Reefer Madness (originally released as Tell Your Children and sometimes titled as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness) is a 1936 American propaganda exploitation 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, and descent into madness. The film was directed by Louis Gasnier and starred a cast composed of mostly unknown bit actors.
Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, the film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale, attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use. However, soon after the film was shot, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film for distribution on the exploitation film circuit. The film did not gain an audience until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and gained new life as a piece of unintentional comedy among advocates of cannabis policy reform. Today, it is in the public domain in the United States and is considered a cult film. It inspired a musical satire, which premiered off-Broadway in 2001, and a film based on the musical in 2005.
Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young) — a couple supposedly "living in sin," yet sleeping in separate beds as all married couples depicted in films of the era — sell marijuana. Mae prefers to sell marijuana to customers her own age, whereas Jack sells the plant to young teenagers. Ralph Wiley (Dave O'Brien), a psychotic ex-college student turned fellow dealer (and addict, according to the film), and Blanche (Lillian Miles) help Jack sell cannabis to young students. Young students Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) and Jimmy Lane (Warren McCollum) are invited to Mae and Jack's apartment by Blanche and Ralph. Jimmy takes Bill to the party. There, Jack runs out of reefer. 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, along the way running over a pedestrian with his car. A few days later, Jack tells Jimmy that the pedestrian died of 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 (Dorothy Short), 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. 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 kills Jack by beating him to death. 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, Blanche jumps out a window and falls to her death. 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's... or your son's... 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.
In 2004, 20th Century Fox, in collaboration with Legend Films, released a colorized version of the film on DVD. The original release date was April 20, 2004, a reference to the drug slang term "420". Also during the film, the number "4" and then "20" is flashed very quickly (as a joke on subliminal messages), which is an effect added by Legend Films. The color version features intentionally unrealistic color schemes that add to the film's unintentionally campy humor. The smoke from the "marihuana" was made to appear green, blue, orange, and purple, each person's colored smoke representing their mood and the different "levels of 'addiction'".
The DVD also included a short film called Grandpa's Marijuana Handbook, a new trailer for Reefer Madness, produced by Legend Films, and two audio commentaries, one discussing the color design and the other being a comedic commentary by Michael J. Nelson, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. Legend Films owns the copyright to the colorized version of Reefer Madness. While most have praised the new color version for its campy treatment of the cult film, some viewers claimed that the color choices would better suit a film about LSD than a film about cannabis. A DivX file of the colorized version with the commentary embedded is available as part of Nelson's RiffTrax On Demand service. In 2009, a newly-recorded commentary by Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, called the "Three Riffer Edition", was released by RiffTrax, and was the feature of a Rifftrax live event on August 19, 2010. The DVD release of the 2005 TV movie has the original film as a bonus feature.