In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new wave of gay cinema was emerging that was funded independently and made by gay filmmakers. Coined as New Queer Cinema, it allowed audiences to see a new world unexplored by Hollywood. While it also allowed filmmakers to tackle subjects whether its personal or political, New Queer Cinema did broaden the spectrum for what was needed to be said about gay culture in the era of conservative America. One of the figures to come out of that scene is Todd Haynes. After gaining notoriety for his 1987 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story about the late Carpenters singer. Haynes was definitely a director on the rise as he had also directed a music video for Sonic Youth in 1990. In 1991, he would unleash a film that would shock everyone that was considered to be one of the definitive films of New Queer Cinema called Poison.
Based on the writings of Jean Genet, Poison is a film set into three different sections as they’re each presented in three different styles. The first of which is a documentary about a boy who kills his father. The second is a 1950s style drive-in movie about scientist who turns into a monster. The third is a prisoner who falls for another prisoner at a juvenile prison. Written for the screen and directed by Todd Haynes, the film is a myriad of styles told in an unconventional form where all three segments are meshed into one whole film. The result is a surreal yet provocative film from Todd Haynes.
A seven-year old boy named Richie Beacons kills his father and flies away. Policemen and neighbors wondered what happened as his mother Felicia (Edith Meeks) is interviewed. She claims that Richie was a gift from God while others such as classmates and a teacher (Millie White) believe him to be a weird child. Even as he’s been someone that’s been in the nurse’s office and principal’s office in school several times. Often due to fights where he gets beat up as a nurse (Marina Lutz) recalls the moment he called her “fatso”. Even when a boy (Buck Smith) talks about why he beat up Richie at school during gym as the principal and a neighbor reveal that Richie was a strange kid. Dr. MacArthur (Evan Dunsky) even believes there is something strange about Richie from the abuses he has taken from his father and kids. Yet, Felicia Beacons would reveal more into the events that led to him murdering his father.
Dr. Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell) is trying to create an elixir that would isolate human sexuality. Though he is vilified by some in his field, a woman named Nancy Olsen (Susan Gayle Norman) helps him as he falls for her. Yet, his infatuation with Olsen has him accidentally drinking the elixir he created. Suddenly, he becomes a monster where he kills through leprosy as Olsen realizes what went wrong. With Olsen attempting to help Graves, she tries to take him to the outside world as it fails. Even as the attempt fails despite their love for each other, reports about the deaths and infections relating to leprosy troubles Nancy. Even as Graves becomes a target where tragedy has him confronting the people he felt ostracized by.
A thief named John Broom (Scott Renderer) is about to go prison again where he meets Jack Bolton (James Lyons) whom he knew years ago at a French prison. They become friends as Broom recalls his days at another prison where Bolton was a prisoner whom he taunted. Even as Bolton shows Broom his scars where Bolton hopes to make it into the big gang at the prison led by a man named Rass (John R. Lombardi). Broom’s attraction to Bolton increases although Bolton’s attachment to Rass has Broom becoming jealous. Even as Broom recalls an incident when he as a young man (Tony Pemberton) saw Bolton (Andrew Harpending) be abused and taunted by other inmates at the French prison many years ago.
The film is a collection of stories by Jean Genet that recalls various themes of heroism, horror, and homosexuality. In the mind of Todd Haynes, he takes those three themes and inter-cut them into a style that is very unorthodox and engaging. In the Hero section, it is told in a documentary story about a strange boy who kills his abusive father and then flies away. While it’s an interesting story, it’s the one section that isn’t as developed as it ends up bringing more questions while the mother of the film seems to be a woman in denial.
The Horror section is definitely the most entertaining as it’s a mixture of campy horror and thriller in the style of the 1950s while playing allusions to the AIDS crisis of sorts with the use of leprosy as the main disease. Homo is definitely the most provocative and also the most confrontational as it’s about a thief meeting an old inmate from another prison as he becomes infatuated with while dealing with memories about his time at the French prison. Even as it features a scene that will definitely get people disgusted over what Broom sees what happens to Bolton at the French prison. Horror and Homo are definitely the most interesting as they have stories that are engaging and says something. Hero sorts of works but doesn’t engage the viewer into a lot of answers about why this kid killed his dad and why he was so strange.
Haynes’ direction is definitely phenomenal in the way he presents each section. Yet, he creates a film that definitely plays with the idea of conventional narrative. Instead of presenting each story as one whole section to another section and then to another. He creates a narrative where all three stories are inter-cut and meshed into an entire film. For an audience that’s accustomed to traditional film narratives, this different approach will definitely take them aback and be challenging to follow the story. In some respects, it works as it’s a different form of storytelling in its three different styles.
