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Intriguing But Flawed
gftbiloxi10 June 2007
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.

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 humiliation 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.

GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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Not just a "queer" film.
crash_into_me4209 July 2002
After reading a bit about Todd Haynes' "Poison" and the homosexual comparisons that people seem to only be drawing from it, I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't deserve to just be tagged as a seminal film of the "new queer cinema". It's so much more than that.

First of all, I found "Homo" to be the least intriguing of the 3 stories. "Hero" is actually more disturbing, showing the sudden disappearance of a mentally-inflicted, patricidal child who, according to his mother, was sent from the angels. I was particularly impressed by Haynes' creative use of layering in the adultery and spanking scenes.

But, in blending three prominent aspects (color, black and white, documentary) of the film medium into his film, the beautiful b&w "Horror" is the most notable, showing the sudden downfall of a scientist's prosperity. Haynes conveys the scientist's hysteria to his audience by using slanted, extreme close-up camera techniques and spastic editing, not to mention a haunting soundtrack.

The film is a bizarre one, indeed... but undeniably artful, and it certainly doesn't deserve to simply be pigeonholed into nothing more than a cornerstone for homosexual cinema.
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One of the most unique gay themed films out there
tonymurphylee23 January 2011
Poison, the first theatrical film of Todd Haynes, is a grotesque, pessimistic, and extremely disturbing picture that is both celebration of misery and cruelty and a reflection of human tenderness and sexual freedom. The film interweaves three very different stories together into one narrative line. The film goes back and forth between each story, and each story is completely different from one another in theme, content, style, musical choice, genre, and tone. One story, titled 'Horror', is shot in the style of a 50s B-horror film and is about a scientist who manages to alienate the human sex drive into a vial of fluid. Unfortunately, he accidentally drinks the fluid and mutates into a blistering pile of pus and proceeds to go on an infectious rampage, spreading his disease to all he comes into contact with. Another story, titled 'Homo', is a sinister, gritty, muddy, and emotionally tender love story set in an underground prison of some kind in which two male prisoners slowly descend into an obsessive and violent S&M relationship. The story contains flashbacks to their traumatic youth. The remaining story, titled 'Hero', is shot in what appears to be a documentary format in which several members of a distraught community are interviewed about a recent bizarre tragedy involving a disturbed family. A little boy named Richard shoots his sexually abusive father and then flies out the window, and the entire incident was witnessed by his mother who considers her son to be an angel sent from God to watch over her.

Poison is a rather strangely enchanting film. One of the most enchanting things about it is that it never quite gives you any time to breathe. From frame one, the film plunges you into a world full of cruelty and chaotic confusion and you're left on your own to pretty much sort through the images. It's all rather elegantly pulled off. Haynes manages to capture a lot of the charm and the overall structure from each film medium his stories represent. With 'Hero' he manages to present that optimistic 50s family sitcom outlook gone slightly wrong found in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. He does this by using a lot of bright colors and simplistic architecture. The effect is unsettling, but it is also strangely hypnotic in it's own weird way. By using mostly mastershots and by allowing a little more time for talking heads, he's able to create a real creepy sense of foreboding fury that fits really well with the other two stories. With 'Homo', he uses a lot of low angles and close-ups. He also uses more natural lighting, at least in the scenes that aren't flashbacks. It's a much more testosterone driven story, and so the dark look really helps to highlight a lot of the sweatier, more vulnerable aspects of the bodies of these characters. This adds a much more psychological aspect of male sexuality to the film that carries over to the other two stories, making 'Hero' seem ever so slightly more perverted to the average viewer and making 'Horror' seem a lot more metaphorical and realistic in some ways. With 'Horror', we get the bleakest and most disturbing tale of the three. In order to create that classic horror movie feel, Todd Haynes uses a lot more fade-outs, more specific music cues, and noticeably melodramatic narration. He allows us to really feel sorry for this disturbed character, and that feeling of uncleanliness pervades the rest of the film as a result.

It seems to me that Haynes wanted to create this film in order to develop an intricate puzzle of how genre pictures can manipulate other genre pictures, the viewing experience of each picture, how watching one sort of theme in one picture can invisibly affect a separate viewing of another picture, and to recreate the style of multiple viewing itself. His personal reasons for making this film, however, seem to be much more complicated. Poison is what I would consider the quintessential gay picture. It has everything I love and hate about most gay themed films (the depressing endings, the perverted camera-work, the abundant strange behavior, the gratuitous sex), but it's self-awareness is so fun to watch that it rises above all the schlock and finds it's own path toward narrative freedom.

