Reefer Madness opens with a siren-warning that "[m]arijuana is…a violent narcotic…the Real Public Enemy Number One!" The camera then focuses on Dr. Carroll, a school principal working on the side for the "Department of Narcotics" lecturing a middle-aged audience on this scourge, preaching right to the camera (and you and me, by obvious implication) warning the assemblage that ganja is a greater Menace 2 Society than heroin or opium, in the apparent hopes that they’ll scurry home and lock their kids in the closet to keep them safe and sound from the temptation of the spliff. Didn’t anyone tell these folks not to oversell their product? Regardless, as the evidence mounts before us, it becomes clear that general purpose of Reefer Madness was not pedantry, but vicarious lasciviousness.
According to Reefer Madness, "marihuana" use leads to rampant sex, brutal violence, murder and mental insanity. You’d also think that with such debauchery to its credit, the film would be more entertaining, wouldn’t you? Ah, well. The film proper then gets underway, as Dr. Carroll’s hysterical warnings segue into a flashback that serves as both example and once-lost hour long episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. All right, I’m kidding about the latter, but not so much. Reefer Madness soon tips its intent to be the same sort of instructional film as those lensed at the time that were aimed at educating young people about perils of sexual promiscuity. However, (gasp!) oft-times these films were made to appeal to the very audience they were supposedly railing against. That’s right, those less-than-pure of heart who bought their tickets in hopes of seeing some less-than-wholesome action portrayed up there on the big screen, and you can be sure that the filmmakers knew it, tossing in just enough lurid shots to keep the customer satisfied.
And one suspects that the Reefer Madness’s filmmaker’s intentions may not have been exactly above reproach here. Either that or they were a group of terrible hypocrites, because the way the camera leers at the behaviour of these crazy mixed up kids as they engage in all sorts of degenerate activities will make you want to take a shower. The film is not much more than a series of ogling shots of women getting dressed, couples smoking dope (these have gotta be the most inefficient smokers of this particular herbal remedy that I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonder they were able to find any sorta buzz at all) then making out, and finally descending into the sort of group lunacy (whose rapid deterioration from weed is mystifying. I mean, how’d they get their hands on such killer grass back then?) that you can only appreciate if you view the film as pure camp, or make a drinking game out of spotting cliched expressions of mental illness (bug-eyed, jibbering hyperventilation being a personal favourite).
Director Gasnier, who built his minor career around these sorts of instructional flicks, uses a lot of silent film school techniques—extreme close-up (ill-advised when working with a group of mediocrities, as is the case here) to push the film’s key emotional buttons (both of them), as well as rapid cross-cut editing to build tension and establish mood through contrast (again, recommended only if you have tension to build and moods to contrast, unlike here). So, while the movie is pretty poorly written, and terribly overacted, at least you can give Gasnier his props for understanding some of the basic grammar of film. That he uses his limited skills to produce such ridiculous material is to his embarrassment something that can only be appreciated through our amusement.