Poison was the first feature for Todd Haynes, following up on the super-low-budget home-video aesthetics of his infamous short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In Poison, Haynes employs a multitude of cinematic styles and reference points in order to tell three thematically related but narratively distinct tales of abuse, disease, sexuality, and ostracization. The film continuously cuts between the three stories rather than keeping them separate, each of them steadily building towards an inevitably violent climax, and Haynes heightens the film's patchwork feel by shooting each sequence in a different style. In "Hero," the young boy Richie Beacon shoots his father and then, according to his shell-shocked mother, flies out the window, never to be seen again. Haynes presents this story in the form of an after-the-fact objective documentary, an outgrowth of the non-Barbie portions of Superstar, in which those who knew Richie are interviewed. As its title would suggest, "Horror" draws liberally from the genres of 40s and 50s monster movies and sci-fi mad scientist tales, to tell the story of Dr. Tom Graves (Larry Maxwell), a scientist whose isolation of the human sex drive into serum form accidentally infects him with a highly infectious plague. Finally, the bluntly titled "Homo," adapted from the work of the writer Jean Genet who also provided more diffuse inspiration for the other two tales features a moodily shot story of sexuality and violence between prison inmates.
The film draws its strength from the way that Haynes sets up three seemingly different stories and then slowly, inexorably begins pointing out the connections between them. As diverse as these stories are in terms of genre, style, characters, and narrative, they each deal with the ways in which sexual differences and sexual discovery are linked to trauma and social stigma. Each story explores what seems to be a primal theme for Haynes: the individual's discovery, often in the context of a terrifying childhood, that society's price for defying conformity is very great indeed. This theme is perhaps most present in young Richie Beacon, who barely appears within the film (only a few brief, silent shots in montage) but who nevertheless emerges as a character through the testimonies of his mother (Edith Meeks), neighbors, and classmates, who describe the boy's life before his violent act and subsequent disappearance. Richie, it slowly becomes apparent, was a bright but tormented boy, frequently beaten by both his parents and the kids at school, both for no good reason and, it seems, because he masochistically taunted and goaded his peers into assaulting him. At one point, a neighbor recounts how Richie, at six years old, ran naked onto her lawn, went to the bathroom right in front of her, and then ran away again "like an animal," she says, with visceral disgust. As it turns out, Richie's anger and acting out seem to well from his developing sexual feelings. There are more than a few hints that Richie may be gay, or at least sexually "different," and that to some extent his behavior is a result of extreme confusion, exacerbated by the increasing violence of the fights between his parents.
Haynes' depiction of the family, like his depictions of "normal" bourgeoisie existence in general (see the withering satire of conformity in Safe), puts the emphasis on the extreme pressures generated in those who fail to live up to the standards of normality set by society. In this light, Richie's silent but obviously prodigious act of resistance is a fantasy of escape; indeed, it is a fantasy that apparently had its origins in one of Richie's own stories, as one of his teachers tells us. Richie has lived a dream for those who are ostracized and cast out: to kill their primary tormentor, become the "hero" of the segment's title, and vanish forever in a glorious escape. Richie's flight into the sky, memorably visualized in the final frames of the film as the camera pans upwards into a white-hot sky, is an escape from middle American conformity and enforced normality. The high cost of such escapes is felt more forcefully in the "Horror" segment, a rather obvious metaphor for the AIDS epidemic and the shame of being gay in an era when it had become practically a synonym for deadly contagion.
In the "Horror" segment, Haynes draws on a diverse blend of cinematic reference points, from the B-grade (monster movies and film noir) to the exemplary (the deep-focus compositions and eccentric camera angles of Orson Welles). The tragedy of Dr. Graves is his transformation into a leprous monstrosity at exactly the moment of his greatest triumph. He had just isolated the human sex drive in the form of a liquid, the result of long research, and moreover had just been introduced to the perky, lovely doctor Nancy (Susan Norman), a perpetually smiling 1950s-era all-American gal who greatly admires his research and is eager to work with him. Instead, as Graves' face gradually melts away, leaving behind trails of grisly warts and scarring, he goes on the prowl, infecting women in bars with his leprous kisses. Haynes borrows the structure of the typical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and all its cinematic variations, to provide the perfect metaphorical construct: innocent, loving sexuality transformed into something ugly, diseased, and deadly. It's a potent metaphor, and Graves is a complicated figure, by turns sympathetic, pathetic, and frightening.