Above all, Poison is a masterpiece. Along with In a Glass Cage, If...., My Own Private Idaho, Mysterious Skin, and the films of Derek Jarman, it's one of the more challenging gay themed films that you're likely to see. Even if the subject matter disturbs you, there is still so much to digest in terms of imagery and in the wonderful music score. Even if you put aside all that, however, you still have one of the most unusual storytelling structures you will likely see for this kind of film. You can spend the entire film just studying the structure and you will learn so much about scene and theme composition. Even putting aside THAT, however, the ambition of the film is enough to admire. I find that there is way too much going on here that can simply be written off. The things I've noticed upon re-watching this film have chilled me to the bone, and watching it only makes me want to watch it again. It's one of those films that really hit the right notes with me. I will admit that the first time I watched it I couldn't quite comprehend it. It is a dizzying film in that sense, and I don't expect most viewers to digest a lot of the imagery on their first viewing. However, it's a film that I think really says a lot about human progress in terms of sex, imagination, violence, and physical desire. It's a powerful film with a lot of quiet emotion with an ending that left me feeling very polarized. Watching it once is simply not enough.

*to read more, go to cuddercityfilmchronicles.blogspot.com*
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heavy with tender, bittersweet emotion and gut wrenching paranoia
framptonhollis12 October 2017
31 Days of Spookoween: DAY ELEVEN

Film #11: Poison (1991)

Review: It feels both right and wrong to classify Todd Haynes' brilliant feature film debut "Poison" as a horror film. It is unlike any other film that would fit into the genre (although one of its three segments obviously replicates the sci-fi/horror B-Movies of the 1950's), and yet it is still spine tingling and disturbing and, in all honestly, occasionally horrific. But, it is many other things as well, a long list of adjectives taking up line after line could easily be the remainder of this very review. One moment may have some fittingly mild black comedy, while the next may be a poignant love scene, while the nest may be gripping, while the next may be terrifying, while the next may be madly surrealistic. It's deftly unpredictable and oddly engaging, not a minute is wasted and the pacing feels like a gentle breeze that suddenly morphs into a Hellish blaze of howling wind.

Back in the early 90's when the film was first released, it was rather infamous. Hotly debated and heavily controversial, the film was met with outrage from some, and a totally unreasonable NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Yes, it is true that this film tackles heavy themes, particularly those that deal frankly and explicitly with homosexuality, and there are some brief flashes of rather strong sexual imagery, but the film never dwells upon anything that is at all "obscene" or "vulgar". Often, these "dirtier" sequences evoke a feeling much different than lust...they evoke feelings of pain and heart ache and horror and beauty, there's never the sense that what you're watching is in any way "filth"; no, everything feels tasteful and necessary and meaningful, and this creates an experience filled with enigmas and experiments and romances and an overall entirely unique expression of the pains, pleasures, and paranoia that comes with human sexuality.
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profound and provocative
you_ruin_me6 August 2005
Despite this film receiving a lot of negative feed back from a lot of its viewers, I think the film is a truly provocative experience. Granted this film is definitely not everyones cup of tea to say the least, but it operates beyond entertainment. It is not there to be liked or disliked, it is there to be analysed and that is where the enjoyment comes into play.

The film is constructed of 3 stories; the homo, the horror and the hero. Spread out over three different time periods. If any one is thinking The Hours or 21grams think again, its not. This is a much slower paced film and for want of a better word, 'duller' than the two previously mentioned films.

Upon first viewing of the film, it appears that the three characters share no apparent link. However, each story acts as a metaphor for a wider issue, which does connect them all. I wont say what it is, thats your job! Overall poison is a very clever work of art, which belongs to the sub genres of expose and art-house. So if you enjoy those types of films and are interested in queer cinema go watch it! Finally I think Todd Haynes is a genius, a true auteur.
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as an experimental juvenilia, POISON throbs with vitality, ambition and knowing archness
lasttimeisaw16 June 2017
Queer filmmaker Todd Haynes' debut feature POISON dazzles as a multi-faceted cinematic triptych, three segments: Hero, Horror, Homo, all inspired by Jean Genet's novels (with his texts sporadically materialize on the screen as inner beacons), are intertwined altogether yet each is bestowed with a sui generis visual style that speaks volumes of Haynes' eclectic idioms.

