Best friends till death: Watching 90s cult hit Poison Ivy for the first time 30 years later
The unhinged Drew Barrymore thriller couldn't have been made today — but it still might have something to say
Anne T. Donahue and Peter Knegt each write regular columns for CBC Arts, and they decided to come together to watch the film Poison Ivy, which premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival 30 years ago this week, for the very first time.
Anne T. Donahue: Peter, where were you when you realized that Poison Ivy is not just a film about teen angst, fundamental unhappiness, and the need to be loved, but about dogs? Because without spoiling any major plot points, I will say this movie would've been very different had cats been given a bigger role.
But I digress. Any/all canine developments are tame next to the rest of this story. And just between us, I'm actually not sure how to categorize this movie. Is it a thriller? A tragedy? An erotic adventure? I know it drives home that being a teenager is a lonely, misunderstood nightmare, but is it also a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of desperation? Because there's so much sadness tucked into journey. And I am absolutely including any and all sex scenes between Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt. Heaven help us all.
Peter Knegt: I was definitely yesterday years old when I made that realization ... as was I when I saw Poison Ivy for the first time. I went into it thinking maybe I had seen it at some point, because I was definitely very aware of it when it came out, or at least when it was on display at my beloved childhood video rental store (R.I.P.). But there is no way I would not have remembered what I can only categorize as cuckoo bananas cinema.
I do definitely remember wanting to see it, though, and the reason for that was 100% Sara Gilbert. Roseanne was my favourite show around the time Poison Ivy came out, and I idolized Gilbert's character Darlene. Which is basically the same character she's playing in this film, except if Darlene was rich, lived in Los Angeles and had a best friend from hell.
Had you ever seen this before? And do you remember being aware of it around the time it came out?
ATD: Sara Gilbert is a star and a treasure, and while I wasn't allowed to watch Roseanne, by the time I was an angsty teen I certainly wanted her wardrobe and to deliver one-liners in her exact fashion. I failed at both ... until now.
That said, I certainly wasn't allowed to see Poison Ivy either. I didn't even know it existed until I entered my "I want to be Drew Barrymore" phase circa The Wedding Singer — and I was horrified. The version of Drew in Poison Ivy is a far cry from the Drew at the Oscars with a daisy in her hair, so while I didn't know what Poison Ivy was about, I knew that I likely didn't relate to the character; I didn't relate to Drew Barrymore at that point in her life; and I didn't like that she was 17 and looked 35.
But do you think that helps or hinders the story? Sara Gilbert looks exactly like a teen while Drew Barrymore looks like an adult. Which we could argue is what makes the story problematic: a teen presents as older and is preyed upon by a much, much, much older man, and the only other teen in the movie is as powerless as she feels until the very end. Do you think Poison Ivy is supposed to be a take on Lolita? Or do you see it as the intended young adult version of Fatal Attraction? Either way, I know Ivy is supposed to be the villain. She straight up parasites this family. But at the same time, is the bigger (and more important) message — that lack of love can create desperation for it in the wrong places — overshadowed by the "sexiness" of a teenage girl? Or how "sexy" this movie is supposed to be? (Imagine thinking this movie was "sexy"?)
PK: So my understanding of this film's genesis is that the studio behind it literally told the director (Katt Shea) they wanted a "teenage Fatal Attraction." And I went back and watched the original trailer and that's definitely how they were marketing it. (Also, the trailer very much spoils that it's also a movie about dogs!) But it's so ridiculous that it doesn't exactly work as that kind of erotic thriller. And that didn't initially go down well. It premiered at Sundance in January 1992, got mostly horrible reviews, and bombed when it was released. But then when it was released on video, it became enough of a success to spawn three direct-to-video sequels, which are hilariously called Poison Ivy 2: Lily, Poison Ivy: The New Seduction and Poison Ivy: The Secret Society. There was a full-on Poison Ivy Cinematic Universe!
What I don't fully understand, though, is what exactly drew (no pun intended) audiences to it? It's not quite bad enough to have so-good-it's-bad camp appeal. Did people actually find this sexy, or maybe thought they would based on its VHS sleeve? Or was it just the involvement of Barrymore, who at that point was at the peak of her bad girl phase? Also, yes, it is genuinely wild how she looked 35 then and somehow still kinda looks 35 now.
ATD: Drew Barrymore will look 35 until she's 135 at least because she is an angel-woman, too good for this world.
