A classic tale of poisoning on both stage and screen, Arsenic and Old Lace stars Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a writer who, upon getting married to his old childhood neighbor on Halloween day, visits his elderly aunts Abby and Martha and their cuckoo brother, Teddy, who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt (often running up the stairs and yelling “Charge!” like it was San Juan Hill). The old ladies have developed the, as Mortimer describes it, “very bad habit” of ending the presumed suffering of lonely old bachelors by serving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide” — their bodies are buried in the basement by Teddy, who, as far as he’s concerned, is digging the Panama Canal and burying yellow fever victims. To make matters worse, Mortimer’s psycho brother, Jonathan, shows up with his plastic surgeon pal, Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre, stealing the show as only Peter Lorre can), looking for a place to hide from the police and stash the body of Jonathan’s latest victim. Frank Capra’s direction of this macabre comedy could’ve used a little more restraint, but the first-rate ensemble (many of whom appeared in the original Broadway production) keeps things fast, sharp and funny — Grant is an especially good sport as he allows every single cast member to completely upstage him at every turn.
Baz Luhrmann‘s 1996 take on Shakespeare’s tale of young love/death will always have the distinction of making the Bard MTV-cool, but Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation will probably always be considered the cinematic “classic” version. The production is sumptuous, with Zeffirelli’s assured hand keeping everything tense, feverish and, yes, extremely romantic; Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are both passionate and sexy as the star-crossed lovers, doomed from the start by being on opposite sides of two warring families. There are two bits of poisoning here: Juliet takes some that makes it look like she’s dead, and Romeo fatally poisons himself when he thinks she actually is dead (“O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”). You know, if Tybalt hadn’t picked that fight with Romeo and killed Mercutio, none of this would’ve happened… or maybe a little bit further back, if Romeo had heeded his cousin Benvolio’s advice, “Give liberty unto thine eyes; examine other beauties,” none of this would’ve happened, or maybe… No, no matter what, these two were meant to die, and die young.
Robert Altman’s old-school whodunnit follows a group of wealthy Brits (and one American) and their servants as they gather at an English country house for a weekend of shooting wild animals and uncensored gossip. A rather inconvenient post-dinner party murder prompts an elaborate investigation that uncovers all sorts of juicy secrets and conspiracies, mostly seen from the point of view of the working-class servants, who of course can’t understand all these silly rich people and their weirdo neuroses. Gosford Park is a bit more structured than Altman’s other ensemble films (you can’t really ad-lib and improvise a murder mystery if you want it to make sense and actually have some sort of resolution), but it still manages to feel like another of the director’s acting parties where the guests are allowed to roam free and do as they please, making for perhaps the most easy-going (and pretty much suspense-less) detective story ever put to film. It sure is entertaining, though, and it’s a pleasure to watch the cast — including Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins and many others — work (and play).
Todd Haynes’ first feature takes the term “poison” a bit more metaphorically and stands as one of the defining films of the New Queer Cinema, a term coined by writer B. Ruby Rich in Sight and Sound magazine to describe the prominent movement of gay-themed independent filmmaking in the early ’90s. Haynes explores the concept (and practice) of maverick sexuality over three narratives and three very different styles: In “Hero,” a seven-year-old boy’s murdering of his father is examined as a kind of cheesy pop documentary (reminiscent of Haynes’ earlier Barbie doll short, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story); in “Horror,” a black-and-white sci-fi B-movie, a mad scientist drinks the elixir of human sexuality itself and goes on a murderous rampage; and in “Homo,” shot in dim light in a minimalist setting except for the flashbacks, two prisoners find they knew each other years before in a juvenile institution and become troubled soulmates. In many ways, Poison is the pre-cursor to Haynes’ 2007 multi-stylistic and genre-twisting approach to the life story of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There — it also went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, establishing the writer-director as a major talent in the new “transgressive” generation of filmmakers.
“What Ivy wants, Ivy gets.” It’s considered today to be (or at least remembered as) a sleazy B-movie (which it most definitely is) but, believe it or not, Poison Ivy was actually nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ’92 and co-star Sara Gilbert was nominated for Best Supporting Female at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards. Who cares, though? More than anything else, Poison Ivy was the movie that showed us that little Gertie from E.T. was all grown up — you couldn’t rent a VHS copy of this movie from any video store where the tape wasn’t worn and ragged from multiple rewinds and re-viewings of the now-infamous sex scene where a rain-soaked Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt (!) go at it on the hood of a car. Barrymore plays a manipulative and crazy hot “free spirit” who befriends a reclusive student at a private school (Gilbert); she soon schemes and seduces her way into the life of her wealthy family, becoming quite the homewrecker when she awakens long-dormant desires in dear old Dad (Skerritt), who hasn’t been laid in a while ’cause Mom (Diane Ladd) is a sickly drag. Yeah, it’s pulp trash (big time), but it’s done really, really well, with Drew obviously relishing leaving her cute child-actor days behind her. Followed by a bunch of sequels that gave us even more hot sex scenes (these featuring Alyssa Milano and Jamie Pressly), but none of them top this one — in any department. And yeah, look fast for Leonardo DiCaprio.