REVIEW: Poison [1991]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NC-17 | Runtime: 85 minutes | Release Date: April 5th, 1991 (USA)
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Director(s): Todd Haynes
Writer(s): Todd Haynes / Jean Genet (inspired by the novels of)

“I’ve just captured the sex drive”

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Todd Haynes‘ directorial debut Poison is a wild, outside-the-box ride. It reminded me of David Lynch‘s Eraserhead with a surreally experimental aesthetic and odd relationships sparked between over-the-top and perhaps parodied “freaks” standing-in as metaphors for humanity’s intolerance towards the “different”. It’s three unrelated stories about sexuality told in three different styles: “Hero” as a garish TV docu-mystery; “Homo” as a gritty thriller intercut with vibrant, warped fantasy flashbacks; and “Horror” as a B-movie sci-fi flick in black and white with intentionally exaggerated performances. Held at arm’s length with each section embracing its own artificiality, we sit on the couch with our TV dinners ready to be entertained by the tragedy of strangers. It’s America at its finest.

“Hero” depicts the tale of the unexpected murder of Fred Beacon (Edward Allen) by the hands of his son who, as his mother Felicia (Edith Meeks) describes, flew out the window in the aftermath. It plays like an unsolved mystery with the camera shooting the house where it took place in quiet, tension-filled vignettes and numerous interviews of neighbors unable to put their fingers on why the boy was always picked on and abused. This complete ignorance places such a weird filter on the proceedings: bullying as a right without justification beyond “he made me do it”. You hear that defense so often and many people feel it absolves them of guilt. But it’s absurd to the point of laughter and Haynes’ rendition calls this reality out.

“Homo” proved the least accessible for me because I was often confused by what was happening. Based on Jean Genet‘s autobiographical novel The Miracle of the Rose, the weird fairy tale wedding of John Broom (Tony Pemberton) arrives in sickly bright hues before we’re suddenly in prison ten-plus years later. Here older John (Scott Renderer) meets the newest inmate Jack Bolton (James Lyons)—a familiar face remembered from that manufactured past of storybook haze. The younger Jack (Andrew Harpending) was small and picked on by the other boys (including John Leguizamo credited as Damien Garcia) while the older version appears like a bruiser to fear. Knowing this past gives John confidence and power, though, emboldening him with a secret that allows him to prey on Jack guilt-free.

“Horror” is the most out-there entry, a low-budget schlock-fest that the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” chaps would enjoy ripping apart for its amateurish quality. But it’s all part of Haynes’ intent as he gives sexually transmitted disease physicality through leprosy and a scientist who’s distilled the sex drive into a potion mankind was never meant to consume in pure form. Dr. Graves (Larry Maxwell) is a brilliant leader of his field and yet his urges prevent him from staying objective when the scientist he enlists to help arrives with an extra X-chromosome than expected. So smitten by Nancy Olsen (Susan Norman), Graves makes the tragic mistake of unwittingly becoming his own lab rat. His newfound sexuality attracts women to transform him into the ghoulish “Leper Killer”.

Each tale stands on its own very much apart from the others besides a through-line of sex and taboo encounter. Even so, the way Haynes crosscuts them together does create a sort of complete story where each becomes crucial to the next via tonal paralleling and emotional explosion. The order constantly changes with “Horror” making way to “Hero” before it hits “Homo” and then one gets skipped for another to carry us through every revelation. They combine into a cesspool of abuse, adultery, rape, and murder as physical force is met with carnal pleasure and bullying tactics met with either tears or a gun. We laugh because it’s all so over-the-top, but as soon as we dig just an inch below the surface we realize its truth.

Haynes doesn’t want his audience to understand their bigotry and closed-minded nature by forcing them to watch it with authenticity. No, it’s better to shroud it in the very tools utilized by the media to sensationalize and demean so the message infiltrates their consciousness implicitly. He has us laughing at Graves and Nancy’s overwrought romance built on lies and deceit until the reality of his predatory nature by omission is uncovered. We giggle at Felicia’s crazy tale that screams cover-up to protect her son before finally seeing what happened that night to understand an angel stopped unnecessary victimization. And with Broom we watch as his innocent bystander from years prior evolves into the lone aggressor acting with impunity to continue Bolton’s torture in the present.

So much is hidden beneath layers of visual artifice and psychological deflection that it’s tough to process after one viewing. It’s also so high-strung and uniquely dense with sin that I can’t see watching it again without some time in between. While it pokes fun at taboo, it also turns a mirror on society for dismissing the exact same violence and abuse as quickly or quicker in real life. Poison pretty much injects our veins with exactly that: hate crimes, sex crimes, and crimes of passion disguised by cinematic magic into deeds without consequence outside of make-believe. Only we don’t live within artificial genres utilized for entertainment. Where we reside people get hurt and killed every day. And the blame falls on society for letting it happen.

[1] Tony Pemberton as the young John Broom. A Zeitgeist Films release.
[2] Andrew Harpending as the young Jack Bolton. A Zeitgeist Films release.
[3] One of the inmates of the Batton reformatory spits on the young Jack Bolton from Poison. A Zeitgeist Films release.

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