Hero takes the form of a grainy and slipshod pseudo-documentary, interviewing sundry characters about a deadly homicide further confounded by a surreal twist, a 7-year-old boy, shoots his father dead and then wondrously flies away from the window witnessed by his mother Felicia (Meeks), various interviewees recounts the boy's aberrant deportment before the incident, some are startlingly perverse, finally, through Felicia's account, the boy's ascension smacks of something punitive and defiant in the face of family dysfunction and violent impulse, rather dissimilar in its undertone and timbre from that WTF upshot in Alejandro González Iñárritu's BIRDMAN (2014, 7.6/10).

Horror, shot in retro-monochrome and abounds with eye-catching Dutch angles, namely is a none- too-engrossing pastiche of the erstwhile B-movies and body horror, a scientist Dr. Thomas Graves (Maxwell), accidentally ingests the serum of "human sexuality" which he has successfully extracted, starts to transmogrify into a leprosy-inflicted monster, and his condition is deadly contagious, which threats lives around him, especially his admirer Dr. Nancy Olsen (Norman), who against all odds, not daunted by his physical deterioration. In comparison, this segment is less savory owing to its own unstimulating camp, where Hero ends with a subjective ascending, the upshot for a beleaguered gargoyle is nothing but plummeting.

Last but not the least, Homo is plainly a more self-reflexive treatment conjured up à la Fassbinder's QUERELLE (1982), another mainstay of queer cinema derived from Genet's text. A prisoner John Broom (Renderer), grows intimate towards the blow-in Jack Bolton (Lyons), whom he has met before during his stint in a juvenile facility of delinquency, Jack's humiliated past emerges inside John's mind, now it is his turn to exert his suppressed libido. This chapter is as homoerotic as one can possibly imagine, a maneuver Haynes would have unwillingly relinquished en route pursuing mainstream acceptance, one tantalizing sequence of Broom groping an asleep Jack is divinely graphic and atmospherically transcendent.

Credited as an experimental juvenilia, POISON throbs with vitality, ambition and knowing archness, though the end result is far from flawless, it potently anticipates many a Haynes' modus operandi, say, the segmental structure and interview-style in I'M NOT THERE. (2007, 8.0/10), his distinct prediction for the photogenic period setting and outfit in FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002, 9.2/10) and CAROL (2015, 8.9/10), not to mention his latest sortie into black-and-white mystique and paralleled storytelling in the Cannes-premiered WONDERSTRUCK (2017).

Not many can embrace perversity as plucky as Mr. Haynes has done, whether it is a tragedy can easily take place around us in real life, or a man living through his most egregious incubus, or a blatantly idealized contest of one's sexuality (motifs like wedding, saliva and scars are all defying their accepted norms), just like a child's stretching hand in the opening credit, Haynes' first directorial outing jauntily treads through many taboo subjects and in retrospect, vindicates that it will be our profound loss if his talent fails to be acknowledged and utilized in full scale.
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Strange, but fulfilling feature debut.
punishmentpark22 February 2016
Well, this is indeed a pretty weird mix of three seemingly unrelated stories, the debut feature film by Todd Haynes. I had seen nothing by him before, but I've been interested in seeing 'Safe' (1995) for a while now. And his recent film 'Carol' really seems worth a watch as well. I have 'Velvet goldmine' on DVD as well, but I'm not sure about that one, for more personal - rather inexplicable - reasons, I suppose.

Back to 'Poison'. I found the whole thing to be pretty intriguing, though I'm not sure how it should all relate (other than the obvious human state of misery). A quote from the film, a certain statement about something being a lie and the truth at the same time, struck a cord with me; the film seems to be the director's attempt to put something really personal out there, but at the same time he hopes it pertains to something essential. A bit vague, I'll admit, but I'll comfortably leave it at that: I liked it quite a bit, even if things (altogether) didn't make sense, completely.

The individual stories, about a boy killing his father, a man in prison meeting an 'old' friend and a scientist who simply makes a big mistake, somehow blended together well enough, reminding me of several other directors' films, such as Guy Maddin (haven't seen much of him - shame on me), Tom Kalin^ and John Paizs.

So... a fine little gem it is: 8 out of 10.

