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Courtesy of George A. Hirliman Productions

January 28, 2019

SIMS | That Was Awful, Let’s Go Again

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What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen? Was it so bad it was good? Did you love to hate it? Do you wish you had those two hours back, or did you enjoy watching it fail to meet your standards?

Some incredible films fail to remain in our canon despite their engaging plot, moving performances or impeccable cinematography. Great films come into our lives but rarely stick. So often we move on and only faintly remember the stellar film. But what really endures are the truly repugnant movies.

I recently spoke to a family friend about so-bad-yet-so-good movies, and he shared that his college classmates in the ’70s would show up high for showings of Reefer Madness at the student union. For those not familiar with Depression-era anti-drug propaganda, Reefer Madness is an hour-long film presenting outrageously phony stories about people being morally, psychologically and physically ravaged by the new menace, weed.

Produced by a Christian group as a public service film intended to warn parents about the imminent threat of pushers whose marijuana cigarettes would turn their children into psychotic, murdering, sexually active degenerates, it quickly became a farce to audiences. It was so absurd that people loved it leading early pro-legal-weed college organizations across the country to show Reefer Madness.

Frequently cited on lists of awful films, Reefer Madness has attracted audiences for decades because of its outlandishness and obvious lack of production value. Reefer Madness is exploitative and in some ways its historical reception is a tragic story — in the past, while many viewers laughed off the clearly fake effects of marijuana shown, many took it seriously. The moral panic over marijuana during that era, at least in some ways, can be led directly to the hugely unjust drug policies of the last 80 years that in many cases target the black community of urban America. Its saving grace is that the satirization of the film highlighted the misinformation campaigns which contributed to marijuana being listed as a Schedule I narcotic.

Given its intent, the present-day effect of Reefer Madness is funny. Just when you thought the “devil’s lettuce” couldn’t ruin Jimmy’s life any further, it scooby-dooby-does. The factual liberties that the creators tried to pass off as truth are impressive, and I doubt a deliberate satirist could have done such a thorough job of making up the horrific spiral of doom portrayed in the film.

When there’s a great film, there’s an impulse to make a sequel, or a musical, or a spinoff or some other expansion of the film. But everyone always assumes they’ll be bad. Disney Animation churns out sequels like nobody’s business, but has the excitement about The Little Mermaid or Mulan ever turned over to the second one? I don’t think so. 

Meryl Streep, for one, has some understanding. She refuses to reprise roles because they tend to lack anything fresh enough to warrant a sequel. And while the most enjoyable movie of 2018, Mamma Mia 2, may have been a little bit harder to make without her, she was correct in stating that it would be basically the same as before.

Somehow, though, the bad movies get sequels, remakes, spinoffs and follow-ups, too. You’d think that notoriously horrendous films might find more roadblocks in their way to getting a sequel. But here we are. Birdemic was followed up with an equally apocalyptic sequel. Sharknado spun out a six-movie series. Paranormal Activity became a pentalogy.

Reefer Madness became a movie musical.

Yeah. Nearly seven decades after Reefer Madness was presented to churchgoing mothers, a musical starring Kirsten Bell and Alan Cumming premiered on Showtime — following a stage run. It was pretty good, too. Drug propaganda looks good on color film, and a heightened production budget sure made the scenes in Satan’s pot den sparkle. The songs were fun and even earned the production an Emmy. Furthermore, they nearly doubled the run-time of Reefer Madness.

In other news of bad movies inspiring more bad movies, 2017’s The Disaster Artist was a reenactment of The Room, the latter of which former Sun Arts Columnist David Gouldthorpe ’18 described as having “a fundamental misunderstanding of how humans act and perceive the world.” Like Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical as well as the later installments of Sharknado, it has significantly upgraded production value but still retains its irreverence for establishment production.

In some ways, it’s easier for a bad movie sequel to succeed because it’s easy to improve upon the horrible aspects of the original film. Maybe the 1936 drug PSA takes itself too seriously, maybe The Room is just a little too out-of-touch and maybe the sharks in the ’nado are just a tiny bit too unrealistic. It may be an easier fix when there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Katie Sims is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Movie Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.