A landmark work in the worlds of New Queer Cinema and independent film, Todd Haynes’ Poison is an allegorical triptych that’s both disturbing and beautiful. Inspired by the writings of French author Jean Genet, the film explores themes of societal rejection that’s motivated by characters’ perceived transgressions. There’s an outsider at the heart of the three interweaving stories, and Haynes uses wildly divergent techniques to obliquely comment on the AIDS crisis and the marginalization of gays.
The film is often deliberately off-putting, and it sometimes seems as if the three disparate stories fail to cohere into a single cogent work, but Poison absolutely establishes Haynes’ abilities as an adept stylist. Later films, like the impeccably designed Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven and the fragmented pop dream of I’m Not There, are presaged here — not in a specific way, but in the way that Haynes achieves committed and detailed stylistic palettes and effortlessly shifts between them.
The film’s three segments are “Hero,” in which an unseen boy is reported to have killed his father and then flown away; “Horror,” where a scientist isolates the sex drive but accidentally ingests it, causing him to become leprous; and “Homo,” a prison romance that’s doomed from the start, punctuated by flashbacks of a lushly rendered reform school.
“Hero” is mock tabloid journalism, shot in a lurid, sometimes distorted manner that recalls all manner of TV newsmagazines. “Horror” is a credible imitation of ’50s B-pictures, with stilted performances and canted angles to match. “Homo,” a kind of retelling of Genet’s novel The Miracle of the Rose, is at once the most naturalistic and dreamlike of the three segments.
As a debut feature, Poison is a remarkable film, blending high art and the grotesque boldly. It’s not as assured or coherent as some of Haynes’ later work, but it stands as a signal of things to come.
Zeitgeist, who first released the film during the studio’s infancy, is now releasing a 20th Anniversary edition DVD. This edition features a new high definition digital transfer, sourced from the original 35mm internegative of the 16mm film.
Carried over from the previous DVD release is an audio commentary by Haynes, producer Christine Vachon and editor/star James Lyons, who played the object of desire in the “Homo” segment.
New to this edition is a post-screening Q&A with Haynes, Vachon and executive producer James Schamus after a screening at Sundance to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film’s Grand Jury Prize there. The Q&A is a little scattered and the audio quality leaves a little to be desired, but it’s worth a look.
A gallery of original poster concepts by Haynes and a collection of behind-the-scenes polaroids by Kelly Reichardt, who served as props master and key dresser for the film, are included on the disc, along with the original theatrical trailer.
A striking extra is the 2010 short film Last Address by Ira Sachs, which features single, unblinking shots of the final homes of New York-based artists who were victims of AIDS. One of them is James Lyons, who can be heard on the audio commentary.
The package also includes a booklet with production notes, Haynes’ director’s statement from 1991, J. Hoberman’s original Village Voice review, a director’s note from Sachs and memories from Zeitgeist co-presidents Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo, who recall the vitriolic controversy surrounding the film and its partial NEA funding.