Exploring gay life’s dark underbelly: The landmark film that had homophobes clutching their pearls

Scene From Poison
Photo: Screenshot, Poison Trailer

Todd Haynes has long been one of the great American filmmakers, delivering lush melodrama in Far From Heaven, an experimental biopic of Bob Dylan in I’m Not Here, and an all-time lesbian classic in Carol. But before these films, Haynes broke out as a major voice in the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s. His feature debut, Poison, inspired by the works of gay writer Jean Genet, established Haynes as a filmmaker to watch, and a fierce advocate for queer stories on screen. 

Haynes made Poison for $250,000 – $25,000 of which came from a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to cover post-production expenses. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, where it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize. Unsurprisingly, word of a film with gay themes and sex receiving government funding was bound to whip up controversy.

In the words of Rev. Donald Wildmon, the former head of the right-wing, Mississippi-based American Family Association, Poison contains “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” Other conservatives like then-Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina also complained about the grant. Commentators against public arts funding called the film pornography, and a Washington Post op-ed referred to Haynes as “the Fellini of fellatio,” a particularly absurd statement given that there isn’t any visible oral sex in Poison. The film does have sex, sure, but to call it pornographic is patently absurd.

The great irony is that the controversy practically proves why Poison is worthwhile. Hayne’s feature debut (following up his brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) is a harrowing treatise on shame and how the unknown – especially homosexuality – is treated in society. 

It’s almost like Haynes saw the backlash coming. The film opens with the quote, “The whole world is dying of a panicky fright.” This establishes not only the unnerving atmosphere of Poison but as critic Michael Koresky notes, “might as well be predicting the puritanical response to the film that erupted from conservative quarters.”

The film is a collection of three very different stories. In “Hero,” documentary-style footage tries to piece together what happened to young Richie, who killed his father and then flew out the window, never to be seen again. In “Homo,” prisoner John Broom is reunited with an old flame that he first met at a youth detention center. “Horror,” shot in black-and-white and reminiscent of a grimy B movie, follows Dr. Graves, a scientist who has created a sexuality elixir, but when he accidentally drinks it, he becomes badly deformed and ostracized from society. 

While two of these three stories may not sound queer on the surface, all three segments (which are woven together throughout the film) are vital metaphors for the queer experience – none of which, frankly, have lost their relevancy.

While Richie’s sexuality is never confirmed, but what is particularly poignant about “Hero” is how the documentary is all about what other people think of Richie and their experiences of him – nothing from Richie himself. On the surface, this makes perfect sense: Richie has allegedly flown away, and there’s been no trace of him since he shot his father. But it speaks to something deeper – how marginalized people, and particularly queer people, rarely get to tell their own stories, or even have a voice of our own. Instead, our lives are explored in relation to how others see us and speak about us. And while we are getting more stories now that foreground the queer experience, more often than not we remain props in other people’s worlds, functioning as little more than the gay best friend or a catty one-liner.

While “Homo” is the most obviously gay content in the film, focusing on a prison romance, it’s “Horror” that provides the most interesting parallel. Its story of Dr. Graves, who becomes an infectious monster who spreads his disease to others and is labeled a murderer, provides a clear link to how people with AIDS were treated during the crisis (Poison was made in the heat of said crisis).

Once a successful scientist, Graves’ life has been turned upside down after swallowing the elixir of human sexuality. He’s looked at with disgust wherever he goes, with grotesque sores covering his face – Haynes exacerbates this by having his boils sweat into his food while at a restaurant, drawing countless stares of horror. Even worse, those he gets close to are infected too. In a heartrending moment, Graves looks into a mirror and imagines the life he once had – happy, free, and without the illness that has ruined him.

Pushed to the brink, Graves escapes back to his apartment, chased by dozens of furious people keen to outcast him from society. At the end of his rope, he goes to his balcony, and speaks furiously to the onlookers below: “You think I’m scum! You think I’m dirt, don’t you? Well, I’ll tell you something. Everyone of you down there is exactly the same. You’ll never know what pride is. Pride is the only thing that makes you stand up to misery. And not this kind of misery [Graves gestures towards his face], but the kind this whole stinking world is made of.” And then, Graves jumps from his balcony to end his life. 

It’s an astonishing, fiery speech that functions as the film’s thesis. In all three stories, subjects feel overwhelming shame and disgust towards what’s happened to them, what they’ve become, or how they feel. Here, Graves actively defies the way he’s been treated, embracing who he is with pride in his final moment. It’s a heartbreaking moment; despite Graves accepting what’s happened to him, he knows that there is no going back to the life he once lived and that death is his only escape. 

Even the fact that “Horror” is shot and framed like a B movie symbolizes the relegation of queer people to something lesser. Such a story could hardly be deemed appropriate for the mainstream, and just as people with AIDS were ignored by large media institutions and people in positions of power, so too does Haynes subjugate his own AIDS parable into a black-and-white B movie. 

In every moment, Poison is intrinsically queer cinema. Whether explicitly queer or not, this is a film deeply invested in the queer experience, exploring the dark underbelly of a homosexual existence, made in an era where being gay was, to put it lightly, deeply taboo. Fears of AIDS ran rampant in America and abroad, and fervent misinformation and lack of funding made it an extraordinarily challenging time to be queer. 

But through all of the darkness – Graves’s impassioned speech offers a figurative light at the end of a brutally dark tunnel. The message of his speech, and Poison as a whole, is thus: Even when the world is against you, there is pride and beauty in homosexuality. It’s a message that we seem to need now as much as it was needed in 1991.

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