WARNING: The following review contains plot spoilers. Those wishing to enjoy the film without any prior knowledge of its narrative developments would be best advised to skip straight to the section marked ‘The Disc’.
“Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”
Many years before Mickey and Mallory, and only one after Bonnie and Clyde, American cinema offered up Dennis and Sue Ann, one of its finest serial killing couples. Less overtly sexy than either of these other pairings – despite Tuesday Weld playing the female half – they’ve perhaps contributed to Pretty Poison never breaking through to the mainstream. But then this is a film which has accumulated a sizeable cult following since its release in 1968, one which will no doubt eagerly lap up this disc. After all, it marks Pretty Poison’s international debut on the format and comes with the added bonus of a commentary by director Noel Black.
Pretty Poison was Black’s feature debut following a multi-award winning short and a pair of television specials. Based on Stephen Geller’s evocatively titled She Let Him Continue, however, this is by no means a safe way of breaking into the film industry. Indeed, its setup may seem overly familiar – the small town setting; Tuesday Weld as white trash (“I wanna look nice when we check into a motel”); Anthony Perkins playing yet another psycho – yet it’s a thoroughly offbeat venture from the very first scene.
We open, pre-credits, with Dennis (Perkins) speaking to his parole officer (John Randolph) having just spent a number of years either in prison or at a mental institute (it’s never clear which, though Black mentions the latter in his commentary). Their discussion takes in his “fantasies”, an aspect which becomes integral to the ensuing narrative. Indeed, Perkins himself is integral to the narrative, for if his performance fails then so does the entire picture. Those new to Pretty Poison may have their doubts as to another psychopath turn from the actor and they would in fact be well founded. After all, he spent much of the eighties and nineties lost in a morass of cinematic nutjobs, from the increasingly belated Psycho sequels to the likes of Edge of Sanity and In the Deep Woods. Here, however, we get a work of great nuance, one that seems miles away from Norman Bates, yet also recalls it in odd ways.
As said, the fantasies are the key aspect. Following the credit sequence, Dennis arrives at a small town and uses some imagined spy antics as a means of snaring high school teenager Sue Ann. This entire section – in which Sue Ann slowly falls in love – has a remarkable power as we’re never entirely sure as to his motivations. Is Dennis knowingly ensnaring this young girl? If so, what are his intentions? Or is he fully convinced as to his CIA credentials? Certainly, he knows all the acronyms, yet there’s also that awkward, nerdish quality we found in Norman Bates courtesy of his “high energy biscuits” and the way in which he runs from one place to the next. Indeed, much of the first half prompts a nervous laughter; nervous because we’re not exactly sure what Dennis is capable of.
Yet this is only part of the story as Dennis’ fantasies of spies and sabotage also prove engaging in their own right. It’s worth noting that Pretty Poison was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and is thus situated between his stint on the sixties Batman television series (and its spin-off movie) and that classic of seventies paranoia flicks, The Parallax View. As such Dennis’ imaginings come, on the one hand, with the sardonic irony of the former, yet also possess some of the menace of the latter. Moreover, Semple knows it’s all bullshit and so happily dresses it up in the most hard-boiled of dialogue (at one point he even gets Dennis to spout that old chestnut: “It’s a long shot, but might just work”) and hackneyed of devices. Much like Batman, especially its cinematic incarnation, he manages to make these trashier elements occupy a space between the credible and the guilty pleasure – either way they’re utterly delicious.
This aspect can, however, be seen as almost incidental for it is the developing love story which drives the narrative. Despite the lush Johnny Mandel score which accompanies their time together, there’s a disturbing undercurrent to Dennis and Sue Ann’s romance. In part this is due to our inability to successfully pin him down, yet her own nature plays a huge role. At first she comes across as another of the actress’ cute teenagers – prior to Pretty Poison there had been roles in Rock, Rock, Rock and Sex Kittens Go to College as well as the object of Roddy McDowall’s affections in Lord Love a Duck and the single mother romanced by Elvis’ tortured delinquent in Wild in the Country - yet it soon becomes apparent that there’s another side to her character. Indeed, the midway point marks a sudden gear shift for the film as she goes from girl next door to cold-blooded killer with surprising alacrity. Whilst we’ve been worrying about Dennis, it is Sue Ann who remains cool after coshing a security guard and then sitting on him non-chalantly until he drowns. All of a sudden we’ve a different film on our hands: the pretty poison of the title has been explained; Dennis becomes the unexpected moral compass from hereon in; and Sue Ann just wants to make out...
Pretty Poison makes it DVD debut in fine if not perfect condition. We get the film at a ratio of 1.78:1 which slightly crops the 1.85:1 OAR and makes some of the compositions appear a little too tight (most notably in the opening scene). That said, we do get an anamorphic transfer and print that is in decent condition. Admittedly, the quality does alter from scene to scene at times, but on the whole the colours are pleasingly rich and the clarity is as should be expected. Much the same is true of the soundtrack. We get the original mono mix (spread over the front two channels) and for the most part it’s agreeably clear. There are times when background hiss does become a little too apparent, but otherwise there are no major problems to speak of.
In addition to the film itself, Second Sight are also offering Pretty Poison with a handful of noteworthy extras. The major piece is the commentary recorded by Black alongside film historian Robert Fischer. Fischer is present primarily as a means of prompting Black whenever he runs out of things to say and as such we get a commendably full chat track. Alongside the expected discussions of the film’s photography, editing, casting, etc., we also get a number of interesting anecdotes (the sailor photograph in Sue Ann’s bedroom is in fact a picture of Black himself), the spectre of Hitchcock and Psycho, and some intriguing discussions of the film’s influence. Indeed, as Fisher points out, elements from Pretty Poison crop up in a number of David Lynch’s efforts, most notably the director himself playing a hearing impaired detective in Twin Peaks, surely a direct homage to the similar character found here.
Black and Fischer are also present to discuss a deleted scene. Though only present in script form (the pair’s commentary can be listened to separately), it’s a welcome addition as not only does it partially explain the quote with which I opened this review, but also adds a little more to Perkins’ character. The reason for its omission according to Black is that it “never played well”, but it adds another dimension nonetheless.
Rounding of the extras package, we also have the opportunity to peruse a gallery of lobby cards as well as the original pressbook, which also contains a number of poster designs.
As with the main feature, all extras come without optional subtitles.
“Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” Anthony Nield reviews the Region 2 release of Noel Black's American classic, Pretty Poison.