Reefer Madness (originally made as Tell Your Children and sometimes titled The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness) is a 1936–1939 American propaganda exploitation drama film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try marijuana — from a hit-and-run accident to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations and descents into madness due to marijuana addiction. The film was directed by Louis Gasnier and starred a cast composed of mostly unknown actors. Despite it finding a popular audience as a cult film, critics have panned it as one of the worst films ever made.
This should not be confused with the 1998 musical or 2005 TV movie of the same name, both of which were satires of this film.
Mae Coleman and Jack Perry are an unmarried couple living together (in the jargon of the era, they are "living in sin") and selling marijuana. Mae prefers to sell marijuana to customers her own age, whereas Jack sells the plant to young teenagers. Ralph Wiley, a psychotic ex-college student turned fellow dealer (and addict, according to the film), and Blanche help Jack sell marijuana to young students. Young students Bill Harper and Jimmy Lane are invited to Mae and Jack's apartment by Blanche and Ralph. Jimmy takes Bill to the party. There, Jack runs out of marijuana. Jimmy, who has a car, drives him to pick up some more. Arriving at Jack's boss' "headquarters", he gets out and Jimmy asks him for a cigarette. Jack gives him a joint. Later, when Jack comes back down and gets into the car, Jimmy drives off dangerously, running over an old man with his car along the way. A few days later, Jack tells Jimmy that the old man died from his injuries. Jack agrees to keep Jimmy's name out of the case, providing he agrees to "forget he was ever in Mae's apartment". Jimmy does indeed escape the consequences of his crime - a rare occurrence in the film.
Bill begins an affair with Blanche. Mary, Jimmy's sister and Bill's girlfriend, goes to Mae's apartment looking for Jimmy and accepts a joint from Ralph, thinking it to be a normal cigarette. When she refuses Ralph's advances, he tries to rape her. Bill comes out of the bedroom after having sex with Blanche, and hallucinates that Mary strips for Ralph. He attacks Ralph and, as the two are fighting, Jack tries to break it up by hitting Bill with the butt of his gun. The gun goes off and Mary is killed by a stray bullet. Jack puts the gun in the hand of an unconscious Bill and wakes him up. Bill sees the gun in his hand and is led to believe that he has killed Mary. The group of dealers lies low for a while in Blanche's apartment while Bill's trial takes place. Ralph, losing his sanity, wants to tell the police who is actually responsible for the death of Mary. The film attributes Ralph's insanity to marijuana use.
Seeking advice from his boss, Jack is told to shoot Ralph so he keeps his mouth shut. Meanwhile, at the apartment, Blanche offers to play some piano music for Ralph to keep his mind off things. They are both very high, and Ralph tells her to play faster. She increases her playing speed to a downright cartoon-like speed in one of the film's most famous and over-the-top sequences. Jack shows up and Ralph immediately senses that Jack wants to kill him, so he beats Jack to death with a curtain rod. The police arrest Ralph, Mae and Blanche. Mae talks, and the criminal gang is rounded up. Blanche explains that Bill was innocent, and he is released. Blanche is then held as a material witness for the case against Ralph, but, rather than testify against him, she commits suicide by jumping out of a top-floor window. Ralph is put in an asylum for the criminally insane "for the rest of his natural life". Mae's ultimate fate is unspecified.
The film's story is told in bracketing sequences at a lecture given at a PTA meeting by high school principal Dr. Alfred Carroll. At the end of the film, he tells the parents he has been talking to that events similar to those he has described are likely to happen again, and then points to random parents in the audience and warns that "the next tragedy may be that of your daughter, or your son, or yours, or yours..." before pointing straight at the camera and saying emphatically "...or YOURS!" as the words "TELL YOUR CHILDREN" appear on the screen.
Why It Sucks
- Unnecessarily long introduction.
- Poor acting.
- Awful editing.
- The scene where the old man is run over by a car clearly shows that the car didn't even touch him.
- Horrendously offensive and unfunny.
- The movie was originally made by a church group to warn children about the dangers of drugs. Louis Gasnier bought it just after it was finished and re-edited the entire thing into an exploitation movie, despite it never being intended as one.
- The film's depiction of marijuana is hilariously inaccurate.
- Many of the situations in the film are so unrealistic that it's hard to take them seriously.
- Hypocritical message. While marijuana is demonized in the film for "leading a life down to sin", other drugs like tobacco and alcohol aren't treated as such (keep in mind, this was during a time when people didn't believe smoking was bad for your health, and during a time when Prohibition was repealed).
- Confuses drugs with alcohol.
- It has gained a reputation for being "so bad, it's good".
- At least it had good intentions.