Back in the Piney Woods of East Texas, us God-fearing kiddos were sometimes allowed to watch, gasp, a movie at church! Trouble was, it was always the same goldang one. I must have seen A Thief in the Night about 185 times, twice during each of our annual New Year's Eve lock-ins, as THAT year was ALWAYS the one the Anti-Christ was going to ride hell on the backsides of all us wishy-washy folk who didn't get called up to heaven in the rapture. And that's exactly what the movie was about -- similar to the now popular "Left Behind" book series. And danged if the flick wasn't always good for a holy-roller conversion or two. Well, the same "scare 'em into action" principle applies to three films from the '30s released on DVD as The Madness Trilogy: Reefer Madness (1936, 67 minutes, aka. Tell Your Children), Cocaine Fiends (1937, 60 minutes, aka. The Pace That Kills) and Sex Madness (1937, 60 minutes, aka. They Must Be Told).
Reefer Madness: Hoods are luring naive teens from the local soda shop, back to a house where folks REALLY seem to be having a good time -- thanks to some funny-smelling cigarettes. Soon, these kids are DANCING and listening to LOUD MUSIC -- worst of all, they LAUGH and get affectionate with each other. Now these potheads must be of a different variety than my college buddies, as those fellas barely had the energy to tip the Domino's dude. Regardless, this marijuana stuff is TERRIBLE -- and as the bespectacled principal tells concerned parents -- it's far more prevalent and insidious than some other stuff called heroine and opium. Uh huh. The plot never really reveals how the kids are paying for their "grass," and it seems the older, mobster-type pushers are mostly just interested in coaxing hot young girls back to their smoking lounge to laugh maniacally and listen to dance records. Toward the end -- out of his mind on the pot -- a kid looses his virginity to an older woman. Well, his bow tie was undone, but that just screams, "THEY HAD SEX." Wondering how he's going to explain his indulgence to his Sunday school teacher, or golly, his GIRLFRIEND -- he finds her being groped by one of the tittering pushers. It's then that the story spirals out of control, adding a few exclamation points to the mantra, "DRUGS ARE BAD!!!!!"
Reefer Notables: No breasts. Four corpses. Soggy Romeo in fountain. One yard monster. Wild driving (with hit and run). Gratuitous soda jerk. Sobering court scene. Swirling newspaper headlines. Really fast piano playing. Fireplace poker attack. Interrogation montage.
Reefer Quotables: A crabby pusher snaps at his dame, "Oh, why don't you button your lip! You're always squawking about something. You've got more static than the radio!" Even your great-grand pappy faced peer pressure, "If you want a GOOD smoke, try one of these."
Reefer Time codes: Lingering shot of starlet adjusting stockings (8:40). The first toke (14:50). Hedonism in full swing (20:25). Promiscuous sex (33:05). Weird-ass, hangman's noose optical effect (52:08).
Cocaine Fiends: This time a gal from the road-side chicken shack gets slipped some "headache powder" that makes her want to run off to the big city with a complete stranger. More sinister than Reefer Madness, this flick actually shows WHY these hoods want to hook folks on coke. In Jane's case she's forced to sing and dance at the Dead Rat Cafe by the man she loves -- who's also her supplier. Her brother comes a-lookin' for her and winds up on nose candy himself. The gal he's sweet on hooks him up with the stuff, and in turn, her love train. Soon, Eddie is more interested in getting high than finding his sister. In fact, he's SO lazy his girlfriend has to go whoring for drugs. Obviously, there's little chance of a happy ending, even when chicken girl somehow discovers her brother in a flop house and resolves to set things right once and for all.
Cocaine Notables: No breasts. Two corpses. Stocking rinsing. Implied hooking. One suicide. Gratuitous musical numbers. Two-man fist fight. Kidnapping.
Cocaine Quotables: This poor mother hasn't a clue, "Oh, I declare, I just don't know what's getting into girls these days." Carhop hophead is a real party gal, "You know, with all this money, I feel like making whoopie tonight." Daddy's little girl is all grown up, "You used to be sweet and clean."
Cocaine Time codes: Young Jane does her first line -- off camera, of course (7:20). Two Barrels road-side diner (15:51). Pan to coffee pot boiling over to imply passionate nookie (33:26).
Sex Madness: In the '30s folks are REAL concerned about "quacks." And we're not talking about the business end of a mallard -- these fellas are sleazeball doctors who promise speedy cures for, ahem, "social diseases." Like the beauty queen who went chasing her stage dreams in the big city and winds up flat on her back doing the carnal cha-cha with some horn dog her theatrical agent set her up with. Free-flowing champagne greased her chastity, which in turn saddled lovely Millicent with a nasty case of syphilis. Now she can't go home to her high-school sweetheart -- to "marry" him. Until cured, doctors say she can never get married, but what they're really saying is she can't HAVE S-E-X. Millicent's also been warned about the aforementioned quacks, but she isn't the brightest gal and STILL gets duped into thinking she's ALL CLEAR to diddle her unsuspecting beau. They marry (a couple-dozen times) and hatch a rug rat, but the scourge of "social disease" wreaks terrible vengeance. Pretty racy stuff for its day: Men and women dancing and pairing off to "go upstairs." Handsy secretaries admire each other's figures. And there's even a disturbing allusion to a sexual predator of children.
Sex Notables: No breasts. One corpse. Dancing girls. Pedophilia. Gratuitous costume-party footage. Crooked doctors. Knowing nods.
Sex Quotables: Sheila the swingin' chorus girl isn't sleepy, "Did you say bed? That's not for relaxing -- that's for action!"
Sex Time codes: As near to on-screen lesbian tongue rasslin' as they got back then (2:55). Watch for the window in the background to shut, startling the actress, who stumbles over her line (11:00). Sleazy theatrical manager "auditions" a young hopeful (18:29). Phony footage of syphilis victims (24:15).
Audio/Video: Given the age and obscurity of the films, they're bound to be in poor condition. Reefer Madness is in the best shape, while Cocaine Fiends is in the worst, with several points where the image and sound skip missing frames. However, there is little or no evidence of digital grain or shimmering too often associated with black and white DVDs. Reefer Madness also has the best audio quality. A real source of frustration, though, is that each movie is on its own continuous track without chapter stops.
Extras: None. But there's a menu option titled "How to use this disc." When selected, the following text appears: "When the highlight is positioned correctly, pressing the ENTER button on the remote control activates the choice and the next screen or video segment will be displayed. Pressing the TITLE button takes you to the MAIN MENU of this disc. The MENU button, when activated, causes the disc to access the last SUB-MENU that you visited." Seems as if the producers of The Madness Trilogy assume anyone who'd buy their disc IS on drugs.
Final thought: A decent party video, provided the participants indulge in one or more of the above sins. Also, this collection is not to be watched in a single 3-hour sitting, as retinal bleeding may occur. Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.