Quick, before it’s too late! Before your son or daughter becomes a murderer or irreversibly insane! Tell Your Children about the dangers of marihuana! The cult film now known as Reefer Madness was originally created as Tell Your Children, a propaganda film created to warn its viewers about the dangers of marihuana (yes, that’s how it’s spelled in the film). By taking the “demon weed” users eventually descend into a world of sex, murder, insanity, and bad dancing. Now while I personally haven’t used marihuana, I’ve been around people who have and have never seen murder or permanent insanity. The bad dancing does come in spades though, so that’s probably the big lesson to be learned from this film.
But I digress. Told as a warning to parents by high school principal Dr. Alfred Carroll (Joseph Forte), the movie is the story of several high school teens, all who look too similar and have such basic names (Jimmy, Bill, Mary) that it’s difficult to tell them apart, thus easily confusing their storylines. After they are brought up to an apartment for a party they are all given marihuana to smoke. Convincing them to do this isn’t difficult as all of them smoke, so it’s just a matter of passing them a joint rather then a cigarette. Apparently the difference in taste or smell is non-existent, and none of the kids dislike the effects of their new smoke, so they just keep getting more. Eventually one kid is the driver of a hit-and-run and his sister is killed in a fight over a gun with her former beau being charged for her murder who, since he was high, doesn’t even know he didn’t kill her. Others slowly go insane while high, and of course since the film is presented as a principal talking to parents, it has to talk about the adverse effects on grades.
The film was made in 1938, so production values were a bit different than they are now. This is quickly apparent as you watch jump cuts, out of sync dialog, and scene transitions that would even make George Lucas wince. The story slowly plods along with a script that leaves nothing to the imagination. If a character says he’ll write something down we get to watch him write it down, even if it’s the only thing left in a scene. Maybe audiences weren’t as quick on the uptake back then as they are now. Nevertheless, it’s kind of interesting to see just how different films were over sixty years ago. Thankfully movies have made great changes since then, at least the ones not starring Paul Walker. This release of Reefer Madness boasts the movie “restored and in color for the first time”. Personally I don’t care for the colorization of older films. To me it takes away some of the movie’s history. Reefer Madness was created prior to color movies, and the appearance of the film should reflect that. That said, the colorization of the film isn’t too bad and is a bit humorous as the production team made the decision to colorize the marihuana smoke as well. Watch as Jimmy and Mary toke up with magical purple and pink smoke! One odd glitch does appear in the movie though. In the middle of one of the scenes, the picture is interrupted with two text screens reading “20” and “4”. They go by fast enough to almost be subliminal, but for reasons unknown they are still there, most likely left behind from the production team who colorized the film. For those like me who would rather watch the original black and white picture it’s available on the DVD as well as one of the special features and doesn’t include the same text screen problem that interrupts the color version.
The highlight of this release is a commentary track by Mike Nelson from Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. Nelson assures the viewer that he is commenting on the film due to his humorous outlook on movies (particularly bad ones) and not due to any experience with reefer. Nelson’s comments, which range from the colorization of the movie to the eating habits of the characters, are a complete crack up and make the movie worth watching beyond the cult status of the movie. One only wishes Nelson’s partner in MSTK Kevin Murphy also had been around so the two could play off each other in hammering the film.
The other special feature included is the short homemade movie Grandpa’s Marijuana Handbook starring “Grandpa Ganja”. The short is full of drug humor explaining the (fictitious) history of marijuana and how to use it (an odd choice of a short film to include with an anti-marijuana propaganda film but to each their own). I guess, as I’m a square who hasn’t smoked pot, I just didn’t get the humor in it. So I showed it to some friends who were more experienced in this area. They didn’t really see much humor in it either. Of course, they weren’t high at the time so maybe that’s the requirement to get it. I have limits as to how far I’ll go in researching for a review and getting high is on the other side of the line, so I can’t really say if the short is humorous under those conditions.
Reefer Madness continues to be a cult classic and while the colorization doesn’t add much to the enjoyment of the film the Mike Nelson commentary alone is worth the price for this disk. I can’t imagine watching the film without Nelson’s jibes from now on.
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