^ Strangely enough, Kalin made a rather cult-ish debut film a few years before Haynes did, then Haynes did a much more straightforward (but certainly not mainstream, either) follow-up drama with Julianne Moore in the lead, and then - guess what - years later Kalin did the just the same...
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An intoxicating experience of emotion.
NateManD18 July 2005
Todd Haynes became well known with his film "Poison", which was successful at the Sundance film festival. What I like about "Poison" is that is not another stereotypical gay film. It contains three separate stories, all shown out of sequence. So it's like watching three bizarre surrealist films within one movie. One story "Hero" is a mockumentary which deals with a young boy and his abusive father. After killing his dad, he mysteriously flies away. Another story deals with a disease like epidemic, which seems to be symbolic of aids. This part is filmed in a style of a campy 50's sci-fi film. The man drinks some sort of potion and is given the disease. A colleague still loves him even though he's infected. Then the last story "Homo" deals with two men in prison and their homosexual relationship. These two guys have known each other from their youth and the one has flashbacks of the torment he has faced. "Poison" is a unique experimental masterpiece of queer cinema, reminiscent of Derek Jarmon. The film went through much controversy with its NC-17 rating. But really, there's R-rated films which are much worse. "Poison" is definitely not a film for everyone, but if your looking for something strange and different you'll probably enjoy it.
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oddly mesmerizing and unique
LeSamourai29 August 1999
Make sure that you are not tired when watching this film. Although this film introduces some outstanding performances by some little known actors, the film falls short. One of the three short stories of the film is shot in black and white and is strangely reminiscient of David Lynch's masterpiece "The Elephant Man." When Dr. Graves is ordered out to the fire-escape, I was just waiting for him to shout, "I'm not an animal; I'm a human being." The prisoner story, unlike the black and white story, is full of emotion and intensity. Issues such as homosexuality, abuse, and longing for love are enmeshed in this tale. The third story is shot documentary style. An unseen interviewer questions neighbors, family, and friends about the events leading up to the shooting and death of an abusive father. This movie will intrigue you, confuse you, and bother you. It's worth a watch.
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Choose your Poison carefully
ThurstonHunger12 February 2004
This film is probably best viewed as part of a film class (and not necessarily one on Queer Cinema although Todd Haynes prefers gentlemen).

I prefer "Safe" and also "Far From Heaven" from this clearly talented director. His suave incorporation of 50's style sci-fi and 80's TV docudrama and a stagey prison play is more engaging here than the three intercut stories themselves.

The film starts with an actor going out a window, and ends with a similar scene. There is a moment in the sci-fi "Horror" substory where the lead mutters "And so it begins..." Temporally what would have followed is the scene that actually does start the film.

Despite a low budget, Haynes does employ a lot of clever camera tricks and cinematic tacks. He squeezes out some efficient acting from his mostly unknown cast. (Okay, that was John Leguizamo in for two scenes...)

If anything, I feel Haynes could have spent more money on lighting. The B&W sci-fi shots were often heavy on the B, and much of the prison footage was a darker shade of murky, at least on DVD at home.

But then one of the displayed Jean Genet quotes speaks of the necessary darkness for the seed of dream. The stories here may be genetically Genet, I am more familiar with who he was in person than in print. Again for a student of Genet, I think this would be a more satisfying expenditure of time, thought and money than it was for myself.

There's also a socio-political bent to the release and funding of this film. Rev. Donald Wildmon provided protest and thus inadvertent P.R. for "Poison." Meanwhile others cite an AIDS angle to the movie.

For me, I walked a way with a sense of sex linked with shame. A child catches his mother in infidelity, prison passion is stolen in the shadows, lasciviousness makes lepers of a community. Also while not the focus, each episode had some sex entwined with violence. Sex was portrayed as anything but erotic throughout.

Ultimately I could not make out whether Haynes was trying to decry society's reaction to sexual "deviancy" as more dangerous than said deviancy; or if he was just trying to revel in sordid shock? I doubt the latter, probably he wanted to take the challenge of presenting Genet to audiences today. Better than another modern take on Shakespeare surely.

But while Genet's writings were surely scandalous in his day, what about Haynes' audience now? I realize that there are still throngs of folks who fear thongs...much less anything as pointed as a penis.

Yes those folks are out there, I just don't know any of them...and I doubt I'll be wresting a copy of "Poison" from their hands at the local videodrome any time soon. We keep our distance, I recommend you keep your distance from this disk as well. I do think such distance and decorum can exist....along with same sex marriage.

So unless you are assigned to watch it, to study it... choose another "Poison."

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An Irreversible Biomagnetic Field
tedg12 September 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers herein.

There's an approach to art which goes beyond being unique to being flagrant; beyond being controlled to excess; beyond being interesting to obsessive.

I work harder than most to find some center of interest in a film. Most films are either art because the filmmaker made them so, or they can be turned into meta-art art by a clever viewer. But the excess noted above is designed to work against this -- the filmmaker doesn't allow you to find your own center but forces you to his, designed to be as uncomfortable as possible.

