PRETTY POISON, per its status, may just as well have been titled Cult Film. Fail-safe list of ingredients: 1) Anthony Perkins, back in the States after eight years working abroad, his first homegrown movie since Pyscho. Playing a jumpy former mental patient; 2) provenly weird, absurdly sexy Tuesday Weld, as a girl-next-door/homicidal cheerleader; 3) debut feature launch for a fledgling director who’d only done a short subject–about skateboarding; 4) script, a subversive black comedy, is by the guy who’d developed Batman for TV; 5) low-budgeted at $1,300,000, produced by the man who’d just made a mint from The Graduate; 6) comes out in wacky, anarchic, anti-social, try-the-purple-one 1968; 7) flops, no one goes to see it, a gross of $3,000,000 coming in 94th for the year; 8) key critics love it; 9) difficult-production history adds to lore. Voila!, CULT FILM *
“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?”
‘Dennis’ (Perkins) is clean-cut, well-mannered but “suspect”, having been paroled from a mental hospital. Drudging at a factory that’s dumping pollution in a river, he meets local firebomb ‘Sue Ann Stepanek’ (Weld) and spins a tale that he’s with the C.I.A. to intrigue the precocious tease (if it works, and the girl in question is Tuesday Weld?: doesn’t seem crazy to me). A harmless plot to sabotage the plant’s poisonous gear ends in a haphazard murder, which precipitates another, closer to home. See, one big problem is her bitchy mother (Beverly Garland, never better). What to do? “I feel a little responsible for Mom’s death myself.”
Flipping stereotypes, over the consistently smart, wickedly funny and coolly disturbing 89 minutes the real natures of the fanciful dreamer and the psychopathic schemer emerge. Off-kilter romantic couple is a regular root beer float of 60s paranoia, with Perkin’s blend of alert & hurt, wit & twit making the right/wrong foil/fall-guy for the sparkle-eyed, lip-licking honor student vixen that has a different idea of how and when to get satisfaction. “You know, when grown-ups do it, it’s kind of dirty. That’s because there’s no one to punish them.” (gulp) Weld, 25 playing 17, is stellar, which is extra delicious since she hated the experience. **
Garland has the niftiest role of her career. With John Randolph, Dick O’Neill and Clarice Blackburn. Directed by Noel Black. Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Produced by Lawrence Turman.
* Laudable critic and cult-film expounder Danny Peary makes a good case for Weld deserving an Oscar here (dually taken that year by Barbra Streisand’s scene-stealing tour de force (you be forced?) debut as Funny Girl and Katherine Hepburn’s royal spite in The Lion In Winter. Debatable, yet the mercurial Weld detested the movie, thinking she gave her “worst performance”… “….the least creative experience I ever had. Constant hate, turmoil and dissonance. Not a day went by without a fight. Noel Black, the director, would come up to me before a scene and say, ‘Think about Coca Cola’. I finally said, ‘Look, just give the directions to Tony Perkins and he’ll interpret for me….Don’t talk to me about it. I couldn’t bear Noel Black even speaking to me. When he said ‘Good morning,’ it destroyed my day… I don’t care if critics like it; I hated it”. Gotcha.
John Randolph: “Noel knew how to set up shots, but he knew nothing about acting. Tuesday Weld was neurotic as hell. She would break down and cry. She hated the director, and she permitted that hatred to color everything she did.”
A Star Who Never Became One, the troubled and troublesome actress snubbed roles in Bonnie And Clyde, Lolita, Rosemary’s Baby and True Grit, to cite a few. She and Perkins reteamed four years later in the well-regarded Play It As It Lays (which again, no one but critics saw). With the failure of this comeback movie, Perkins was unable to shake the lasting casting stigma of Norman Bates. Director Noel Black’s film career suffered more disappointments, and he turned to doing primarily TV.