Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Man in Alley and Woman in Alley (Joe Dietl and Melissa Brown). Right: Young Jack Bolton (Andrew Harpending).

IN HONOR OF THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), Zeitgeist Films has released a new DVD edition, using as its source the original 35-mm internegative. The digitized film looks and sounds just fine on my home screen, although there’s no substitute for seeing it in a theater, with an entire audience suddenly still as the strands of the triple narrative twist together in the assault and transcendence of the final minutes. Poison is an outrageous work born of outrage—over the AIDS crisis and the demonization of the dying and the dead by a homophobic society. Haynes has often remarked that he would not have been able to make Poison today. While that may be true—certainly the fury that drives it is veiled in his subsequent films—what’s more important is that Poison is just as powerful and necessary a work as it was in 1991. To exploit its most notorious image, the film is a gob of spittle in the face of what today passes for adversarial art and politics. As I watched it, I wondered when someone would make a movie about the current political, economic, and cultural assault on women’s autonomy or about the accelerating destruction of the environment that is as passionate, cogent, visceral, and aesthetically sophisticated as Poison.

Titled respectively “Hero,” Horror,” and “Homo,” the three narratives comprising Poison are each couched in a different style. “Hero” uses the conventions of 1980s tabloid TV to tell the story of seven-year-old Richie, who kills his father to save his mom and then, according to her account of the event, flies out the bedroom window and disappears into the blue heavens. The family’s suburban neighbors agree that there was always something not quite right about Richie. “Horror,” which is shot in black-and-white and edited like a ’50s monster B-movie, is the most pointed of the three sections in its AIDS metaphor. A scientist bottles the sex drive, drinks the potion by accident, and is transformed into an oozing, crud-covered wreck that fearmongering newspapers label the Leper Sex Killer after he infects the women who come on to him. “Homo” is a prison love story based on the ’40s writings of Jean Genet, particularly The Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers, and The Thief’s Journal. A mixture of brutish melodrama and lyrical S&M fantasies, “Homo” is the only section devoted to men desiring men and thus became the story with which Poison is identified.

In his Director’s Statement (printed in the DVD liner notes along with J. Hoberman’s 1991 Village Voice review and some fascinating production information), Haynes explains that on learning in 1986 of Genet’s death, he wondered what the writer, in his last years, might have thought about the AIDS crisis. He conceived of Poison as taking the side of the “deviant”—just as Genet did in his life and work. “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness,” wrote Genet. Haynes uses the quote as an epigram. But even before we read it, we have understood that Poison is both a dream and a call to action.

Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, excerpt from “Homo” segment.

“Homo” reflects Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’amour (A Song of Love, 1950), with its fetid stone dungeons and pastoral fantasies of freedom. Unlike the convicts in Genet’s film, who lived in solitary confinement, Poison’s prisoners mingle freely in dark winding corridors and stairways. There, Broom (Scott Renderer) encounters Bolton (James Lyons, who also coedited the film with Haynes), the episode’s tall, dark, lush-lipped object of desire. Broom remembers Bolton as the victim of a reform school hazing. Half-hidden behind wildflowers growing between rocks that form a grotto-like enclosure, the young Broom watched as a gang of teenagers, dressed in gardening clothes as if they were refugees from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, pry open Bolton’s mouth and use it as the target for a long-range spitting competition. As the humiliated Bolton sinks to his knees, he casts his eyes heavenward to see a storm of rose petals falling from a cloud-feathered sky. Poison’s signature set piece was appropriately shot on a soundstage, the mix of artifice and visceral reality reflecting the construction of the voyeur’s fantasy. Broom has nursed this erotic image of submission and transcendence for decades. His rape of the adult Bolton, after a long, yearning mutual seduction, is more straightforward and physically brutal.

Despite the acting, which is notably wooden throughout, the jittery camera work (by Maryse Alberti and Barry Ellsworth), the evocative score by James Bennett, and the ingeniously fluid editing combine to make the experience of the film at once poignant and harrowing. The three sections are woven together through rhyming images and sounds and shared words and verbal metaphors. Awash in every kind of bodily fluid, Poison is also an extremely tactile film. Close-ups of hands abound—grasping, gripping, caressing, exploring. The tactility is echoed in the filmmaking—handmade out of economic necessity.

While Broom is the Genet figure, Richie is the alter ego of the filmmaker as a young boy. The titular “Hero” is barely present on the screen, but his point of view defines both the title sequence and the enigmatic conclusion of the entire film. Throughout the former, we see Richie’s hand as it investigates the personal objects in his parents’ darkened bedroom, caressing his mother’s toilette articles, jewelry, lingerie, digging into forbidden dresser drawers until he finds the deadly object for which he is searching—later clearly revealed as his father’s gun. At the end of the film, as Richie’s mother describes how her son saved her and then flew out the window, we see, through what could only be Richie’s eyes as he hovers just above the house, his mother’s face as she leans over the ledge searching for him in the infinite blue sky into which he ascends. The final image of Poison is the cloudless, unbroken blue ether; the final words, spoken by his mother in a voice trembling with pride and wonder, are “My little boy.”

Todd Haynes, Poison, 1991, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Jack Bolton (James Lyons).

Indeed, what had Haynes wrought? Poison won best feature at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and opened some two months later at the Angelika Film Center in New York where it broke house box-office records. Its success owed a little something to the free publicity it received when it was attacked by Reverend Donald Wildmon, then chairman of the ultra-right wing American Family Association, and denounced on the floor of the US Senate by Jesse Helms as an example of the kind of “homosexual pornography” that the National Endowment for the Arts was using taxpayer money to fund. Clips from Poison showed up on network news shows. Haynes went one-on-one in televised debates with Dick Armey, former House majority leader and current “godfather” of the Tea Party movement, and with the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed. It was a heady moment: Poison’s director; its producer, Christine Vachon; its distributor, Zeitgeist Films, which released both the 1999 DVD and this restored twentieth-anniversary edition; and its publicist, Jeff Hill, who understood how to turn free negative attention into box-office gold, not only won their indie film cred with Poison, but they also carried—for a brief moment—the American independent film movement into outlaw, queer territories and twisty definitions of “positive” role models.

In a work between Poison and his next feature, Safe (1995), Haynes elaborated the character of Richie into a portrait of the queer artist at an impressionable age. Dottie Gets Spanked (1994) is a thirty-minute, made-for-television narrative about a young boy obsessed with a female sitcom star and with spankings—given and received. If Poison’s literary source is Genet, Dottie explicitly references Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten.” (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish figures in both movies.) Dottie, which is currently available through Zeitgeist on DVD and on Amazon Digital’s pay-for-view, would have been a great extra on the new Poison DVD. Which is not to make less of the DVD’s inclusion of Ira Sachs’s restrained but nevertheless heartbreaking short film Last Address (2009), a series of moving-picture images of the exteriors of buildings where artists who died of AIDS lived in the final years, months, or weeks of their lives. Among those artists is Lyons, whose HIV-positive status, in part, personalized Poison’s rage. Lyons continued to edit all of Haynes’s films through Far from Heaven (2002). He died in 2007, at age forty-six. Although Poison’s credits include many now illustrious names, Lyons’s creative contribution cannot be overestimated.

The twentieth-anniversary edition of Poison is now available from Zeitgeist Films.