Hollywood Flashback: Todd Haynes' 'Poison' Took Top Honors at Sundance 30 Years Ago

Susan Norman and Larry Maxwell in POISON.
Zeitgeist Films/ Courtesy of Everett Collection

Larry Maxwell and Susan Norman in 'Poison.'

The triptych of interwoven stories — which explored themes of disease, deviance and alienation — premiered at the height of the AIDS epidemic and is credited with kick-starting the New Queer Cinema movement.

In 1991, Sundance took place at the height of the AIDS epidemic, which, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, was propelled by a disease that is sexually transmitted and was predominantly killing gay men. (By year's end, the U.S. death toll would reach 29,850, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Amid that politically charged public health catastrophe, a 30-year-old filmmaker debuted his first feature, Poison.

Todd Haynes — who had become an underground sensation with his 1987 short, Superstar, a retelling of the life and death of Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls — drew from the writings of French novelist Jean Genet for the experimental Poison, a triptych of interwoven stories that explored themes of disease, deviance and alienation.

In "Hero," filmed like a vox pop documentary, suburban Americans are interviewed about a bullied local boy who shoots and kills his father and then literally flies away. In "Horror," an homage to B-movie sci-fi, a scientist drinks a vial of liquid libido and turns into a disfigured and highly contagious leper. And in "Homo," a prisoner in a 1940s-set French prison becomes sexually obsessed with another inmate. It was "Homo" — which includes a scene in which a group of men (including a young John Leguizamo) spit into the open mouth of another — that provoked numerous walkouts at the Sundance premiere.

Nevertheless, Poison was awarded that year's grand jury prize. Amid media reports, it was revealed that the film had received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"That sparked this giant controversy about 'should taxpayers' money go to fund gay pornography,' " says Poison producer Christine Vachon, who would ultimately produce all of Haynes' projects, including the Oscar-nominated films Far From Heaven and Carol. "Todd went on Crossfire. It couldn't have been more helpful for the film's box office."

Along with Paris Is Burning, which took top documentary honors at Sundance that year, Poison is credited with kick-starting the New Queer Cinema movement.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.