• FILM

  • SEARCH FOR

Poison

Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons. (1991, NC-17, 85 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 30, 1991

The Sundance Film Festival, that prestigious enclave of independent film juries, awarded Poison its top dramatic prize this year. But that distinction is hardly enough to thrust a film out of the art house circuit and into the popular dialogue, no matter how deserving it may be. No, the credit for that has to go to Rev. Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association philistines who used Poison to attack the NEA's funding polices. The film, which links three separate stories which are connected by their themes of transgression and punishment and the primacy of the body, acknowledges an inspirational debt to the works of Jean Genet and makes no attempt to disguise either its homoerotic passages, sadistic brutalities or AIDS metaphors. In an increasingly rare instance of NEA backbone, chairman John Frohnmayer unequivocally defended the funding selection. And thus, Poison came out of the gate as something of a cause celebre. Haynes is no stranger to controversy. His previous film was 1987's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a bio-pic about the Carpenter family's rise to celebrity and Karen's growing obsession with food and independence -- filmed entirely with a cast of Barbie and Ken dolls. That movie is now out of circulation due to legal injunctions from the Carpenter family. With Poison, Haynes continues his fascination with the body politic and disconcerting storytelling. Three apparently unrelated stories are told simultaneously throughout Poison. The first is “Hero,” the story of seven-year old Richie Beacon who kills his father and then, as reported by his mother, flies off through the upstairs window. The story is shot like a television news report using talking head interviews with Richie's mother, his teachers, classmates and suburbanites next door. The second story, called “Horror,” is filmed in black-and-white in the style of a 1950s monster movie in which a researcher isolates the liquid form of the human sexual drive and then accidentally gulps it down while distracted by a female admirer. He becomes a repulsive figure of pustular contagion and is transformed into the Leper Sex Killer. “Homo,” the third, is the episode most inspired by Genet's writing and concerns a male prisoner's obsession with a fellow inmate. All three episodes focus in some way on taboo-breakers who trangress the social norms. The way the individual stories are intercut builds connections between the seemingly discrete tales such that they begin to converge in ways that were not readily apparent. Repeated viewings, I'm sure, would enhance the connections, so smartly are they conceived. “The whole world is dying of panicky fright” are the words that open the movie. Poison makes the fear palpable. Poison's director Todd Haynes will be in attendance at two opening weekend screenings (Friday, Aug. 30 at 7pm; Sat. Aug.31 at 9pm). Haynes will present the film at each of these two special shows and be available for discussion following the screenings.

READ MORE
More Todd Haynes
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
Writer/director Todd Haynes on Dylan, Sturm und Drang, and the long shadow of the Sixties

Spencer Parsons, Nov. 23, 2007

More Todd Haynes Films
Carol
Everything about this Fifties lesbian romance is sublime

Marjorie Baumgarten, Dec. 25, 2015

I'm Not There
This meditation on Bob Dylan is infused with love – not the slavish kind but a true-eyed tribute to the artist who belongs to nobody and everybody at once.

Kimberley Jones, Nov. 23, 2007

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
The Infiltrator
Bryan Cranston takes on a drug cartel in this ho-hum thriller

July 15, 2016

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
The director of Twenty Feet From Stardom does another music doc

July 8, 2016

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Poison, Todd Haynes, Edith Meeks, Larry Maxwell, Susan Norman, Scott Renderer, James Lyons

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
This content has not been formatted for this window size.
Please increase the size of your browser window, or revisit this page on a mobile device.
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)