‘Poison Ivy’ Is a Pop-Culture Punchline Worth Taking Seriously

Katt Shea's 1992 erotic thriller deserves another look

New Line
Adam Nayman

“I can’t imagine where she came from,” says Sylvie Cooper (Sara Gilbert), the narrator and protagonist of Poison Ivy. The she in question is Drew Barrymore’s title character; the answer, of course, is that Ivy comes out of nowhere. She’s a manifestation of the fears and desires of the people around her, Sylvie included and especially. Not only does Ivy know exactly how to finesse Sylvie’s hardass Dad (Tom Skeritt) — wrapping him around her little finger from the moment they meet — and flatter her bedridden, rapidly fading mother (Cheryl Ladd), but she’s exactly the sort of bestie a lonely, rebellious, bicurious underachiever might (wet) dream up. Taken literally, Katt Shea’s film about a blonde fifteen-year-old temptress who infiltrates and systematically wrecks the home of a wealthy family is fairly ludicrous — a string of erotic thriller cliches. But as a tour through a lucid dreamscape where cliches fuse with pulpy beauty — where koi swim around waterlogged cowboy boots, quasi-incestuous couplings are bathed in deep red, and eyes meet sadly and finally in a flash of crystalline blue — it’s genuinely beguiling.

Poison Ivy was released in 1992, the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, as well as Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, both of which it resembles as a glance: Barrymore’s character is as sociopathically manipulative as Sharon Stone and as pathetically clingy as Jennifer Jason Leigh (she’s also equally willing to threaten an adorable little dog). But where those auteur works enjoyed a measure of critical and commercial success — Verhoeven’s neo-Hitchcockian masterpiece grossed $400 million worldwide amidst much gnashing of teeth and clutching of pearls — Shea’s film, made to order for the hip, edgy tastemakers at New Line as a junior varsity Fatal Attraction, was summarily trashed and quickly forgotten. 1992 was also the year of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s telling that while Quentin Tarantino’s boys-will-be-boys fantasy was celebrated at Sundance as representing the cutting edge of indie, Poison Ivy was either derided or else subject to the kind of moralistic hand-wringing that Tarantino mostly dodged on the all-important grounds of coolness.

Shea, who’d cut her teeth as an actress and model before directing several successful shoestring thrillers for Roger Corman, was also cool, and terrifically articulate about the ratio of cynicism to sincerity — and provocation to compromise — embodied by her would-be breakthrough feature. “I'm out to prove it's possible to make a film that's really artistic,” she told The New York Times. “That's an honest expression that comes from me and that can still be commercial.”

Viewed now, Poison Ivy looks like a film of considerable artistry.

The recent spate of pieces about the death and “rebirth” of the erotic thriller following the long-delayed release of Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water pivot on the shared thesis that some time in the early 21st century, sex disappeared — or was extracted — from mainstream American cinema. In this formulation, Verhoeven’s Showgirls was the canary in the coal mine (or maybe the fox in the henhouse), while Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was a lavishly brocaded curtain call — the last (f)-word on big-studio erotica. The corollary to this idea is that sex, now displaced, sought asylum somewhere very specific and proximate to the multiplexes that were changing over to sanitized superhero sagas — behind the beaded curtains and saloon doors of Blockbuster Videos and mom-and-pop VHS rental outlets whose clientele was all too happy to enjoy such fares in the privacy of their own homes. In theaters, Poison Ivy grossed barely two-thirds of its modest $3 million budget. On cable, and especially home video, it was a hit. So much so that Shea, whose career had stalled out, was offered gigs helming direct-to-video sequels that would resurrect the character Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees style: a franchise femme fatale. She declined, but the sequels got made anyway, with Alyssa Milano supplanting Barrymore in the ingenue-gone-wild slot and what might kindly be described as diminishing artistic returns.

Viewed now, and especially in light of Shea’s comments that New Line messed with her original cut, including railroading her to shoot a new ending, Poison Ivy looks like a film of considerable artistry, and what reviewers lazily labeled sleaze (“a lurid wind-up machine,” as per Roger Ebert) actually leaves a much stickier and more substantive residue. The opening sequence, which introduces Ivy as a bare-legged daydream in denim, veering back and forth on a tire swing far above a rocky forest chasm, is striking and also confrontational, juxtaposing Gilbert’s bone-dry, self-deprecating line readings (“I’m more the feminist, poetry-reading type…you know… boring”) with Barrymore’s borderline-comic ripeness in Lynchian contrast. On that note: if you wanted to make your 1992 movie-marathon a quadruple bill, you could do worse than to chase Basic Instinct, Single White Female, and Poison Ivy with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, whose heroine Laura Palmer fantasizes about scaling similarly vertiginous heights while heading, sadly, for a fall.

