Case Number 21522


Zeitgeist Films // 1991 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // June 10th, 2011

The Charge

Profound, provocative, and profane.

Opening Statement

In 1991 Poison won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and simultaneously became the object of scorn of Donald Wildmon's American Family Association. It was lauded and loathed all at once. The conservative group derided it as "gay pornography funded by the NEA," meanwhile film critics fell all over themselves to praise the first feature film by Todd Haynes. It felt dangerous and daring, a new kind of gay movie that refused to play nice or easy. Poison is far removed from simple erotica, and it holds up extremely well with this stunning 20th anniversary release from Zeitgeist Films. Here it is uncut and with plenty of extras to explain the importance of making art.

Facts of the Case

Poisons shows three intercut stories:

* "Hero"
A young boy shoots his father and flies away. It is told in the style of a documentary trying to solve the mystery of what really happened.

* "Horror"
A scientist isolates the sex drive and accidentally drinks a large dose. He is turned into a hideous murdering monster that spreads his disease through contact. It is told as if it were a black and white '50s monster movie.

* "Homo"
A prisoner finds himself attracted to another inmate whom he had known and seen humiliated as a young man in a juvenile facility. It is told as if it were a hyper-real romance with extra color and idyllic gardens intercut with the drab prison sequences.

The Evidence

Poison is a tough film to watch because it deals with extremely uncomfortable topics presented in an unflinching way. Sex, violence, and repulsion all intermingle throughout the entire running time. The stories draw from the ideas of queer writer Jean Genet who is even quoted at several points to hammer home the themes. These are not literal translations of his work, but you can sense the author's influence in the trio of narratives which freely borrow his ideas and concepts. All of them also get a good lethal dose of anger from the era of AIDS in which they were created; you can sense the anger and fear punching through the material. Wildmon and his conservative Christian group were enraged that the tip of a man's genitals was shown during a love scene, but they should have been quaking at the vitriol and faith that the film would gather up in the gay community. Poison in 1991 was the movie to see for queer men lucky enough to be in a large city during its limited run. Seeing it was the ultimate act of rebellion at a time when movies could be dangerous and daring.

Poison gets a digital makeover for this release as part of a preservation effort by Zeitgeist and the Sundance people. It looks as good as it is going to get since it was shot on the cheap back in the days when independent cinema meant no studio backing whatsoever. The entire project was shot in 16mm and blown up for theatrical showings. Colors are nice and the clarity is just fine given the source material's limitations. There is a consistent wash of grain and some of the black levels are hard to penetrate. The soundtrack remains monaural which is true to the film's roots as well. It is often a bit thin and tinny. The cut is the original theatrical release and not the edited versions that showed up in Blockbusters across the country later.

Extras are well rounded and include a really nice retrospective panel discussion at Sundance from last year. It includes director Todd Haynes, producer Christine Vachon, and executive producer James Schamus talking to a group that had just watched the new print. There is also a commentary from 1999 with Haynes, Vachon, and also star and editor James Lyons who passed away in 2007. There are poster concepts and collages from Todd Haynes, and also Polaroids taken on the set by Kelly Reichardt. There is the original 1991 trailer used in the United States, which is charming and low tech. On the disc is a short film by Ira Sachs called Last Address which shows the final homes of AIDs victims including Poison star James Lyon. The booklet that comes with the DVD contains production notes, a director's statement, a review from The Village Voice, the distributor talking about the release, and finally a note of explanation from Ira Sachs about his short.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Poison is tough to watch for many people who find it confusing or too artsy. Some people say it is disjointed and impenetrable, but that seems unfair since it wears its allegory on the sleeve. The film is heavily influenced by a disease that was confusing at the time it was released, and it makes sense to have some disorienting effect in the film. Some people have said it is not gay enough since really only the prison sequences directly address homosexual acts. Yet I loved the idea of making the "leper sex killer" of the monster movie a straight guy. There are so many nice artistic touches that work, but many will find them off-putting as well.

Closing Statement

I recall not being old enough to drink, and sneaking out to go see this at my local art house in Houston. I told no one I had seen it until months later. You have to tip your hat to this work because it did start something larger than anybody would have thought. The New Queer Cinema movement was kicked off by this film and also Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels (1991), Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991), Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992), and Gregg Araki's The Living End (1992). Poison is certainly an ambitious film that helped to cause the death of NEA grants for film because it so enraged conservatives who saw it as a lethal dose of homosexual smut. It is quite the opposite: high art masquerading as simple allegory. Poison gave birth to the career of Todd Haynes, and it marked a time when films dared to show just a bit more than they ever had before about what it meant to be gay. It is a landmark film, and it is comforting to see Zeitgeist releasing such a wonderful edition two decades later. Oddly enough, the film still feels like a lethal dose of something indescribable all these years later.

The Verdict

Guilty of poisoning the culture wars to include a new queer voice in cinema.

Review content copyright © 2011 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 88
Audio: 88
Extras: 100
Acting: 95
Story: 98
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)

* English

Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Sundance Q&A
* Photo Gallery
* Poster Concepts
* Collages

* IMDb