Fair enough, but then the filmmaker needs to deliver something to make it worthwhile. I couldn't find anything here. It takes more than commitment, certainly more than mere unconventionality.
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Haynes' first feature film marked him out as a major talent.
MOscarbradley6 February 2019
Todd Haynes first full-length film was a triptych of stories inspired not only by the novels of Jean Genet but also by the schlock-horror B-Movies of the fifties and sixties. Sex, primarily homosexuality, is the main theme and is presented both poetically and with a good deal of self-deprecating humor, (one tale, modeled on "The Fly", is obviously about AIDS), and prefigures much of Haynes later work; "Far from Heaven" isn't far from the surface in the presentation of the story about a boy who kills his father and literally flies away. It's certainly not commercial and was clearly aimed at a specific art-house audience but it marked a breakthrough both in Independent American Cinema and in LGBT cinema. It also marked Haynes out as a major talent and someone to watch.
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A polystylistic experiment on the queer cinema fringe.
EyeAskance14 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This ambitious art-house paragon is an amalgam of three unrelated and stylistically individual delineations. The vignettes at hand are segmented and shuffled together in sequence(an unusual approach which exerts considerable influence at first, but becomes a tad disengaging as the isochronal pace gains momentum).

Story number one is a surreal pseudo-documentary concerning a masochistic little boy mysteriously disappearing into the sky after killing his father. It's a disturbing and very absorbing chapter with immoderately vanguard aesthetic flourishes.

The second vignette is a B/W homage to McCarthy-era science fiction cinema, pitting a doctor against a sterile middle-class American community when he is fingered as "Patient Zero" in a bizarre contagion. This segment is nicely done, though the least original of the three.

The third installment is a testosterone-fueled homoerotic love tragedy which finds two men with an uncustomary childhood history reuniting within an atavistic penal institution. This is a gripping foray into the womanless world...a hyperbolic merging of daunting nightmare and celestial daydream which is visually arresting and charged with rough sexual voltage.

POISON is certainly going to be labeled a "difficult" film by the median viewership. Regardless, it's a unique and laudable effort, and despite some minor misgivings, a fairly ingenious and nimbly executed experiment.

Underrated... 8/10
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I'd rather drink a cup of poison
guyfromjerzee21 May 2005
The art-house buffs may appraise this film, but to me it's a load of gibberish. I saw Todd Haynes' first film, a short called "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story." Despite the fact that it was performed by Barbie dolls (no, I'm not joking or overstating), it's 10 times better than this trash. At least that movie had creativity.

From a technical standpoint, the film isn't bad. "Poison" is well-acted and the cinematography is pretty good, except for the prison sequences. I'm sure the dim lighting was an aesthetic decision, but the images in those sequences were barely visible. The script is an incoherent mess. The way the stories intersect is all over the map, unlike the slick way it was done in movies like "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs." Many were bothered by the film's overt depiction of homosexual themes (Haynes being gay himself). That didn't bother me. "Poison" is self-indulgent, disgusting, appalling and an overall nightmare to sit through. Whether the director was gay or straight doesn't matter. It's still a mess. I'll never understand why this movie won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
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Jean Genet for the Art-House Buffs
nycritic21 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Todd Haynes is one of those directors whom I've come across with due to his more recent works (FAR FROM HEAVEN) but with whose earlier work I was totally unfamiliar with. If anyone would have told me that POISON was part of his filmography, I wouldn't have known -- that's how obscure this movie is. At a brief 85 minutes, it tells the three separate vignettes, all of them loosely based on the writings of Jean Genet: "Hero" presents a mockumentary of a boy who shoots his father and then flies away. Of course, we later learn out why. "Horror" ventures into science-fiction territory and has a 1950s feel (down to the cheap-looking make-up, wooden acting, and bad dialogue), in which a scientist extracts a hormone that not only unleashes his sexual desires, but turns him into a monster and thus sets free a mutating virus not unlike AIDS. The third installment is the one which most closely resembles the writing of Genet: "Homo" is a gay love story complete with male rituals and lots of repression set in prison and is the only one of the three to feature actual homoerotic content -- but has one very nauseating sequence in which one character's demons come to light in a flashback sequence in a juvenile detention that involves spitting into one of the character's mouth (and John Leguizamo, as excellent as he is as an actor, portrays sheer nastiness as one of the inmates who is enjoying himself a little too much). It is the most disturbing of the three and the one I least connected with, mainly because for obvious reasons it was fetishistic and implausible as well as humiliating. It's the only one of the three to make me feel like an outsider when venturing into gay-themed stories: for some reason I find that this sort of tale, where games of extreme humiliation seem to be rampant in gay erotica. Even so, POISON might be of some interest to those interested in gay-themed cinema, but it should be approached with a caveat for anyone a little sensitive to the degrading behavior that "Homo" offers.
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Lethal combination ...
majikstl28 June 2006
Warning: Spoilers
One of the things that writer-director Todd Haynes tries to do in POISON has been done before and seldom, if ever, has it worked. The most infamous example is perhaps D.W. Griffith's intolerable INTOLERANCE, a 1916 silent film epic featuring four revolving stories, each from a different period in time, interlaced so that they keep interrupting each other. INTOLERANCE is seldom praised for its quality but more often remembered for the boldness of its effort and the critical and box office failure of its end results.

