How Reefer Madness Gave the World Freddy Krueger

By David Jenison

How <i>Reefer Madness</i> Gave the World Freddy Krueger

In 2015, horror legend Wes Craven passed away, and Newsweek honored the filmmaker by republishing a 1988 story about his A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The story included this interesting tidbit: Reefer Madness made big bucks for fledgling New Line Cinema, which went on to make Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger classic.  

How did this happen, you might ask?

New Line founder Robert Shaye stumbled upon the long-forgotten Reefer Madness in 1972, and he recognized the 1930s propaganda film as the unintentionally hilarious gem that it is. The thirtysomething Shaye, who launched New Line in his NYC apartment, thought Reefer Madness had the right mix of melodrama and absurdity to appeal to young adults in post-hippie America. Transferring the movie to 35 mm, Shaye rented Reefer Madness to various art house theaters and college campuses. The re-release made more than $300,000, which is the equivalent of $1.8 million in 2018 dollars.

Talk about taking a lemon and making lemonade!

Reefer Madness provided an early financial success for the young studio, which ultimately survived several lean years before hitting it big in 1984 with A Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line, famous for taking chances on unconventional filmmakers like Craven and John Waters (Pink Flamingos), went on to release such blockbuster movies as Rush Hour, Austin Powers, Blade and The Lord of the Rings.

The success of Nightmare (with yet another remake in the works) inspired the New Line nickname “The House that Freddy Built,” but one wonders if the film studio would have made it that far if Shaye never recognized the hilarity of Reefer Madness. At the very least, his vision resurrected Reefer Madness and gave future generations a chance to enjoy the absurdity of 1930s prohibitionist propaganda.  

Poster image by Chris Garofalo.

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