Though Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, is credited with starting the Sundance boom, there was still no studio apparatus in place for independent—or pseudo-independent—movies to collect millions in arthouse box-office when Todd Haynes’ Poison won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 1991. Yet the film passed the $1 million threshold anyway, thanks in part to upstart distributor Zeitgeist Films, which harnessed the potential liabilities of an NC-17 rating and a Christian Coalition-fueled controversy into assets. Twenty years later, the film’s significance cannot be understated: As a benchmark for true indies (and Zeitgeist, in particular, which is still in the game), as a breakthrough for queer cinema, and as the beginning of a great collaboration between Haynes and producer Christine Vachon, who, together and separately, went on to enormously accomplished careers. But perhaps most of all, the film was a genuine underground hit, a victory for the outsiders it championed.
Prior to making Poison, Haynes produced the notorious, brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a profile of the troubled singer done entirely with Barbie dolls. Buried in rights issues, it only surfaced through murky, ninth-generation video copies. Its conceptual boldness—a Haynes hallmark—carried over to Poison, which intercuts three stories based on Jean Genet novels. Loosely assembled around the theme of transgression, the segments take radically different forms: “Hero,” done in the style of a tabloid documentary, explores the strange case of a picked-on boy who killed his father and allegedly disappeared by flying out a bedroom window; “Homo,” an alternately lush and hard-boiled prison story, follows a relationship between gay inmates that shifts between love and subjugation; and “Horror,” an AIDS allegory shot like a black-and-white ’50s-era sci-fi melodrama, concerns a scientist who captures the essence of the human sex drive and accidentally ingests it, turning him into a leper.
Poison’s three stories aren’t so firmly integrated as to negate their individual merits: “Homo” and “Horror” are much stronger than “Hero,” perhaps because they have more evident passion behind them, with “Homo” engaged in the tangled psychology of men who are prisoners in more ways than one, and “Horror” turning into a full-on camp freakout, with hilariously square ’50s dialogue. Yet Haynes still wrangles all three into a syncopation that grows more fevered in the third act, coalescing into a statement on the AIDS epidemic (without ever being explicit), homophobia, and the plight of “deviants” in general. Today, it’s both a time capsule for a specific moment in gay and indie filmmaking culture, and every bit the provocation it always was.
Key features: A 2010 Q&A session with Haynes, Vachon, and executive producer James Schamus at a revival screening at Sundance; an old 1999 audio commentary by Haynes, Vachon, and star/editor James Lyons; behind-the-scenes Polaroids by future director Kelly Reichardt; Ira Sachs’ 2010 short film “Last Address”; and various Haynes poster concepts highlight a generous slate of supplements.