Poison intercuts between three stories. In “Hero”, seven-year-old Richie Beacon murders his own father and – according to the only witness, his mother Felicia (Edith Meeks) – then jumps out of the window and flies away. “Horror”: a scientist (Larry Maxwell) isolates the human sex drive in liquid form. He then drinks it, with disastrous results. “Homo” explores the relationship between two prison inmates (Scott Renderer and James Lyons), who have a shared secret from their past. Each story is filmed in a completely different style to the others. “Hero” is shot like a documentary with flat TV-style lighting, complete with captions, “reconstructions” and participants talking to camera. “Horror” is in contrasty black and white, following the style of a 1950s B-movie. Finally, “Homo” is shot in a low-key colour, interspersed with much brighter flashback sequences: this story is explicitly influenced by Jean Genet’s work (which is quoted from), sharing its themes of homoerotic desire in confinement and transcendence through self-degradation.
This was Todd Haynes’s first full-length feature, but it was his second film after the 42-minute Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Superstar, which also took the form of a dramatised documentary (although with Barbie Dolls as actors) is the superior work, though one that can’t be shown commercially due to legal injunction. (It made a surprise appearance at the NFT during the Haynes retrospective in February 2003, and is available on the Internet if you know where to look.) Poison could, if you’re unsympathetic, be no more than three shorts arbitrarily cut together, tends to overreach itself, however impressive bits and pieces are. It’s the most experimental and esoteric of Haynes’s features, depending a lot on input from the viewer. It relies on knowledge of the forms and techniques that Haynes is pastiching (and subverting) and leaves it to the viewer to make connections between them. Poison received a small amount of funding from the National Endowment of the Arts – which caused right-wing Senator Jesse Helms and family-values campaigner Donald Wildmon condemned the use of taxpayers’ dollars to fund “gay pornography”. The resulting furore no doubt helped a tiny-budget, experimental 16mm feature find a larger audience than it would have been expected to. The downside of this, of course, is that the controversy meant that funding for future films like Poison from the NEA would no longer be forthcoming. The film had further difficulties with the MPAA, who gave the film a NC-17 rating. An R-rated version exists, which removes a shot of a penis and a not-particularly explicit gay sex scene, both from “Homo”. This DVD is the full-length version, which was passed uncut by the BBFC for an 18 certificate.
Poison was briefly associated with New Queer Cinema, a short-lived “movement” (which didn’t really exist outside articles and festivals) of outspoken films dealing with gay male (mostly) and lesbian themes. Like many a similar movement, it helped establish some talented filmmakers (Gregg Araki’s The Living End was another New Queer Cinema standard-bearer) and brought attention to some interesting films like Swoon, Go Fish and others. Haynes is a gay man, but has resisted being a “gay filmmaker”. His next feature, Safe, contains no gay content at all (unless you read it as an AIDS metaphor), centring as it does on a heterosexual woman, but is, Haynes asserts, just as “queer” and as subversive as anything else he has made.
Safe, his first dramatically-unified full-length work, was a huge advance on Poison, as are his other two features to date, Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven. Poison is best seen as an over-ambitious first effort – involving and dull by turns, but often fascinating – from a highly talented filmmaker still finding his voice.
Fox Lorber’s DVD is full-frame. Just for once for a modern film, this isn’t bad news. Due to its 16mm origins, Poison was filmed in Academy Ratio, 1.37:1. (I saw the film on its London release where it was noticeably cropped into 1.75:1 – this at an independent cinema that should have known better and which I won’t name.) Maryse Alberti (who went on to shoot Velvet Goldmine) was the DP for the colour sequences and Barry Ellsworth (who had shot Superstar) was responsible for the black and white work. The DVD copes, up to a point, quite well with the various shooting styles. However, some very dark scenes, such as the opening credits sequence and a fair part of the prison scenes in “Homo” don’t transfer too well, and shadow detail is not always what it should be. The image is a little on the soft and grainy side, but as this film was shot in 16mm, that’s entirely down to the original materials.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rare for a Nineties film but entirely understandable given such a small budget. It does its job and not much more, though dialogue is always clear and understandable. There are thirty-three chapter stops, with a separate access menu for each storyline.
The main extra is a commentary conducted by Haynes, editor and co-star James Lyons and producer Christine Vachon. This is a lively commentary, which covers pretty much all the bases necessary. Vachon comes up with the best stories, such as how the young boy in the opening credits was nearly Macaulay Culkin! She also has a fascinating anecdote about the difficulties she had in clearing the rights to the Genet quotations from the author’s estate. There’s also the trailer, presented like the feature in full-frame. Other extras are more basic, in common with many of Fox Lorber’s other releases: text pages of production credits and filmographies and awards.
Now that the controversy surrounding its release has died away, Poison is most recommended to Haynes’s admirers and anyone interested in gay cinema. Fox Lorber’s DVD is decent, but there’s not likely to be a better version anytime soon.