Few filmmakers have had the cultural impact on independent cinema that Todd Haynes has over the last thirty-plus years. From his earliest short films to new-millennium classics such as Far From Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol, Haynes has maintained a style of using pastiche as a means of commentary, as well as tackling emotion in a more deliberate manner. It is incredible to look back at his debut feature film Poison from 1991 which made quite a splash after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. This is impressive, but what put the film on the map, for better or for worse, was a controversy stirred up by a misinformed conservative who denounced the film on the Senate floor for receiving a very small grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and using that film to money to make a “porno”. While this put attention on the film, what people were greeted with if they watched the film was an experimental narrative that elevated queer characters and gave voice to the AIDS epidemic in an unprecedented way. Also, they would see a really entertaining movie.
It is fascinating to watch how Haynes graduated from his short films to this feature that at first might appear to be a selection of linked short films. While it is true that Haynes employs a narrative of three intercut stories, the stories have a clear line that binds them together through their explorations of the downtrodden and those on the fringes of “proper” society. Each story has fun with genre, which allows for Haynes to indulge in more of his creative whims in a really satisfying manner. Haynes partially takes inspiration from the novels of Jean Genet when fleshing out the themes he wants to tackle. The first and arguably most minor of the three is “Hero” which takes on the artifice of a news documentary investigative piece. This story covers the strange tale of Richie Beacon, a boy who killed his abusive father and flies away out of a bedroom window. Through testimonies from his mother and people around the town, we learn a bit more about some masochistic and perverse tendencies that he exhibited that unsettled those around him.
Haynes believed the most accessible story would be that entitled “Horror” that is presented in the style of a 1950s black-and-white B-movie. This segment concerns a scientist, Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell), who isolates the serum of human sexuality but gets a rude awakening when he accidentally ingests it and becomes a pustulant creature. The now lethally contagious Dr. Graves shines as an obvious allegory for the AIDS epidemic as he soon becomes dubbed the “Leper Sex Killer” who is being hunted down by an angry mob. The raw sexuality has turned into a crime that must be punished – all in the guise of a horror flick. The third and most raw of the trio is the evocatively titled (for this time) “Homo” which takes on a dream-like quality. John Broom (Scott Renderer) is a thief who has just arrived at a prison where he reunites with Jack Bolton (James Lyons), a man who he was obsessed with as a boy. The dynamic between these two is one of intentional discomfort, as Haynes shows humiliations of both the present and the past. A memory of a ritual involving spitting is grotesque, but framed to also conjure imagery of sexuality that swirls these dueling emotions quite provocatively.
Poison was never intended to work for a mainstream audience, but those who engage with it on its level will be rewarded with something equal parts challenging and entertaining. These films are expertly woven together to feed off one another and grow into a whole effort that leaves the audience with a lot to reckon with in the end. This is a transgressive film that wants you to squirm as you ponder themes of shame in sexuality, cycles of abuse, the murky line between pleasure and pain and much more. From a surface level perspective, at least two of the three segments should play for a wider audience, but some of the subtext will likely be lost. All three deserve your attention for the different qualities they are bringing to the end thesis. Todd Haynes should be proud of what he was able to so deftly accomplish at such an early point in his career. The competing genres and filming techniques work together in tandem to create a groundbreaking piece of cinema. The film was released in a time of social panic, and that has not really abated in the intervening thirty years. Poison is just waiting to inform another generation.
Poison gets a beautiful upgrade on Blu-Ray courtesy of Kino Classics with a 1080p transfer in 1:78:1. The transfer provides nice, natural film grain absent of any noticeable compression artifacts or other such damage. This disc also beautifully represents the varied landscapes and inventive production design that runs throughout the film. Although the segments are meant to be of varying quality due to the stylistic choices of the film, each one looks as wonderful as it possibly can. There are some nice, natural colors that bring real life to the film, from the colorful landscapes to some of the production details in the “Hero” tale. Skin tones look natural, and the presentation offers up fairly deep black levels. There is also a noticeable uptick in detail that should please fans of the film. Subtle details in the multitude of settings stand out more than ever before. This film has never looked so amazing on home video.
Kino Classics brings this Blu-Ray to consumers with a lossless DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mix that is worthy of praise due to its reverence to the original intent. The dialogue holds up quite nicely, coming though clearly without being stepped on by the music or sound effects. Being an amalgam of different techniques, the track is able to nicely incorporate some subtle environmental activity based on the setting. The movie sports a score from James Bennett that sounds great and ties the project together. This is a track that represents the film in a very satisfying way. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are provided on this disc.
The Blu-Ray of Poison includes a booklet featuring the essay “Intolerance: Todd Haynes’ Poison” by author and director of programming at Film at Lincoln Center Dennis Lim. This piece provides a great analysis of the film through the lens of how it tackles issues of homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. There is also the essay “Dispensing Poison: A Distribution Memoir” by co-presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo of Zeitgeist Films. In this piece, the two recount the journey of this film from acquisition to controversy and release. Both of these pieces provide a great amount of context to this film that is worthwhile. The on-disc special features are as follows:
- Audio Commentary: Director Todd Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and star/editor James Lyons provide a very entertaining and insightful commentary track recorded in 1999 in which they discuss the development of the film, the performers of the film, scouting shooting locations and the benefits of film grants, almost having Macaulay Culkin play a small role, the structure of the film and much more that helps bring greater context to the feature.
- Introduction by Director Todd Haynes: A newly-filmed eleven-minute introduction from Haynes in which he discusses his experience at Sundance, his career up to this point, the experimental nature of the filmmaking, its place in “New Queer Cinema”, his relationship with producer Christine Vachon, the motivations and themes of the film and much more.
- Sundance Q&A: A 21-minute piece from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival when a new print of the film was screened for the 20th anniversary. Director Todd Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and executive producer James Schamus take questions from the audience about the structure of the narrative, different cuts of the film, the impact it had on culture, the difficulties in making the film and much more. This is a wonderful addition to the package.
- Last Address: An eight-and-a-half minute short film from 2010 directed by Ira Sachs which may not seem like much at first, but packs a real punch with a final informational card.
- Original Theatrical Trailer: The two-minute trailer is provided here which plays up the acclaim for the film while giving you the smallest glimpse at the actual story.
Poison is a powerful debut from Todd Haynes that nimbly juggles three narratives that coalesce into one impactful narrative. Haynes has a lot of fun playing around with different genres and techniques, but he never loses sight of why these segments are meant to be part of a larger concept. There is quite a bit that will make you uncomfortable in this feature, but those who are willing to explore that discomfort may find something really worthwhile. Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber have released a Blu-Ray that features a very strong A/V presentation and a wonderful lineup of special features. Fans of Todd Haynes and experimental indie narratives should check this one out. Recommended
Poison will be available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital on June 29, 2021.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber have supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.