This week, the fine folks over at Open Culture stumbled upon a truly wonderful bit of forgotten early ‘70s ephemera: Curious Alice, an Alice in Wonderland-style animated short that’s clearly intended to scare kids away from drugs, but instead makes them look sort of awesome. Making an actual anti-drug movie is a tricky business; there are so many ways to screw it up and get the mission backwards that about the only safe bet is to just scare the shit outta people (á la Requiem for a Dream). So let’s take a look at Curious Alice, and nine other anti-drug movies that you can watch and laugh at, right now. (It’s a Friday — what else have you got to do?)
This 1971 oddity was a product of the National Institute for Mental Health, aimed at kids who were no doubt familiar with the Lewis Carroll source material and the Disney adaptation. But the cutout-style animation is far from Disney (it’s closer to Terry Gilliam), and the narrative sends our Alice from her dull black-and-white world into a trippy, colorful, drug-induced wonderland. In the process, the anti-drug message gets gloriously scrambled; it plays less like a warning than a hilariously ineffective sales pitch. According to Open Culture, “After the movie came out, the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education slammed the movie, calling it confusing and counterproductive.” No kidding!
When you’re talking to kids about drugs, you gotta find somebody who’ll talk to them on their level, man, so that’s presumably why the folks at Bailey Films (no relation!) hired cool cat Sonny Bono to narrate (groovily, with plenty of hopelessly dated slang) their 32-minute exploration of “whether grass is good or bad.” Funny story, though — everyone can pretty much agree that our man Sonny is high as a fucking kite here, which kinda sorta dilutes the message a little bit.
Narcotics: Pit of Despair
Few anti-drug movies are known for their sly subtlety, but this 1967 film opens with a fierce snake waiting to strike and inflict its poison, so you know what you’re in for right off the bat. This one is most notable for its uproariously hyperbolic, hard-boiled narration: “Take a lack of responsibility, the inability to make right choices, add to it ignorance and indifference, and top it off for a desire for escapism and kicks! The sum total is then conceivably found in the bennies, the reefer, the pot needle.” In other words, it’s basically the educational short film version of Dragnet’s notorious “Blue Boy” episode, with the added bonus of future TV and movie character actor/go-to villain Kevin Tighe (Locke’s dad from Lost), impossibly young, playing one of the victims.
Keep Off the Grass
Poor Tom’s not a “dope fiend,” in spite of that joint that his comically wide-eyed mom discovers while cleaning his room (“Oh Tom, how could you?!”). When his dad warns him about the drug’s effects, he decides to find out for himself, paying a visit to the local “weedheads” and getting a harsh lesson in the violence, laziness, and desperation that will surely infect the life of anyone who enjoys a puff.
Go Ask Alice
The producers of this 1973 TV movie knew what the makers of Marijuana did — they had to get some big, teen-friendly stars to sell this stern anti-drug tale. That’s why they snapped up Andy Griffith and William Shatner, right? But that’s the least of the problems with this adaptation of the notorious 1971 novel, initially marketed as the posthumously discovered diary of an anonymous 15-year-old girl, whose experimentation with drugs leads down the slippery slope of acid, pills, heroin, rape, homelessness, and prostitution. It would be a sad story on the page, were it not so obviously a writer’s construct, and the goofy TV movie is somehow even clumsier than the “controversial” book.
This 1982 TV movie, a clarion call from the “Just Say No” years, is set at a laughably clueless high school where kids pass joints at pep rallies, make PCP in the science lab, and shotgun in the girls’ bathroom. Sam Bottoms, a mere three years removed from Apocalypse Now, plays a dirtbag drug dealer (his on-screen high does not seem to involve a tremendous amount of acting), but the highlight is a young Helen Hunt, who snorts PCP and dives out of a second story window, writhing on the ground below, pawning for broken glass to cut herself. (It’s right around the 35-minute mark, if you’d care to jump straight to the good part.) It’s all preposterously overdone and miles removed from even soap opera reality, but hey, it does have a title song by Rick Springfield!
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue
One Saturday morning back in April, 1990, all four broadcast networks simultaneously aired this half-hour special in which a fully loaded cast of their current stars — including Bugs Bunny, Garfield, the Smurfs, the Chipmunks, and (gulp) ALF — lectured kids about the dangers of marijuana. It was all very well-intentioned, but hoo Lord is it nutty to hear Bugs spouting inanities like, “What’s up, doc, is your life” while a bad pot angel (voiced, improbably enough, by George C. Scott) encourages our young hero to go right ahead with his experimentation. Oh, and there’s a scene where our protagonist goes on a tour of his drug-addled brain with the Muppet Babies, as though such a journey wouldn’t, in fact, do much more harm to his psyche than any joint.
The Cocaine Fiends
But the richest “anti-drug” entertainment is offered via the propaganda exploitation pictures of the mid-1930s, in which cheapo studios and quickie directors churned out stern warnings about the dangers of narcotics — after carefully lingering on the good times had by all in their sway. William O’Connor’s 1935 picture The Cocaine Fiends (aka The Pace that Kills) concerns a small-town innocent whose big-city boyfriend gets her hooked on “headache powder,” leading to vice, kidnapping, and murder.
Marihuana, The Reed with Roots in Hell!
Dwain Esper’s 1936 film Marihuana, The Reed with Roots in Hell! (aka The Devil’s Weed — they all had multiple titles, as their fly-by-night distributors would release them multiple times with altered titles) concerns a poor girl whose first marijuana party ends in skinny-dipping, sex, and pregnancy, and eventually to drug smuggling, kidnapping, and death.
But the king of them all is Louis J. Gasnier’s “classic” (also known as, take a breath, Tell Your Children, The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and, inexplicably enough, Love Madness), which found a new life as giggling smoke-up accompaniment from the late-‘60s on.
Made in 1936 with the financing of a church group and intended as a serious morality tale, the film begins with an endless crawl explaining the dangers of this “new drug menace,” “marihuana.” We then go to a PTA meeting, where a bespectacled doctor lectures a group of parents, at length, about the evil of “this scourge.” He tells them the story “of something that happened right here in our city,” of Mae and Jack, drug dealers who argue constantly about Jack’s interest in selling dope to “kids” — played by some suspiciously middle-aged amateur thespians. Their apartment is a hotbed of bad music, insane dancing, and illicit sex; these scenes, in which one puff of the demon weed turns the smoker into a deranged lunatic, are among the funniest in the film (particularly for smokers themselves). More than anything, they illustrate the message in all of these movies, long and short: nothing is funnier or more tragic than when the hopelessly square get a bullhorn and a message.