Criterion Prediction #146: Poison, by Alexander Miller
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Millie White, Edith Meeks, Buck Smith, Anne Giotta
Synopsis: Three stories: “Hero,” a recreated television documentary that investigates an enigmatic case where a seven-year-old shoots his father and mysteriously flies away; “Horror,” told in a schlocky b-movie style, follows a scientist who turns himself into a leprous monster when an experiment goes awry; and “Homo,” a story about a gay prisoner who finds himself attracted to another inmate whom he recognizes from a memorably humiliating incident years before, while they were juveniles, based on Jean Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose.
Critique: Documentaries about movies and moviemaking are a guilty pleasure for any film lover and I find myself frequently returning to features such as Los Angeles Plays Itself, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, A Decade Under the Influence, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, etc. One standout title, Great Directors, prominently featured (lots of candid footage with filmmakers from around the world) was Todd Haynes and hearing his witty banter on everything from movies, influences, and directing it was that there was something special going on with this dude, and out of his works the one that stood out the most was his debut Poison. After tracking down a VHS ripped bootleg DVD-R of the film it surpassed expectation, and after familiarizing myself with Haynes’ body of work Poison still feels like his most unguarded, daring and substantial works.
Haynes, oft cited as the premier director of the New Queer Cinema, instills his debut feature with a more controlled and articulate aesthetic hand and it’s not only evident in this feature as a whole but in each of its different narratives. Poison has a swift pace, it’s made up of three storylines but the construction isn’t a chapter-by-chapter anthology, but an expertly edited swirling of each story, the film is structured by way of intuitive montage and in doing this Haynes gives each chapter its minutiae making the entirety of Poison consistently compelling. Every thread has a vibrant juxtaposition of inspiration and originality, something that would be a hallmark in his subsequent filmography, and here, Haynes is already showing his aesthetic and thematic prowess.
The “Hero” portion of the film is made in the form of a television documentary and it has all the hallmarks of the genre and the period in which it was made, including the stiff narration, interviews, and crappy captions that you can’t read against specific backgrounds. While one half of Hero is crafted with a degree of realism and the story driving the documentary is both gritty and fantastical. The idea of a seven-year-old shooting his father and mysteriously flying away channels that youthful sense of escapism, while it is also tapping into what the more mature response that would follow such an event by exploring it through a television news magazine. “Horror,” the most stylistically expressive, is a perfect juxtaposition to “Hero” and “Homo.” Made like a schlocky atomic age monster movie, “Horror” channels the sci-fi horror stylings of Jack Arnold as an allegorical launch pad to explore the AIDS crisis and the mass hysteria that it caused. While at this time the metaphor might seem obvious but the contextual relevance still holds true, and Haynes’ handling of the material is exemplary. One of the directors strongest characteristics is his ability to channel and pay homage to his influences without reducing his work to deliberate mannerism. Hayne’s can recreate the spirit of sixties b-horror movies without succumbing to clumsy nostalgia. Horror proves to be so affecting because the genre is being used in much of the same way it was in the sixties; our fears might have pivoted from McCarthyism and nuclear devastation to AIDS and homophobia. In some ways, it would be fair to say that Haynes is predating the more savvy horror films that treat sexual anxieties now, with It Follows and Raw. The more grounded “Homo,” inspired by a Genet story, has a more conventional structure and it’s evident that the director has a good deal of affinity for the source material. This section of the movie feels less punchy than “Hero” or “Horror.” There’s a sense of atmosphere to this adaptation and its source of inspiration lends a stately air to the proceedings. “Homo” is effective in telling a love story against a harsh environment but it felt a little underdeveloped. It’s a minor quibble in a film that offers so much, and Poison is remarkable for its slightly rough-hewn veneer; and its biggest triumph is that among these three notable different stories Haynes consistently examines the alienation of people from society and the ways in which our varied experiences can relate to the similar feeling of abandonment.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: It almost feels odd that Poison was beaten by Safe for a Criterion release. Not that there’s anything wrong with Safe but it would seem that Haynes’ lesser seen, harder to come by title would be the prime candidate. As of now, Poison is only available on VHS and a 20th anniversary DVD release from Zeitgeist films, seeing as this came out in 1991 it’s fair to say that the DVD is fairly dated and not as easy to find. Poison deserves a bigger audience and, with Haynes’ already large fan base that seems to be growing with the continued commercial success of films like Carol, the inclusion of Poison would be an assured entry in The Criterion Collection.