Controversial Blus: Poison... Is It Supposed To Look Like This Now?

For some reason, every time I get a little distance from Todd Haynes' Poison, my loyalty wanders.  After not having watched this for a few years, I find myself telling people, it's okay... not as good as his later, more polished works.  But having just sat down with it again via Kino's new blu-ray, I remember: no, this is one of his very best movies.  I love it.  Don't let me forget this the next time I'm pontificating, "do I really need this in my collection?"
Poison is a sort of anthology, constantly inter-cutting between three distinctly different stories: Horror, Hero and Homo.  Horror is shot in the style of a campy 50s schlocker about a mad scientist who distills man's sex drive into a liquid and then accidentally drinks it, becoming the "Leper Sex Killer."  Can the love of his beautiful young assistant save his humanity?  Hero is a mockumentary in the style of a cheap television expose interviewing friends and family young, but aggressively sexual, boy who shot his father and then allegedly flew away into the sky.  And Homo is the story of two young gay schoolmates who reunite in passion, based on the writings of Jean Genet.
They have entirely different casts (look for John Leguizamo acting in Homo under the alias "Damien Garcia") and completely distinct visual styles.  Superficially, none of the stories connect except through thematic transitions (a mother referring to her son and his friend playing strange games in Hero cuts to two men holding hands in prison in Homo).  But they all have a powerful, autobiographical (not in factual details, but inner feelings) of young men feeling like outsiders and being punished by society for their sexualities - they all describe one, very relatable author.  For a rough, low budget feature debut, this film masters its three styles expertly, with Horror feeling very authentic and Homo looking surprisingly polished, even elegant.  The music is perfect and the performances are first class, belying their 16mm trappings.
Fox Lorber first released Poison on DVD in 1999.  It was originally released cut on VHS, but thankfully all subsequent releases have been the uncut/ NC-17 edit.  In 2011, Zeitgeist Video reissued it as a widescreen special 20th Anniversary Edition DVD.  It always struck me that it had been remastered and given new special features for an intended blu-ray, but they cheaped out at the last minute.  Well, never mind.  Because this week, in time for its 30th anniversary, Kino has finally given us Poison in HD with their brand new blu-ray release.  But I have a question.
1999 Zeitgeist DVD top; 2011 Fox Lorber DVD mid; 2021 Kino BD bottom.
So I've made three sets of screenshots this time, since we have three unique visual styles in the film.  The color correction starting with the 20th Anniversary is a huge boon, and the BD, which seems to just be slapping that same transfer onto an HD disc, is satisfyingly sharper, so you feel like you've made a worthwhile upgrade.  The aspect ratio shifts from the original disc's 1.32:1 to 1.78:1 for the subsequent editions, matting the tops and bottoms, but revealing more along the sides.  Except for, wait a minute.  What is going on with the Hero section?  It looks wildly distorted.  Let's get another look at that.
1999 Zeitgeist DVD left; 2021 Kino BD right.
Whoa, golly!  Where Horror and Homo found extra info along the sides, Hero manages to lose some, along with all the picture it still crops off the bottom.  And it does this just so it can be stretched way out?  Why is it like this?  Looking at the back of the 20th Anniversary DVD, it describes its transfer as "enhanced for widescreen viewing."  Somebody sure felt free enhancing.  Is this film even supposed to be widescreen?  The IMDB lists its AR as 1.66:1, which none of these discs reflect.  But I don't think that's right, anyway.  Doing a little research, for example this program from when it played at the Berlin Film Festival in 1991 lists it as 1.37:1.  This 2003 review of the 1999 DVD agrees and even criticizes a London theater for having shown it at 1.75.  The Fox Lorber AR looks the most natural, and certainly the 50s sci-fi and old TV docs this movie is emulating would've been fullscreen.  It looks like they took some liberties matting down Horror and Homo, too; but what they've done to Hero is just bonkers.  Heck, they could've at least stretched the image a little less if they didn't further crop the sides.  Did Todd Haynes do this himself, or does he even know what it looks like now?  If this was his idea, I guess I can accept it for the most part, but the fun-house mirroring of Hero is still ridiculous.  And if Haynes didn't approve, then I have to declare this is a rare case of a totally botched BD (see also: Rabid Grannies).

All three discs feature a solid and fairly clean 2.0 mix, bumped up to DTS-HD for the blu.  Only the 20th Anniversary DVD and the new blu offer English SDH subtitles.
Last Known Address
In terms of special features, at least, each disc is an improvement over the last.  Not that the Fox Lorber disc was barebones.  It has a pretty good audio commentary with Haynes, editor/ actor James Lyons and producer Christine Vachon.  It's a little spotty in terms of dead air and awkward pauses, but is mostly full of good background information and charming anecdotes.  It also included the (fullscreen) trailer.

The 2011 DVD kept all that, but added some more goodies.  The main new feature is a 20th Anniversary Q&A with Haynes, Vachon and producer James Schamus.  But there's also a short film called Last Known Address.  It's not by Haynes or directly connected to the main feature, but it is about the AIDS crisis and its effect on New York, which is obviously a major contributor to the subtext of Poison.  And it had a photo gallery and 16-page booklet.

And the blu-ray keeps all that came before it, except the stills gallery, but including the booklet.  And it also includes a new on-camera introduction by Haynes, which is actually a solid 11-minute discussion of the film's 30th anniversary and where it stands now.  He never mentions the AR in any of the extras, though.
So, hmm... Kino's blu is a definite, unquestionable improvement on the previous DVD, with its sharper HD image, lossless audio and new interview (which trumps the lost stills, though I wonder why we couldn't keep that, too).  But that's only because the 2011 DVD has the same revisionist widescreen "enhance"ment, and we should probably all be hanging onto our 1999 DVDs.  Being a 16mm film, it's not like we've made any great gains in detail and clarity, anyway (though I would miss the color correction).  The new extras are cool, but the commentary is still the biggest and best feature, too.  I'd feel better about this if one of the film producers, Haynes, or the DP would endorse this reframing, but Hero especially doesn't sit right with me as is.  Maybe if we're good this year, Arrow or somebody will release this in the UK, go back to the original film elements for a fresh scan and respect the original aspect ratio?


  1. Thank you for posting this. This Blu-ray release is a disaster and should not be accepted in this day and age.

  2. "though I would miss the color correction"

    If they botched the aspect ratio that badly, why would you trust them to get the color right?

    1. Good point! Still, having watched both discs, the newer disc looks (just in terms of color) substantially better; on the old disc, it looks like it's got warm hues cast over the whole image. To your point, though, if someone like Arrow (fingers crossed!!) ever came along and gave this a proper restoration, I could easily imagine it having even better color timing along with the other corrections. But since it's a question just between the 1999 disc and the two newer ones, I would miss the color correction of the 2011/2021 editions.