madness, the infamous propaganda film turned exploitation film turned camp cult classic. Funded by a church group in 1936 under the title Tell Your Children, the movie explained the terrible price to be paid by anyone who smoked the devil weed. Eventually it got re-edited for the exploitation circuit. There were a lot of films like this on that circuit – movies that were supposedly warning you about the dangers of drugs, drink and doing it, but were really excuses to show off wild behavior and skin they couldn’t otherwise get away with (the ultimate point in this genre came with the 1945 movie Mom and Dad. The film was presented as a ‘sex hygiene’ story, and lured audiences in with promises that it would show shocking insight into a young girl fallen to the wrong side. Audiences would be horrified (and delighted) by the extraordinarily explicit footage of a baby being born. Truly a classic).
Reefer Madness eventually faded away (after playing under a number of names, including Love Madness), but was rediscovered in 1971 by the founder of NORML – National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – in the Library of Congress. He began showing it to pot smokers on college campuses, who loved it for the bad acting, the ridiculous story and the general hysteria surrounding a drug way less harmful than booze. And if it wasn’t for Reefer Madness there may never have been a New Line Pictures – the company got its start showing the film on college campuses across America.
The legacy of Reefer Madness lives on. It’s likely that just about every single pothead in this country has seen this film, which is in the public domain. There’s a colorized version (and a Rifftrax commentary on that colorized version), as well as a musical version from 2005 starring the likes of Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell. But even though Reefer Madness is now a part of the popular culture it’s no less stupid and hilarious. And it shares a real lineage with all of the ridiculous anti-drug PSAs and message movies over the years.
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