In POISON, Haynes apes Griffith's foolhardiness as he tries to tell three stories (subtitled "Hero," "Horror" and "Homo") and he tries to tell them simultaneously, despite the fact the stories have nothing in common as far as narrative, style or point. Haynes tells his tales in tiny bite-sized chunks of scenes, cutting from one to another to another in an endless rotation. The result is less like powerful film-making than it is like trying to watch TV with the scan button on the channel changer hopelessly stuck. It is an insipid gimmick trying desperately to prove itself as innovative film-making.

As such, POISON is more annoying than shocking, despite the material's obvious attempts to be controversial. Furthermore, the three stories themselves suffer, as none of them can gather momentum or maintain coherency or consistency. And certainly these stories could have used all the help they could get.

"Hero" is a story of domestic violence; told in retrospect, it is largely a series of talking-head interviews discussing the circumstances that led up to a 7-year-old boy killing his father, before jumping out a window and literally flying away. According to the boy's mother (who is the only witness, but should be the only suspect), she gave birth to an angel who came to rescue her from an abusive husband. It is told in the dour, deadpan style of a mock documentary, not unlike Woody Allen's TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, though it's not nearly as cleverly done. If the subject matter wasn't so grim, it could be assumed the film is a comedy. As is, it has a joyless goofiness to it that doesn't really make any sense. At best, the story is a weird idea that's barely been given a chance to be anything else.

"Horror" is equally grim and joyless, even as it appears to be a parody of old black-and-white horror movies. A young and idealistic scientist is studying the biological secrets of sexuality and accidentally becomes infected with a virus that turns him into some sort of sexually contagious leper. The story wants to be a parable about the AIDS epidemic, I suppose; but Haynes' attempts at creating an analogy between science fiction and medical tragedy is undercut by his self-conscious awareness of old movies. His film-making technique strives to replicate the socially conscious "B" thrillers of the 1950's, like THE FLY or THEM, but the end result comes closer to the sincere, yet ludicrous D-level films of Edward Wood, only without the clumsy campiness that make them at least funny-bad.

With "Homo," Haynes is playing closer to home and makes no obvious attempt to recreate an old movie genre, but that doesn't mean that this tale works any better. It deals with two inmates in a French prison who are reunited, having also been in juvenile detention as well. The story hints at it being a love story, but in the end it is about rape, humiliation and domination. Though POISON is considered a groundbreaking work in gay cinema, this vision of homosexuality is dark and violent. It is hard to judge the overall merits of "Homo" because, like the two other tales, it is so hacked up by incompetent editing (by Haynes himself) that it is devoid of any compelling passion.

It can't be argued that Haynes lacks a strong eye for the visual; despite the low budget, each segment of the film looks great in its own way. But there is a certain cowardice in Haynes' films. He wants to deal with serious social issues, but he buries it all in inappropriate homages/parodies of genre films that trivializes rather than reinforces his messages. Just as he did in his later hit, FAR FROM HEAVEN, which dealt with racism and homophobia, he dilutes his material by resorting to some ill-fitting, superficial, bygone cinematic style. You sense that he feels compelled to somehow justify his love of old movies by loading them down with serious intentions. It's like he is afraid to either tackle issues head-on or to admit that he is a film geek at heart.

