While the good folks behind the beloved “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can take credit for introducing the masses to many a cinematic stinker (Exhibit A: “Manos: The Hands of Fate“), they can’t take credit for unleashing “Reefer Madness” upon an unsuspecting and uneducated public. Even if the movie had managed to end up on their schedule (amazingly, it was MIA during the show’s lengthy run), its legacy as one of the all-time worsts had already been established as far back as the early 1970s, when this jaw-dropping motion picture about the untrue evils of marijuana became a hit both on college campuses and on the midnight-movie circuit.

The Stinker’s Origin

Peering further into the past, though, the historical view becomes hazier, with conflicting stories regarding not only the film’s initial year of release — some say 1936, some say 1938 — but also the intentions of those who created it in the first place.

One version posits that the film was devised by a church group to warn against the evils of the wacky weed, only to have exploitation producer Dwain Esper come along and twist it into the camp classic we all know and love.

Another slant (this one pretty much debunked) states it was produced by the U.S. Army, which would soon enough get into the film business by unleashing a wave of anti-STD shorts in the 1940s. The third option is that it was conceived by Esper from the get-go — possibly the most likely scenario since the vast majority of his filmography is comprised of such exploitation cheapies as “Maniac,” “Hell-a-Vision” and “How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.”

Regardless of its origin, it’s established that this hysterical (in both senses of the word) film was initially released under the title “Tell Your Children.” Admittedly, that’s a pretty blasé name – not to mention maddening in its ambiguity. (Tell them what? To brush their teeth? To eat their vegetables? To always flush?)

Not surprisingly, the marquee monikers for the movie’s countless reissues exhibited a bit more punch. “The Burning Question,” “Love Madness” and “Doped Youth” all come closer to punching across the picture’s incendiary content, but nothing could touch its most recognizable and enduring title, “Reefer Madness.”

“Reefer Madness” movie poster.

Pure Propaganda

The hero of “Reefer Madness” isn’t one of the many high school students on view but rather Dr. Carroll (Josef Forte), the principal at Truman High School. After an interminable opening text crawl that helpfully details the effects of marijuana (including but not limited to “fixed ideas,” “monstrous extravagances,” and “acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity”), it is Dr. Carroll who is shown warning the PTA members of the dangers of the demon weed.

To illustrate his point, he spins a chilling tale in which some of his favorite students were coerced by local gangsters and loose women into smoking pot in a local den of sin. Poor Jimmy frantically indulges and immediately runs over a senior citizen with his car. Poor Mary is sexually assaulted by older addict Ralph before getting accidentally shot and killed by drug pusher Jack. But it’s poor Bill who suffers the most, as he’s not only framed for Mary’s murder but also must silently listen as Dr. Carroll tells a courtroom that marijuana has destroyed his skills on the tennis court (“I saw him miss the ball by as much as three or four feet!”).

A scene from “Reefer Madness.”

Dave O’Brien as Ralph in “Reefer Madness.”

Still, even given their newfound passion for toking, necking and bad dancing, the high school kids are dullards when compared to the more experienced potheads. Take “Hot Fingers” Pirelli, the twitchy musician whose passion for pot results in overly exuberant piano-playing.

Better still, take the aforementioned Ralph: As played by Dave O’Brien in the most gloriously over-the-top manner, he spends much of the picture laughing uncontrollably before finally attacking Mary and, later, beating Jack to death. When we last see Ralph, his eyes are surrounded by haunting black rings that most bring to mind Pocahontas’ rascally raccoon Meeko, and he’s being hauled off to an asylum for the criminally insane. (Unlike most of the others, O’Brien’s career survived this picture, later becoming an Emmy Award-winning writer for “The Red Skelton Hour.”)

Clearly, “Reefer Madness” doesn’t lack for memorable scenes, although my favorite might be the one in which the unflagging Dr. Carroll visits an FBI agent for more information on the evils of hemp. As the agent relates, smoking marijuana caused a 16-year-old boy to kill his entire family with an axe.

“Then there is the most vicious type of case,” the agent continues. Whoa! More vicious, more wicked, more horrific than hacking up all your loved ones with an axe? Do tell!

“A young girl, 17 years old,” he continues. “A reefer smoker. Taken in a raid in the company of five young men!”

Watch “Reefer Madness”

Matt Brunson

Matt Brunson

Film Critic

Longtime Charlotte-based movie critic.

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