Unlike Verhoeven, Schroeder, and Lynch— virtuoso voyeurs all, as well as alpha-male auteurs — Shea commits fully in Poison Ivy to a female subjectivity. Ivy is seen, desirously and otherwise, through Sylvie’s eyes; even when the movie isn’t literally from her point of view, it’s reflecting her perspective. That said worldview leans towards the sardonic speaks to Shea’s own unsentimental education under Corman, who supported his protege’s earlier directorial efforts while insisting she find room in them for strippers ("I said, 'Roger, please, I've already made a stripper movie,’” Shea recalled to the Times. “Can't she be a waitress?' No, she's a stripper.") The dramatic tension in the film comes from watching such a clear-eyed character get mesmerized by a frenemy who’s got even keener powers of perception. One of the first things that Sylvie notices about Ivy in that opening voice-over is that her blonde hair is a dye job, but the point has less to do with the other girl’s phoniness than the fact that our protagonist envies this changeability. None of Sylvie’s affectations (precariously dangled cigarettes; buzzcut hair designs) stick, and neither do her try-hard lies to Ivy about being an adopted, biracial child, but Ivy plays imitation games to win. She slips effortlessly into Sylvie’s suicidal mother’s nicest dress and then her sickbed in a brazen act of psychosexual superimposition that destabilizes every aspect of the Coopers’ lives; by the time a concussed and hysterical Gilbert comes home and sees her now-late mother being serviced from behind by Dad only to realize it’s really Ivy, the film has entered the Twilight Zone.

If Ivy didn’t exist, her pent-up, emotionally repressed victims would have to invent her, and the slightly unnatural aspects of Barrymore’s acting — the feeling that her hothouse persona here is more coerced than natural — actually serve to heighten the sense of tragic fantasy and deepen the underlying melancholy. The self-conscious provocation of casting a former child star as a Gen-X Lolita is one thing, but the real-time convergence of Barrymore’s adolescent emancipation and her role as a needy, self-loathing foundling trying to jerry-rig her own surrogate family unit generates its own kind of subtextual heft. And if the scenes between Ivy and the feeble, faded mother, Georgie (Cheryl Ladd) who’s slowly choking to death from emphysema and pines for her little red Corvette churn with soap-opera pathos — “My mom died an old woman who never did anything with the top down” sighs Ivy, trying to keep a straight face — there’s a real reservoir of feeling percolating, as well as the retrospective charge of witnessing the sympathetic commiseration of past and future Charlie’s Angels.

Not all of Poison Ivy’s excesses are recoupable under the aegis of expressionism, and for every nicely pungent one-liner or memorable gesture — the most affecting coming during a mutual tattoo session where a furious Sylvie demands Ivy return a crumpled hundred-dollar bill and ends up on the receiving end of a loving, unbreakable vise grip — there’s a moment that seems to vindicate the film’s widespread critical dismissal. The common denominator between the things that work in Poison Ivy and the things that don’t is the palpable, fascinating personality of the woman behind the camera — the one who keeps color-coordinating her frames to correspond to psychic states and drenches key encounters in torrents of uncleansing rain; who stages a car crash with mock-pornographic intensity and then dwells on the hilariously morbid detail of the driver dabbing her unconscious passenger’s blood on the steering wheel in an attempt to implicate her in the wreck.

It’s equally easy to feel Shea as a frustrated structuring absence in the film’s climax, which diverges from the original screenplay draft by meting out a punishment that, while arguably deserved according to the eye-for-an-eye calculus of cinematic revenge fantasies, is anything but satisfying. Poison Ivy begins where it ends, with Sylvie talking in voiceover about the contradictions of the unfathomable suicide blonde who changed her life; if the elegaic tone of her narration is incongruous, it’s not because it’s been pasted on as part of a salvage job, but because it points to the layered, ambivalent movie Shea was trying to make all along, and which deserves to be remembered on those terms. “I still think about her,” Gilbert says sadly. “I guess I still love her.” What’s not to love?

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor at Cinema Scope and the author of books on Showgirls, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.