Thus, he fails going in both directions: the serious social issues are cheapened by the movie campiness, while the fun of movie parody is chilled by pretensions melodrama. Like so many young filmmakers, Haynes relies on the safety of imitation in his film-making. Great filmmakers (like Spielberg, Woody Allen, etc.) outgrow this and find their own voice. Lesser filmmakers like Haynes (and Tarantino and De Palma and Lucas, etc.) don't even seem to try.
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Still Worthwhile Art
Sheldonshells24 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I really thought this film was going to be a particularly memorable one. It seemed to have all the workings of a possibly memorable film for me: the director impressed me with My Own Private Idaho, the title is compelling, and the title together with it x rating (in retrospect, I wonder why this film is still rated x.....or why it was rated x even then) evoked in me an excitement at being challenged and confronted by a presentation of innovative ideas and taboo subjects and images. But the film doesn't reside prominently in my memory, except for a few images. Those images are unsettling and repulsive, for instance the scientist who ingested the essence of sexuality serum face appears to drip or melt in some scenes (this probably an analogy for AIDS), and the scene where a young man's mouth is used as a bullseye target for what seems to be a spitting contest.

I don't know if director Todd Haynes was putting forth a concerted effort to make this a serious or important film or is rather just seemingly unspooling various thought threads of his views and that of society's on gayness at the time. The term "gay"(with is positive connotations in happiness and gladness) doesn't seem appropriate here, as homosexuality in the film coexists with often degraded and repugnant imagery, and is itself depicted often negatively. The film splits between three different yet still connected stories, as it moves back and forth between the three instead of presenting them in separate blocks. In so doing, the darker themes of imprisonment and confinement (the story set in prison) are juxtaposed with ideas of freedom, as when the strange (queer?) little boy ascends presumably into the heavens from the window sill (at first thought one assumes the boy jumping out the window is committing suicide). This gives the film an odd supernatural flavour and redeeming hopefulness, although upon further reflection the hope seems lost when considering that it has to be presented as supernatural (can unity and peace among and for gays only be expressed in this unrealistic way?) But on another level, the film may be an accurate reflection of the regressive attitudes and ambiguity towards homosexuality during the height of the epidemic of AIDS, so that the depictions aforementioned are expressing dark and angry emotions perhaps present in this particular gay film maker; maybe the thought that gays were sexually liberated at the beginning of the eighties but became stigmatized once again (due to a deadly disease, no less)was the cause for much frustration and anger among gay artists like Haynes. Perhaps it seemed for a while that salvation only lied in such a dreamlike solution.

At any rate, the boy ascending out the window did give this movie an interesting, unexpected turn, and did mitigate some of the darkness that pervaded most of the film (this is represented visually as well, as the prison story cinematography appears colour desaturated and the diseased scientist one is black and white). But I found it sometimes too bleak....and way too slow. Perhaps this very slow (almost excruciatingly slow) pacing was deliberate for one reason or another on the director's part, but I almost had to shake my head from nodding out a bit to keep up my involvement in the film as an attentive viewer.

An unusual story telling technique, some jarring and disturbing scenes, and just a general underlying weirdness are qualities I like, but the pacing is too slow and the message(s) seems too cynical and negative–at least for my own private subjective standards (which may or may not agree with you the reader). Then again, the film is called Poison, so that may be expected and required. I'll allot this seven stars because despite its flaws as I see them, it is nonetheless a work of film art--just not one particularly memorable for me.
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Interesting, provocative, thoughtful
primus2116 February 1999
Poison, a trilogy of interesting vignettes portraying a wide array of emotions, insecurities, societal issues. After viewing the movie once, I had to see it again to fully appreciate all the subliminal messages contained therein. Scott Renderer, gives an intense portrayal as a prisoner. Renderer is an actor who should have received more attention for his performance by producers and directors seeking actors who are not only attractive to potential audiences but honestly talented and a master of his craft. It may have been 8 years since this performance, but more of Renderer in the new Millennium would be a good thing!
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Tedious and Boring
pegasus325 May 2017
Difficult to understand why this film has been accorded such praise, except perhaps due to its being an early film explicitly addressing gay issues. 26 years later, it seems crudely made and quite tedious, with much of it impressing this viewer as a very poor attempt at recreating the atmosphere of old Hollywood Film Noir or a 50s TV melodrama. Each of the three stories seemed like caricatures with little of any compelling interest.
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Strange but fascinating
preppy-35 October 2000
Odd, disturbing film tells three tales--"Hero" is shot in documentary style and deals with a 7 year old who shoots his father and flies away--"Horror" deals with a scientist who, by mistake, drinks a "hormone" liquid which slowly turns him into a monster and infects other people--"Homo" is about a gay prisoner and his strong attraction to another prisoner. All the acting is good, all the sequences are shot in completely different styles using different film stocks and the movie is engrossing. But, it's not exactly a pleasant film. It's sickening at times (the scientist's transformation; a real sick "game" a bunch of boys enact on another) making it a real chore to watch. Still, Todd Haynes is one hell of a director. I never saw his next film "Safe" but I did see "Velvet Goldmine" which was very good also. This one is worth seeing, but you have to have a strong stomach and not be bothered by STRONG homoerotic imagery. The NC-17 rating is well-earned.
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A Fragmented Journey Of Sexual Power
loganx-213 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The first film I have ever seen that is three different genre's of film in one. Three stories that only abstractly connect in theme are weaved together, one is mockumentary about a boy who shot his father and then flew out of the window, the other is a black and white Roger Cormanesque science fiction horror film about a mad scientist who distills the sex drive and becomes an infectious leperous monster, while the other is about an obsessive abusive sexual relationship between two prison inmantes. The latter plot almost got the film banned after the complaints of religious groups, because it shows an erect penis. If you likewise are afraid or made uncomfortable by explicit sexuality you will be ruffled by this. If not you may find this fascinating, challenging, and provacotive. A one of a kind film, about the awesome and divergent power of human sexuality.
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The kind of junk that gives art-house movies a bad name
slake0912 February 2005
Poison was a total snooze fest. I had trouble even keeping awake it was so dull. The director is so obviously trying to make an art film that it jumped over the line into pretentious boredom. Not just over the line, either, but miles over it, whole degrees of longitude over it, light-years over the line into the land of pretentious boredom.

