Jun 9, 2009

Reefer Madness (1936)

As I gradually pick my way through my old VHS tapes, I re-acquaint myself with titles that I haven't seen in years (decades, even). In some cases, one reunites with an old friend, in others, one sees a movie with a different pair of eyes (for better or for worse). I've always enjoyed the misguided epic Reefer Madness, tonight's visitation was perhaps the most enjoyable time I've ever spent with it.

This dated cautionary fable (also released with the title Tell Your Children, still seen at the end) was rediscovered in the 1960's and quickly became a midnight cult favourite at college screenings or revival houses. Today it remains in high circulation as on public domain DVD labels. You don't need to be stoned to giggle at the ludicrous fear-mongering (as the narrator informs us of some kid who got high on pot and killed his parents with an axe), but I don't think it would hurt.

However, as you get older and have seen more movies, you get to put this misguided picture into greater context. No longer does one merely see this as a midnight camp classic. After the passage of time, one sees how a relic likes this fits into our popular culture.

The structure of this picture would still be used decades later in similar scare pictures (which masquerade as educational, but are exploitation at heart): a fire-and-brimstone authority figure would preach to a room full of shocked parents (or even addressing the viewer) about assorted depraved behaviours which exist just beyond our doorstep. Whether it was the evil vine of drugs, promiscuity or juvenile delinquency ravaging our land, our narrator would relate a story of how an innocent soul would be corrupted by one of these demons. And whatever thrills the public paid to see (dope smoking, cheap sex), they would still have far less screen time than all the sermonizing. Even as late as The Violent Years in 1956, this formula didn't change much.

In this sordid tale, Bill and his high school friends start hanging out at this adult couple's apartment where they are given the evil weed, along with the laughter, piano playing and cheap sex it accompanies. Today, this flick is a camp classic because the people begin laughing before they finish the first puff of the wacky tabacky, no-one inhales, and of course, for the stoned characters' irrepressible urge to play the piano with a storm that would do Cecil Taylor proud. ("Faster! Play it faster!")

However, my favourite scenes are the film's feeble attempts at action: witness the hilarious moments where one teenager hits a pedestrian with his car (you actually see the man duck a good six feet away from the vehicle), and when a distraught female can no longer cope with the damage perpetrated by marijuana and jumps out a window!

Seeing this film again after so many years, I was struck with the notion that Reefer Madness could also be an ancestor to all those educational films we saw in public school. And the fact that those shorts used stereotypes that were already outmoded in this flick is completely dumbfounding. The teenagers in this movie all look to be in their late 20's, and their abundant "Gee whillikers" dialogue is hackneyed to the extreme. Bill is such a wimp that he has to get his mother to stop his younger brother from teasing him. (One look at these two, and Bill looks old enough to have fathered him!)

Where a lot of early exploitation films usually expend their novelty value after one screening, Reefer Madness remains a delight. Like Dwain Esper's Marihuana, this naive antique continues to tickle the funny bone after repeated viewings.

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