Here's the thing about the 90s: I love them, but I don't think they knew what to do with female characters who were "rebellious" and/or "bad" until the second half of the decade. I think about Crush and Fear (although Mark Wahlberg was arguably the true Ivy in that saga) with their focus on teen sex, revenge, and danger; even The Craft felt intent on punishing Nancy who clearly needed help. So I think with Poison, it was yet another example of depicting the world of troubled teens in a way that was meant to appeal to "everyone": teen audiences, adult audiences, and weirdo men who wanted to ogle 17-year-old Drew Barrymore.
Of course, that dream didn't exactly take flight. So by the time it earned its cult following, I'm thinking that it wasn't just a Drew Barrymore time capsule, but a titillating glimpse into a world in which struggling teens are considered straight-up villains. I mean, in this case, Ivy was arguably terrifying — but she also makes it clear how thirsty she is for love and family. Had this movie been made today, it also likely would've been panned (because movies like this always seem to be panned), but I think from the get-go it would've led to conversations about Ivy's past and whether Sylvie would, because of Ivy, go on to wreak havoc on other people as a now-damaged soul.
It hinges so much on this element of fantasy, but one that doesn't award any character anything tangible. Like — spoiler — Sylvie kills Ivy. But then what? It's like watching Reese Witherspoon drive away in Ryan Phillippe's car in Cruel Intentions. It answers nothing! It all feels so unfinished. Like, I still have no idea who any of these people are.
But do you think that's why 30 years later, we're talking about it? Is it a blank canvas on which to project our own horrifying hopes and fears? (See: Seducing dogs through pocket treats.) Is it so bad that we must always cite where we've gone wrong as a people? Or was it an attempt to reclaim the notion that some teens aren't just rebelling — they will come for you and everyone you love?
PK: A little bit of all of the above? I actually think there are quite a few interesting things going on the movie: the queer undertones to Sylvie and Ivy's relationship; the vaguely Freudian stuff between Sylvie and her mother; the fact that unlike so many films of this ilk, it's directed by a woman; even Barrymore and Gilbert's performances, which mostly rise above the material. But you're right — it ultimately answers nothing, and everything interesting about it never feels fully realized.
I suspect that while it being a Barrymore time capsule isn't entirely the reason we're still talking about it today (we absolutely do not talk about the other films she made around that time, like Gun Crazy, No Place To Hide and Doppleganger ... all of which I had to look up on Wikipedia just now because I had no idea that they existed), the fact that both her and Gilbert managed to survive being child stars (and now are both daytime talk show hosts), coupled with it being a time capsule for that very specific subgenre of 90s cinema you describe, lends a big nostalgia factor. Poison Ivy wouldn't have gotten panned if it came out today because there is no way this movie could have been made today, with good reason (it punishes the teenage girl instead of the 50-year-old man who slept with her!). But it still makes for a fascinating window into 1992, which seems like a way more fucked up time to be a young woman than most people give it credit for.
ATD: I think you hit the nail right on the head with that one, friend: in no way, shape, or form would anyone greenlight this movie in 2022. Not only because it's jaw-dropping in its premise (I still don't even really know what it is! I still don't get Ivy's end-game!), but because it sexualizes a teen girl in a way that feeds a very dangerous myth (whereas Lolita is based on a real crime that took place in the 1950s, and is so tragic and sad I never want to wear heart-shaped glasses again). Also: it completely misunderstands why teens feel angst and discontentment at all.
But then again, so did almost every other realm of pop culture circa 1992. Sitcom teens — outside of Roseanne — rarely dealt with "real" problems, and their conversations were either accompanied by laugh tracks or "a very special episode" music. And primetime dramas ensured there was still enough levity to combat any downer storylines. So in that way, Poison Ivy was a clapback at the 90s teen archetype. Characters like Sylvie and Ivy weren't really seen on TV or in most movies, which makes their presence shocking. Unfortunately, it swung way too hard and left a trail of destruction in its wake.
But that's the thing about nostalgia, right? We're left appalled at the entire existence of Poison Ivy, yet when you start to dissect it, you realize it may actually have been a small stepping stone to future three-dimensional teen characters. Dare I say that without Poison Ivy, we may never have gotten Euphoria.
I mean, I could say that, but I would also most certainly be wrong.
PK: Yeah, I have a feeling Euphoria might have still existed without Poison Ivy. But I think we can at least say with certainty that without Poison Ivy, we would not have gotten Poison Ivy II: Lily!
Queeries is Knegt's weekly column that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. Anne-iversaries is Donahue's monthly column that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now. You can check out a few editions of both below.