Foot Artist | Houston, Texas United States | 12/30/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When I saw this film for the first time I left the theater impressed with Todd Haynes' genius. The film is actually a trilogy. One story is about John Broom's life in prison and the nuances of sex and love between men there, with flashbacks to Broom's life as a boy in a reformatory. Here, we get a glimpse of adolescent boys and their discovery of sexuality and the hierarchies of the "counterfeit world of men among men." It feels like one is coming in and out of a dream state. The second is done in the form of a documentary, "Where is Richie Beacon?" - after shooting his father, his mom claims Richie just "flew away... out the window". It's a story about how creepy suburban America really is. The third is a B&W, 1950-ish sci-fi story about a man deteriorating with a disease (that could well be AIDS) and the psychological effect it has on him. "Poison" is for the philosophically inclined. Not for the homophobic and/or faint-hearted. It is a masterpiece in its scope and execution. Very visual and sometimes very disturbing. It touches on the maddening effects of suburbia, modern life, civilization, and the human condition. A MUST SEE for the philosophy student. not easy to follow. VERY COMPLEX. I've got it on VHS and will purchase DVD soon. If you like films with substance this one won't disappoint you!"
A brilliant "triptych," so to speak: homo, horror, hero.
Gary F. Taylor | 10/05/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Todd Haynes's accomplished feature film after his impressive short, SUPERSTAR, was nonetheless a provocative look into human nature, reflective of our modern society. Comprised of three parts, this wonderfully rendered film exemplifies the positive/negative charges of life--what's worth living and dying for. Plus, sublime revelations of each character!I remember the first time I saw POISON after it's debut at Sundance in 1991, where it received Best Feature and much controversy. I can understand why some people may find it unsettling (homo-errotic jail scene) which at the time was considered oh so taboo. But, it's much more than a "shocking" scene--it's tender and intense. That kind of situation is what I find the most compelling--something no other film director has the guts to show.This film is one of my all-time favorites, especially since it gave me new insights into a world I didn't know exsited. No small task!"
On the positive sides of things...
Gary F. Taylor | 11/15/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It is sort of unsettling to me to see all of these negative reviews. But it is difficult not to take into consideration the fact that, yes, this film is not spectacular. However, it remains that "Poison," though difficult it seems for people to watch, is incredibly well done. To begin with, the three stories do not have much to do with each other. Haynes took the three vignettes by Jean Genet and made them into a very experimental and passionate film. Those familiar with some of Haynes' other work (namely "Safe" and "Velvet Goldmine") should not find it difficult to catch common themes found in all of Haynes' movies. Freedom, sexual happiness, and a medium between the extreme and the sterile all pop up in Poison, like they did in the Haynes films which are predecessors to "Poison." The performances are all by no name actors who all give exceptional performances, pulling every ounce of pain and drive out of their characters. The extremity in the movie is hard not to respect because it touches on the issue of society's socalled "Freaks," all of who, we are reminded in "Poison," are simply other PEOPLE, like us. The film certainly works to acheive a point, although that point remains hazy on only one viewing, but what it comes down to is that "Poison" is a film about humanity and the neuroses specific individuals must live through. I commend Haynes incredibly for this film. It's just as good as his others. And that, I feel, is how it is."
Best film adaptation of Genet to date
Timothy Hulsey | Charlottesville, VA United States | 03/17/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Todd Haynes's penchant for postmodern parody (recently displayed in the deliberately garish melodrama _Far From Heaven_) can be seen in _Poison_, his first feature film. Haynes invokes obscure Poverty-Row horror films and television documentaries, among other cinematic forms. Some of the images are lovely, some are ugly, and some are extremely difficult to watch. All represent, in one form or another, French writer Jean Genet's view of sexuality -- pessimistic and frequently angry, but never entirely bleak.This film was one of the infamous "NEA 4" projects that led then-Senator Jesse Helms to impose standards of decency on the National Endowment for the Arts. _Poison_ may be best known for the scandal it generated inside Washington's corridors of power, but it's still a brilliant film.Now, the bad news: Video and audio transfers on this DVD are poor, with numerous print flaws, artifacts and distortion. But the full-frame transfer accurately represents the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The only extras are a slightly decrepit trailer and a solid, informative audio commentary from the director, the producer and the editor."
Flawed But Intriguing
Gary F. Taylor | Biloxi, MS USA | 01/06/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Filmed in 1990, POISON was an extremely obscure art house film--until Senator Jessie Helms, a hysterical homophobe, threw a public temper tantrum over the fact that it had been financed in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Helm's tirade had the effect of piquing public curiosity, and while it never played mainstream cinemas POISON did indeed go on to a wider release on the art house circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and receiving an unexpectedly rapid release to the homemarket as well. Thereafter it rapidly returned to the same obscurity from which came.