Graves' steadily escalating fury at the unfairness of his predicament only builds after he finally infects Nancy with his disease. One of the film's most poignant character arcs is found in the way Graves at first resists and rebuffs Nancy's frequent declarations of love, not wishing to harm her. But when he finally accepts her kiss, believing that she understands the consequences, she is horrified and outraged to find that he is contagious and has doomed her. Graves' fall is completed with a frantic dash from the police, hinted at in the film's opening and then developed to its tragic end later in the film. In a sequence that visually references Welles, Graves ransacks his apartment, destroying his chemical equipment, with Haynes cutting between low-angle closeups of the enraged scientist and reaction shots of the beakers and glassware shattering against the wall. As Graves deteriorates further, his face crusting over with thick scales, becoming slimy and lizard-like, he delivers an impassioned speech to the crowds harassing him crowds who, in true monster movie tradition, might as well have pitchforks. The implicit comparison links modern-day homophobia and anti-gay violence to the persecution of the inevitably tragic monster from a classic Universal thriller, many of which (Frankenstein, The Creature From the Black Lagoon) cast their central freaks as misunderstood romantics who only desired emotional connection and were cruelly punished for it.
The third strand of the film is represented by the "Homo" story, which is the film's most literal exploration of gay themes and also, to some extent, the spark that illuminates the gay themes running through the other two stories. The story itself is drawn from a novel by the French writer Jean Genet, and is also clearly inspired by Genet's only film, the intensely homoerotic short Un chant d'amour, also set in a prison. This section of the film follows the habitual thief John Broom (Scott Renderer), an orphan who has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager. He develops a strong affection for his fellow inmate Jack Bolton (James Lyons), who he remembers as a willowy and taciturn kid who was always picked on in reform school, and who has grown into a tough, domineering figure. This segment is further subdivided between Broom's memories of his reform school youth, and the present-day sequences set in the prison where Broom and Bolton meet again as adults. The flashbacks are bright, airy, and heavily stylized, recalling the lurid sexual and visual excesses of late Fellini or Pasolini, while the present-day scenes are dark, moody, and shadowy, heavily favoring deep blues with little trace of other colors.
Nevertheless, Broom's teenage memories do not represent the homoerotic idyll that they would seem to be at first. In fact, he remembers watching, as an unseen voyeur lurking on the fringes, scene after scene of humiliation, torture, and sexual taunting, most of it directed at the young Bolton. The bright, brilliant style of these scenes rubs uneasily against the often nauseating content, and it all culminates in a horrifying sequence where Bolton is forced to stand against a wall with his mouth open while the other boys, standing some distance away, spit on him and try to land the gobs of mucus and saliva in his mouth. Haynes stretches this scene out to a discomfiting length, ratcheting up the queasy disgust generated by Bolton's humiliation, as the spit lands all over his face and clothes, gathering in splotches and running all over him, with Haynes occasionally cutting away to the gleeful crowd of boys jumping up and down or the watchful, silent Broom.
Whereas the other two segments of Poison deal metaphorically with the ostracization and persecution of gays and other societal outcasts by the forces of the majority, "Homo" presents perhaps the film's ugliest and most horrifying vision: the self-hatred, self-flagellation, and abuse that exists within even these outcast communities. Haynes takes the romantic, poetic prison vision of Genet's Un chant d'amour and twists it into something violent, hateful, and just as hierarchical and constrained as the mainstream society it supposedly counters. As a result, the hint of deeper emotions that briefly seem imminent between the two convicts soon develop into something much darker, finally exploding into violence and tragedy. Despite the touches of gleeful Hollywood pastiche in the "Horror" section, Poison is a remarkably bleak film, in which the forces of oppression are virtually omnipresent, and the possibilities seem slim for forging a genuine, satisfying sexual multiplicity outside of the narrowly conceived boundaries of "normality." It is, obviously, a howl of rage and protest from Haynes, whose voice seems equally present in the murderous Richie who is never able to express himself directly, in Graves who delivers his entreaty against shame to an uncomprehending audience, and in Broom whose heartfelt declarations of love are met with rejection and scorn. It's only with the film's final shot, Richie's ecstatic and angelic flight from the corporeal world, that Haynes presents something like a vision of hope within the film. Each of the film's three sections deal with the conflicting and complex emotions involved with being different in modern America, and combined they form a compelling patchwork meditation on shame, desire, hidden emotions, and persecution.