The three stories don't hang together in any way, and the frequent cutting back and forth between them wasn't made to be interesting or unusual - it was just cuts back and forth between scenes. The stories themselves may have been interesting in some other film, but here they are made incredibly dull. Inescapably dull. So dull that you begin to think of grocery shopping, trash hauling, ice melting, exciting stuff like that.

The actors are excellent in their roles, it's only too bad that their roles were so shallow and pointless. The directing is at fault here, and not just a little. Nothing spells "I'm trying to make this an art film" like frequent black and white. You might as well have put it in the opening credits. The heavy use of shadow and dark rooms to obscure the camera view - didn't they teach that in Film Making 101? Yeah, it was the chapter called "how to make your movie pretentious beyond belief".

In any case, you can like art-house films without having to watch puerile junk like this.
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Dull, dull, dulllllllllll
dfranzen705 February 2005
Todd Haynes' Poison is three movies in one. Word to the wise, though: When your movie is only 85 minutes, maybe splitting it into thirds ain't such a hot idea. What you're left with is just an anthology of unrelated short films.

"Hero" is about a strange seven-year-old boy who murders his father and then flees; "Homo" is about (surprise!) a relationship between fellow prisoners; "Horror" is about a whiz-kid scientists who somehow drinks a potion containing the human sex drive - and inexplicably turns into a murderous leper.

None of these sounds like a "normal" movie, and that's all well and good. "Hero" is shown in documentary style, trying to lend an air of authenticity to the story. "Horror" is told in fifties' sci-fi style, with the usual theme of "science run amuck." Each is very well filmed; with "Homo," a real lurid atmosphere is created. You can almost feel the actors breathing on you.

That's about it as far as positives go. "Horror" might have worked if it had been played as a parody of those old films. Instead, it took itself completely seriously; instead of mocking, it was mockable. And to tell the truth, I wasn't the least bit interested in the characters of either of the three stories.

Some may look at this as fine independent film-making. All I see is a tortured, inescapably dull undertaking.
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MikeK-72 June 1999
I rented this movie because I heard it was extremely provocative and surreal, but it actually turned out to be pretty boring. The homosexuality in the prison story was totally irresponsibly portrayed. The only good segment in the movie was the kid who murdered his father.
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So screwed up it makes doom generation look like On Golden Pond
FilmBoy9995 February 2000
I was excited about seeing this because I loved Safe and Velvet Goldmine, but this was just a bizarre bizarre piece of filmmaking. There are I suppose points to be made about the unreasonable fear of the AIDS virus which emerge in the story about the man who drinks the sex drive and becomes a leper, but they weren't so amazingly poignant. Haynes denies that this sequence connects with AIDS of course, so who knows. The story that was the most interesting was the mockumentary about the boy who kills his father, but the structure of the film as three stories proceeding in succession prevents you from really getting interested or emotionally involved in the movie. I didn't know what was so offensive about the prison scene, I just found it boring, as well as the rest of the film.
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