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This Is Your Brain On Drug Movies

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The Mystery of the Leaping Fish
Reefer Madness
Hofmann's Potion
Psych-Burn
Brain Damage
I Was Possessed by God
Reindeerspotting
Bimbo's Initiation
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Movies were an altered state for the earliest audiences of cinema. They were a reality heightened to degrees previously unknown, a larger-than-life experience both giddy and a little scary. Once the novelty wore off, cinema remained a medium capable like no other before it of near-complete immersion. No wonder movies have always had a place for evoking, when not directly portraying, the effects of drugs. This short trip through a century of sky-high cinema reveals pleasures, perils, pat downs and plenty of psychedelia to pause over. Whether enjoying the hysterically exaggerated dangers (including "incurable insanity") of pot in camp classics like Reefer Madness, twirly-dancing with the LSD era in both exploitation and experimental films or simply recovering, enjoy the ride.

By Dennis Harvey

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

(1916) directed by Christy Cabanne, 27 minutes

Many narcotics were freely available for years before they were determined to be menaces to society. Cocaine was legal in the U.S. until 1914—it was an ingredient in the original recipe for Coca-Cola, causing an eventual outcry that D.W. Griffith dramatized via the saga of fictive beverage Dopo-Koke (“For that tired feeling!”) in For His Son. But the public wasn’t yet so alert to the dangers of addiction that it couldn’t be spoofed in movies like The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Athletic silent star Douglas Fairbanks plays “Coke Ennyday,” the “world’s greatest scientific detective,” who’s on the trail of drug smugglers. Perhaps the filmmakers were a bit unclear on the concept, as on that “Peruvian marching powder” Doug acts drunk, while on opium he’s bouncing off the walls.

Reefer Madness

(1936) directed by Louis Gasnier, 65 minutes

A series of real-life drug scandals soon wiped the smile off Hollywood’s face, however. Cautionary anti-drug dramas became the order of the day, before in the early 1930s the Production Code forbade all references to illegal substances. Nonetheless, some independent producers dared to milk the subject for grindhouse-exploitation purposes. One such cheapie was Reefer Madness, whose innocent all-American youths go from getting “high” on hot chocolate and Shakespeare to the torments of Hell once they’re introduced to evil “marihuana.” Those crazy kids’ antics on wacky weed gave the forgotten feature new life decades later, when a new “turned-on” generation made it one of the very first “midnight movie” hits. Still later, it was dusted off for double-bills with stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong’s 1978 Up In Smoke.

Hofmann's Potion

(2002) directed by Connie Littlefield, 56 minutes

The hippies who found pot-panicked Madness hilarious took their hallucinogens much more seriously—but not nearly as much as did the psychiatric and scientific professionals who preceded them. In 1938 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized the substance to be known as LSD, initially intended as a respiratory stimulant. But when he accidentally absorbed some himself five years later, he realized its powerful effect on the mind had therapeutic potential. But the promising news that emerged from its tightly controlled psychiatric trials ran headlong into 1960s Establishment fears of a drug-crazed, nonconformist society. By the end of that decade, LSD was illegal everywhere.

Psych-Burn

(1968) directed by J.X. Williams, 3 minutes

Of course that didn’t stop its widespread black-market sale as a recreational psychedelic. To the dismay of Hofmann and others, youth worldwide grooved (and sometimes freaked out) on the drug’s perception-altering properties outside any clinical circumstances. Such experimentation had a profound influence on everything from radical politics to “mod” fashions and art. The movies wasted little time before jumping on that cultural bandwagon with variably imaginative and ridiculous “trip” sequences in movies both highbrow (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) and lowbrow (nudie Haight-Ashbury “documentary” Like It Is, also from 1968). Encapsulating the era’s screen “acid” aesthetic is the mysterious J.X. Williams’ Psych-Burn, a sexy/scary sensory overload that is definitely not for squares, man.

Brain Damage

(1987) directed by Frank Henenlotter, 86 minutes

By the 1970s counterculture utopianism was a vanishing dream. Recreational drugs were again viewed mostly as cheap thrills and/or a criminal-social problem. The souring mood was echoed by movies about addiction, and worse—horror flicks like Blue Sunshine turned users into murderous maniacs, while others such as Phantasm placed protagonists in surreal nightmares resembling an endless “bad trip.” Later, Frank Henenlotter had devilish fun with these concepts in Brain Damage, about a nice young man in sleazy 1980s Manhattan who is befriended by “the Aylmar” (a.k.a. Elmer)—a sort of ugly sock puppet monster who injects him with a hallucinatory intoxicant while devouring the brains of unlucky strangers. Too stoned to realize he’s enabling this bloodbath, our hero becomes a quivering junkie begging “Juice me!”

I Was Possessed by God

(2000) directed by Caveh Zahedi, 26 minutes

Of course, not everyone was Just Saying No. Some filmmakers remained bold enough to record their own altered states—few more self-exposingly than Caveh Zahedi, whose often discomfitingly personal documentaries have seen him doing Ecstasy (with Dad, no less) in I Don't Hate Vegas Anymore, and psychedelic mushrooms (with cult musician Will Oldham) in Tripping with Caveh. Faithful cameraman aside, he flies solo in I Was Possessed by God, wherein the results of drinking large amounts of psilocybin-based tea are preserved for posterity. Belching, making rubber faces, speaking in a weird staccato (“I! Am! Not! Dead! Ever!”), swearing eternal love to Jean-Luc Godard and Harold & Maude, Zahedi is all id.

Reindeerspotting

(2010) directed by Joonas Neuvonen, 82 minutes

For a lot of people, doing illicit drugs isn’t a form of entertainment or experiment, but a compulsive habit that gradually crowds out the rest of life. Plenty of movies both dramatic and nonfiction have portrayed this downward spiral. Among the most striking in recent years is Reindeerspotting. It charts the hapless progress of a Finnish addict and petty thief named Jani who’s already been doing drugs for five years when we meet him at age nineteen. Desperate to escape his boring hometown of Rovaniemi, he finally manages to steal 5,000 Euros and go joyriding around the continent—but even that turns out to be a dead end. Alternately pathetic and endearing, Jani is a model of haplessness when both high (“I just shot up in the bathroom of the Eiffel Tower!” he gushes) and bottoming out (as when a title informs us “Due to a ‘misunderstanding’ over a failed burglary, two of Jani’s fingers were cut off with an axe”). Will he ever pull himself together? Sadly, no: The film’s subject was found dead the year of its release, and more recently its director was sent to prison on drug charges.

Bimbo's Initiation

(1931) directed by Dave Fleischer, 6 minutes

If those fates aren’t exactly what most viewers would want as their reward for a little illegal fun, there’s always the safe, vicarious high of drug movies themselves. Some aren’t easily identifiable as such: We’ve all seen seemingly “innocent” films that nonetheless seem to have been made under the influence. In that spirit, let’s end this journey with a classic “kiddie” cartoon whose demented sur-reality makes you wonder just what its makers were on: Dave Fleischer’s trippy cartoon, a good example of a movie that isn’t about drugs but seems to be on drugs.