Arguably the strongest American debut feature of the ’90s, Todd Haynes’s Poison—aptly billed as telling “three tales of transgression and punishment” and now restored in 35mm for its 20th anniversary—opens with a quote, at once topical and prescient, from Jean Genet: “The whole world is dying of panicky fright.” Leading his own phobic death charge just prior to the movie’s release in 1991, the Reverend Donald Wildmon—alerted to the film and its NEA grant by a rave in Variety—penned a letter to the House and Senate complaining of public funding for “gay porn” and rallying his troops for battle in the era of queer theory, AIDS activism, and rampant smut.
For a time, Poison was both the bête noire of right-wing culture cops and a cause célèbre among arthouse queers of all persuasions. Could any indie nowadays be as sexually transgressive, generating such a storm of fierce loathing and impassioned awe? Of course not. Beyond being a worthy preservationist endeavor, Poison‘s re-release invites one’s wistful nostalgia for a moment when a defiantly experimental movie could bring bigotry out of the closet and get us to act up.
While less than 10 percent of the film’s $300,000 budget came from the NEA, Haynes’s blatantly oppositional film about a trio of disparate outsiders—a monstrously disfigured scientist, a lonely prison inmate, and a seven-year-old perpetrator of patricide—didn’t lack for backing. Even fuddy-duddy Vincent Canby entered the fray, arguing in his Times review, “It is a work of original aspirations, just the kind of project the [NEA] should support.” Opening-weekend grosses at the Angelika set a record that lasted for years, while the movie—a major prizewinner at Sundance—became credited with inaugurating what would be known, all too briefly, as New Queer Cinema.
Still, befitting its title, Poison doesn’t go down smooth—and not only for its Salo-esque scene of reform-school punks hocking loogies into a weeping kid’s open mouth. The movie is awash in bodily secretions—blood, sweat, shit, pus, and cum—but, more profoundly, in fear, guilt, and shame. To be gay in Poison, if not in the brutally Reaganist America of the early ’90s, is to be deviant, persecuted, and pissed, which makes the film’s furtive love between inmates all the more tender—and hot.
Haynes, as even his detractors would admit, lives to wave his freak flag high, alternating in the years since Poison between pointedly political melodramas (Safe, Far From Heaven, the forthcoming Mildred Pierce) and rock-connoisseur odes to malleable identity (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There). As for Poison, its fractured narrative, complete with multiple narrators and wildly diverse styles (suburban mock-doc, B-movie horror flick, Genetian reverie), is enough to make the movie itself appear, well, queer. In the Voice, J. Hoberman likened the film to a “low-budget Intolerance,” referring to D.W. Griffith’s epic of historical suffering. He also made a prediction: “[I]ts unique combination of bluntness and metaphor suggests it may turn out to be a landmark. . . .”
Introducing a screening of Poison at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center a few years ago, Haynes made explicit what remains provocatively allegorical in the movie: “I felt that the gulf between Genet’s death [in 1986] and the breakout of the AIDS epidemic was something that could be bridged,” he said. “Genet’s ideas and positions”—including the notion of queer sexuality as an uncontainable force—”could be applied in a kind of empowering way to what the gay community was already feeling as a profound blow. The film was an attempt to recover our own sense of freedom—to exist, to express ourselves, and to experiment.”