By the time of the 1991 release of Poison, gay themes, though present, weren’t exactly expected in genre cinema. Within the confines of the horror genre, themes of lesbianism showed up (usually eroticized or rendered evil) in Hammer films like Twins of Evil (1971) or The Vampire Lovers (1970) or other sexually explicit grindhouse staples like Daughters of Darkness (1970). Male homosexuality tended to be even harder to see, unless portrayed explicitly – Curt McDowell’s hardcore opus Thundercrack!(1975) – or for laughs – Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). But Todd Haynes’ Poison is the first gay themed horror film to not patronize or sensationalize its material – which is saying a lot considering that it earned itself an NC-17 rating.
Releasing in between the tumultuous studio debacles of Cruising (1985) and Basic Instinct (1992), Poison found its footing by taking well-worn genre tropes – made easier by its anthology framework – and transgressing them. The stories are all inspired by novels by Jean Genet and here, in Haynes’ cinema, involve mad scientists, creatures, murder and aberrant sexuality. But the villains in these stories – at least in their incarnations within Poison – aren’t the gays, they’re everything else: parents, prison, the body and anything else representing authority. In a sense, it’s the anti-Cruising.
The most explicitly gay portion of Haynes’ film takes place in a prison – a location of ultimate masculinity of genre cinema wherein the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality blur, transgress or are otherwise circumvented for the purposes of wanted and unwanted trysts. In the prison centered section of Poison, Haynes’ triptych finds its most tender yet shocking moments featuring the scarred flesh of inmates (including a scene that may or may not intentionally be a riff on a famous moment of Jaws), grappled cocks and sodomy. But the prison scenes – beyond delivering a staple locale in popular culture for same sex copulation – also reinforce the driving theme present in Poison – that of the body, its various manifestations and mutations and what it means to be an outcast in (then) contemporary America.
The two other segments of Poison – though not as explicitly sexual in nature of the aforementioned piece – tend to be the most disturbing and divisive. In one chapter – shot in a murky black and white – we witness the trials and tribulations of a leper, a man cursed with oozing pustules on his face, that not only has to deal with his transformation internally but in public life as well. We witness him walk down the street, only to be spat on by young girls, as he attempts to hide his increasingly monstrous visage behind oversized sunglasses. The final piece of Haynes’ film – presented as a faux documentary – chronicles the suburban murder of a father by a boy who grew wings and flew away following the shooting. The particulars of the child – and his abilities – are never fully divulged but, sticking with the overbearing theme of the body, we do learn of an “infectious discharge” which is “genitally secreted,” not all that far from the idea of an STD.
Serving as Haynes’ debut feature, Poison would set the stage for the rest of Haynes’ lauded career – with the similarly genre suited, though art-house friendly Safe shortly following – but would also serve as a jumping off point for queer horror cinema as well. Political, porno provocateur Bruce LaBruce would make a duo of sexually explicit zombie films in the form of Otto: or Up With Dead People (2008) and L.A. Zombie (2010), the slasher genre would see its first explicitly homosexual flick thanks to Hellbent (2004) and a burgeoning DTV market would soon emerge with the likes of Vampire Boys (2010), House of Usher (2008) and the 1313 series (various) all of which are marketed as featuring gay characters.
With Poison, Todd Haynes managed to incorporate themes of homosexuality into a genre that had long struggled with anything but heteronormativity. It refuses to pander to the viewer yet never seeks to assault them either, letting everything that is introduced and transgressed be presented as matter of factly as possible to those watching. It never plays it safe (sorry!) but it also never has to. This wasn’t just a prominent film in New Queer Cinema, it also cemented New Queer GENRE Cinema as being a viable commodity too.