Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is a former teenage arsonist now being given a second chance on the outside. Dennis has a quality control job at the local chemical plant and a parole officer who wants him to succeed in his societal rehabilitation. Outwardly affable, obtuse and inaccessible to his fellow human beings, Dennis is rebuked for carelessness by his superiors at work and generally ignored by his peers. He surrounds himself with fantasies of his own devising, shifting easily from one narrative to the next in order to preserve his cover.
Dennis befriends Sue Ann Stapenek (Tuesday Weld), a restless teenager in a state of perpetual rebellion against her controlling, hypocritical mother. He convinces her he’s a CIA agent on a secret mission, and persuades her to aid him in an act of sabotage against the chemical plant. Fascinated by Dennis’ schemes, Sue Ann steps willingly into his convoluted story, although she’s still worried about being late to her hygiene course.
The ill-advised courtship plays out against the foreboding backdrop of the chemical plant…
A box office flop when first released, PRETTY POISON is somehow both ephemeral and unsettling. Perkins and Weld have undeniable chemistry as the delusional Dennis and his teenage foil, but it’s Perkins’ reputation for mild-mannered psychopathy that perfectly offsets Weld’s performance as the angel-haired, wide-eyed Sue Ann. The result packs a significant punch even for the contemporary viewer. Beverly Garland delivers a well-calculated, acerbic performance as Sue Ann’s abusive mother, a tree from which the apple may have fallen the proverbially measured distance. The ill-advised courtship plays out against the foreboding backdrop of the chemical plant, as out of place in the idyllic small town scenery as Dennis’ paranoid daydreams.
PRETTY POISON, which was remade in 1996 without significant plot alterations, unfolds along lines that Dennis can’t see coming but which will seem familiar to anyone with an eye for the last thirty years of psychodrama in film. Unrelentingly light in its delivery, the film somehow manages to be equally gruesome. BRINGING UP BABY on LSD, it’s a screwball comedy in an altered state, drawing to a far darker conclusion.
A brand new 35mm print of PRETTY POISON is screening at the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle from June 8th-14th.
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