With Hero being a cheesy TV-documentary style with lots of dramatization and a few surreal moments while Horror is a B-movie style horror film and Homo as a homosexual prison story. It creates a film that is very engaging but with two very strong sections and a decent section, it does create a film that is uneven at times while the pacing lags in various spots. While it is largely based on the stories of Jean Genet, Haynes does put in text to reveal what Genet is saying in these stories. Despite the flaws the film has, it is a remarkable yet mesmerizing film by Todd Haynes.
The film’s cinematography is superb for being shot in two different styles. For color, it’s by Maryse Alberti and in black-and-white, it’s by Barry Ellsworth. Alberti’s photography for the Hero scene is very good for its grainy, documentary look while her work in the Homo section for the French prison scenes are exquisite. Barry Ellsworth’s photography for Horror is wonderful for its 1950s style of B-movie cinema that plays up to the suspenseful tone of the story. Editors James Lyons and Todd Haynes do a very good job with the film’s editing in creating numerous styles of cutting for the various sections while the transitions from one section to another does create some fine moments. Even though, there’s moments where it feels jerky and not as smooth.
Production designer Sarah Stollman and art director Chas Plummer do a wonderful job with the look of the French prison for the Homo section with its period feel while the Hero and Horror sections are also noteworthy for its respective scenes. Costume designer Jessica Haston does a great job with the 50s period costume for the Horror section as well as the bland, casual look for the Hero section. Hairstylist/makeup artist Angela Johnson and effects makeup artist Scott Sliger do an amazing job with the leprosy looks for the Horror section of the film.
Sound editor Mary Ellen Porto does an excellent job with the film‘s sound from the suspense of the Horror to the eerie tone of the prison scenes in Homo. The film’s music by James Bennett is definitely the film’s technical highlight from the suspenseful jazz of Horror to the serene, dreamy quality of Homo. Bennett’s somber score for Hero is the least memorable but also cheesy in the way it plays up to the documentary style of the section.
The casting by Karim Anouz, Laura Barnett, Andrew Harpending, and John Michael Kelsey is excellent with its array of performances that includes John Leguizamo as an inmate in the French prison at the Homo section. Other notable small roles from the Hero section include Millie White as the principal, Buck Smith as a bully, Marina Lutz as a nurse, Richard Anthony as a custodian, and Evan Dunsky as the doctor. In Horror, there’s a small but memorable performance from Michelle Sullivan as a hooker. In Homo, there’s some memorable turns from Andrew Harpending and Tony Pemberton as the young Bolton and Broom, respectively, and John R. Lombardi as the brutish Rass.
From Hero, Edith Meeks is very good as the mother who seems to be in denial over Richie’s weird behavior while revealing some ideas into why Richie killed his father. In Horror, Larry Maxwell is excellent as the tortured Dr. Graves who accidentally drinks an elixir that made him a monster while Susan Gayle Norman is superb as the woman who loves and tries to help him. In Homo, Scott Renderer is wonderful as the tough but laid-back Broom who is in love with the tough-talking Bolton. The late James Lyon is stellar as the tough-talking Bolton who hopes to get out of jail while being a guy no one wants to mess with.
When the film premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, the film was considered to be a landmark film for New Queer Cinema as it won the festival’s top prize. The $250,000 budgeted film proved to be a modest art-house hit while gaining a large degree of controversy when it was revealed to be partially funded from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. When news came that the film was funded by the NEA, the American Family Association attacked the film as it ended up helping draw more attention for film and for Todd Haynes. Even as it helped the film’s reputation and furthered the new wave of gay cinema that was to emerge in the 1990s.
Poison is a good and interesting film from Todd Haynes that features an interesting array of styles and stories based on the works of Jean Genet. While it might be considered an essential film of Todd Haynes’ work as well as gay cinema. It’s a film that is flawed in its inter-cut style though it would be more refined with Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There. While it’s a film that certainly won’t be for everyone for its frank, provocative sexual content and disturbing stories. It’s a film that is also very challenging of what is expected in the form of storytelling. In the end, Poison is an entertaining yet intriguing film from Todd Haynes.
Todd Haynes Films: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Dottie Gets Spanked - Safe - Velvet Goldmine - Far from Heaven - I'm Not There - Mildred Pierce (TV miniseries) - Carol - Wonderstruck - Dark Waters (2019 film) - The Velvet Underground - The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes
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