Director Todd Haynes’s Controversial First Live-Action Feature is Administered on Blu-ray for its 30th Anniversary.
DIRECTED BY TODD HAYNES/1991
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 29, 2021/KINO LORBER/ZEITGEIST
Todd Haynes’s Poison is a slow drip of some unidentifiable cinematic substance. Is this mismatched triptych a degenerate neurotoxin? Or is it a commendable commentary on the AIDS epidemic that was ravaging the gay community at the time of its release? Depends on who you ask.
In the camp of labelling the film as “degenerate” was the outspoken conservative senator, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms also accused it of being a waste of taxpayer money, as Poison was funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Even before there was a Fox News Channel that requires ongoing “culture war” outrage to sustain itself, Haynes’s little overtly gay arthouse “thought experiment” was in the early crosshairs of just such manufactured controversy.
But the biggest problem with Poison isn’t so much how it got made or even what’s in it, but rather how it plays. Which, despite some extremely bravura moments (particularly by 1991 standards) unfolds at apparent half speed. Checking the clock at the perceived forty-five-minute mark revealed it to only have been twenty-three minutes in. If the meager production value of the ramshackle Poison evidences Haynes’s early-career ability to stretch funds (public or otherwise), it also demonstrates a less commendable stretching of time.
That to say, whether this particular Poison kills you or makes you stronger is fully subjective. One thing, though, is almost certain- the experience will remain in your veins. Haynes, working with a rock-bottom budget and amateurs, nevertheless proves his chops as a multifaceted visual storyteller. Poison as a whole may be grainy, garish, and tacky, but it’s also a uniquely singular piece; a nearly primal bellow against a mainstream that’s willfully turned its back on the AIDS-afflicted gay populace.
Inspired by the erotic poetic writings of Jean Genet, Poison functions as three separate “films” thematically intertwined. (Indeed, Haynes claims the genesis of Poison as an exploration of what the deceased Genet would’ve made of the AIDS situation). Each “film” appropriates a different genre, or even a separate medium, and are visually distinct in terms of varied film stock and performance styles. Also, each deal in its own main character’s rejection and lack of belonging in society. This execution is a bold and outwardly “artsy” choice- even as the arch and sometimes grotesque approach results in an finished product that can only ever remain at arm’s length for many.
The first of three interwoven “films” glimpsed is the black and white b-movie 1950s mutation send-up, “Horror”. In it, the upright scientist Dr. Graves (Larry Maxwell) develops an infectious “leprosy” when he accidentally drinks his experimental results, the liquified distillation of the human sex drive. Rather than turn him into Buddy Love, it physically ravages him and those he comes into contact with. Soon enough, he is wanted as a killer.
Then there’s “Hero”, which is in the faux-documentary style of sensationalist “tabloid TV” of the time. (A Current Affair, Extra, etc.). It slowly but weirdly unravels the story of a young boy driven to murder his father. Propelled by idle eeriness of Edith Meeks as the mom, “Hero” eventually ends in a curious twist of magical realism.
Then there’s the lightning rod of the conservative politicians on their agenda to dismantle the NEA, “Homo”. Gritty and skeezy like 1970s prison grindhouse exploitation fare, “Homo” details one inmate’s (Scott Renderer) obsession with a fellow inmate (the late James Lyon, also the film’s editor and lover of Todd Haynes) whom he recognizes from childhood. Though steeped in rough violation, the story does in fact not degenerate into explicit homosexual pornography, as Helms and his ilk accused sight-unseen. Shot in a functional prison, “Homo” is, however, every bit as dark and claustrophobic as the director intended.
Of the three, the cheeky “Horror” gets the preferential nod of this admittedly straight male reviewer and fan of 1950s paranoid horror. Your milage may greatly vary, as some (including straight women) apparently find the “Homo” portions of Poison to be quite the turn-on. Haynes, producer Christine Vachon, and star/editor James Lyons reveal that fan reaction on their audio commentary track, hailing from a previous 1999 home video release of the film.
This special thirtieth anniversary Blu-ray edition brings a potent dose of bonus material. Haynes himself, looking shaggy and grey, contributes a new rambling (though also edited) Zoom-style introduction. Despite the epic strides he’s made as a storyteller and auteur since Poison, he opts not to besmirch this early effort. Notably, this is Haynes first feature entirely with live actors. (His previous film, the forty-minute Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story features a cast of Barbie-like dolls). The acting ain’t great and two of the three stories narratively flail. But these are the humble beginnings of one of our great directors- something even he can appreciate as a necessary starting point in that thirty-years-ago time and place.
The Blu-ray bonuses also include a short Sundance Film Festival Q&A on the event of the twentieth anniversary of the film’s Grand Jury Prize. On stage are executive producer James Schamus, Vachon, and Haynes. Finally, besides Poison’s original trailer, there’s Last Address, a minimalist short film by Ira Sachs. Last Address, simply by showing exteriors of the final residences of various AIDS victims, makes a hauntingly moving statement about the human cost of virus’s sweep.
There is also a color booklet with an essay by Dennis Lim, Director of Programming at Film at Lincoln Center, and a brief bit by Zeitgeist Films co-presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo. Theirs is a reminiscently pained look at the distribution nightmare of Poison as it blew up into a national talking point. Ultimately, of course, it is congratulatory, as Poison has persevered as a visionary reminder of the terror of AIDS when it was at its peak.
For young Todd Haynes, Poison proved to be a notorious starting block if not a stumbling block. It generated more Jesse Helms-headlines than box office, though this partially atrophied effort couldn’t have had any legitimate hopes of popular success in the first place. Poison, though, completely understands its niche as a queer film, a classification that it helped define in the early ‘90s. Those looking for an aesthetic through line between it and Haynes’s Sirk/Fassbinder-inspired glossy Oscar-favored efforts like Carol and Far from Heaven will come away empty handed if not perplexed. It’s the director’s gift for melodrama, so expertly wielded in those studio outings, that’s developing here. It’s a development in fits and starts, as Haynes is learning in the field. That he’d abandon Poison’s career-death sensibility in favor of where he’s since taken us is this harsh, historic film’s own antidote.