Retro Review: ‘Pretty Poison’
When I was far younger than I am now, I distinctly remember sitting in my room picking up our local Fox affiliate via antenna in my room. They were showing their usual afternoon movie as they did on the weekend after the cartoon block was over. This flick starring Anthony Perkins is one that was weird enough that it stuck in my memory for years, but I never saw or heard of it popping up since that afternoon. At one point I thought I had even made this movie up. Recently while browsing the Drive-In, Grindhouse & Cult Classics section of the video store I actually saw it standing there as if it were waiting for me to watch it again after all these years, Pretty Poison.
Fresh from a stint in a mental institution, the delusional and troubled Dennis tries to reintegrate himself into society. It is not long before he sets his eyes on local high schooler Sue Ann and in an attempt to impress her, creates a fantasy where he is a secret agent drawing her into his imaginary mission as an accomplice. In Dennis’ mind, enemy forces are looking to poison the water supply through means of infiltration. The teen goes along with it initially as a bit of fun, but it is not long before her true nature starts to bubble up to the surface and we see who just how dangerous she is.
In talking with the owner of Black Lodge Video, I discovered this 1968 flick I has not seen in decades, had actually become something of a cult favorite. A large part of this has to do with its star Anthony Perkins. A few years before this film he famously scared shower-takers everywhere which led to him being typecast as dangerous and mentally troubled characters. This made the lead role in Pretty Poison perfect for the acclaimed actor. He plays a man who lives in a world of his own making, but somehow manages to remain grounded despite this. Though Dennis is filled with fantastical ideas of secret agents and aliens, he remains the kind of person you could run into in the real world. Luckily his boyish charms prove disarming to most people around him who accept his eccentricities. It helps that his co-star Tuesday Weld is so perfectly cast as Sue Ann as a woman who seems innocent on the service but a manipulative and cold nature slowly rises to the surface. She has found the perfect partner in this troubled man who she can use in her games. Famous for turning down a number of major roles while under contract at 20th Century Fox, Weld sought out complex parts to challenge herself as an actress and Sue Ann proved too perfect of a character. The unique chemistry between the pair proves to be a strong core for the movie.
At the helm of Pretty Poison was Noel Black in his first time directing a major studio film. Black would go on to a long career in writing/directing/producing cult films like Cover Me Babe and Mirrors. You can see even in the early stages of his career a gift for taking an offbeat story with strange characters and turning it into a fascinating film. In the hands of most other directors Pretty Poison could have easily been a dud, but Noel Black turned it into a strange and psychologically complex crime film which gets under your skin. The rookie director benefitted from having a veteran writer in Lorenzo Semple Jr. who won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for his screenplay. An adaptation of the novel She Let Him Continue, Semple crafted a complex thriller with compelling characters.
The fact that Pretty Poison has gone on to become a cult classic is good news. While moviegoers did not turn out in droves for it in 1968 as the studio was not really behind it, the film is too good to go ignored. This is memorable film truly stands as a unique piece of cinema.