It is easy to understand why the film never caught on in any broad sense. It is deliberately "art house," and your ability to "get" the film will depend a great deal on your knowledge of the literature and films it references. In a general sense, the film is inspired by the writings of Jean Genet (1910-1986), a French author associated with the existentialist movement.
A deliberate outsider, Genet spent so much of his youth in and out of prison that he was ultimately threatened with a life sentence as a habitual criminal. In his writings, Genet fused his homosexual, criminal, and prison adventures into a consistent point of view--one that championed freedom of choice (no matter how unattractive the choice), self-determination (no matter how unfortunate the result), and generally gave the finger to any form of authority (no matter how necessary.) POISON specifically references three of his most celebrated works: OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS, THE MIRACLE OF THE ROSE, and THE THIEF'S JOURNAL, all of which were to some extent autobiographical.
At the same time, the film also references a host of other films--so many that it is sometimes difficult to know whether a single reference is deliberate or simply a fluke, an effect that Genet himself would have likely admired. The most obvious of these references is D.W. Griffith's 1916 silent masterpiece INTOLERANCE, for like that film POISON tells three distinctly stories, cross-cutting between them that they might heighten each other. Unlike INTOLERANCE, however, each story is also told in a distinctly different cinematic style, and these too seem to reference various other films.
The first of these stories, HOMO, is very specifically drawn from Genet. It tells the story of a constant criminal and homosexual who, while in prison, meets a man whose repeated sexual humilitation he witnessed when both were children in a reformatory. He forces the man, who is unwilling mainly due to fear than from morality, into an emotional relationship and later rapes him. The "present" sequences are shot in a murky half-light, the prison presented as a labyrinth of potential sexual destruction. When the prisoner recalls his youthful past, however, the tone changes to a surrealistic and extremely artificial beauty--not unlike that seen in such films as James Bidgood's PINK NARCISSUS and Fassbinder's QUERELLE. It is worth pointing out that these different styles are ironic in use: although shot darkly, the events of the "present" sequence are only mildly shocking in comparison with the events of the "past" sequence, which is shot in a bright and rather romantic style.
HORROR references the 1950s and early 1960s cinematic style of such "B" directors as William Castle and Roger Corman, and it frequently borrows cinematic ideas from Rod Sterling's television series THE TWILIGHT ZONE. In this particular tale, a scientist has labored to isolate the essence of the human sex drive--and succeeds only to ingest the element by accident. With human sex drive raging out of control in his body, he develops oozing sores, and his physical contacts with others spread the condition. It is difficult not to read this as a reference to the AIDS epidemic.
The third story, HERO, is actually presented very much like a modern television news story and is told through a series of interviews. Here, a young boy has shot his father--and then, according to his mother, leaps from the window sill and simply flies away. Neighbors comment: the boy exposed himself. School teachers comment: the boy was unnatural, the boy was normal, the boy was creative, the boy was a liar. A doctor comments: it is possible the boy had a, er, disease of the genitals. As the story progresses the layers add up--but it leaves us without clearcut answers, much less a clearcut response, and in this last respect it is exactly like the other two stories.
It is extremely, extremely difficult to know how to react to POISON. It has moments of remarkable beauty, but these are coupled with moments of equally remarkably off-putting disgust. It is often an erotic film, but the eroticism is tinged and occasionally saturated with revulsion. And in all of this it is remarkably true to its original source: Genet, whose works typically provoke exactly the same sense of beauty, disgust, sensuality, revulsion, and uncertainty of response. I cannot say that I like POISON, which was the directorial debut of Todd Haynes, presently best known for FAR FROM HEAVEN--but then, it is not that sort of film; it does not invite you like it, but rather to consider it both in whole and in part. It strives to be interesting, and in that it is often quite successful.
Unfortunately, it may also be a little too interesting for its own good. While it certainly has its visceral moments, occasionally to the gag point, it asks us to solve a puzzle from which pieces are missing. This not a necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of POISON too many pieces have gone astray; it seems deliberately unsolvable. This may actually be intentional, but if so it was a mistake. A sense of mystery is one thing, but mystification is another, and given its overall strangeness--not to mention the subject matter--I think it very, very unlikely that it will ever have more than curiosity appeal outside an art house audience.
The DVD package is not bad, but neither is it exceptional. Although it is presented in its original ratio, some complain that scenes have been cut. I cannot comment on this point, for I have not seen any print that differs from this one. The print is reasonable but hardly pristine. The commentary track, however, is indeed worth a listen. Recommended, but only if you have a taste for the out of the way.