Pretty Poison

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“Perkins not weirdest character in movie! Shock! Horror! Probe!”

I was expecting more a quirky comedy than a dark thriller from this 1968 film, and only bothered with it because I’m a fan of Perkins (Edge of Sanity is a beautifully-lurid retelling of the Dr. Jekyll story, with the trash quotient cranked up to 11). Imagine my surprise when… Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Juvenile arsonist Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is finally released back into the community as “cured”, though his fondness for fantastic invention appears unchanged. For a while he works at a chemical in the small town of Winslow without apparent issue. But trouble looms in the pretty, 17-year old shape of Sue Ann Stepanek (Weld), even though she appears to be squeaky-clean – an honor-roll student, majorette, etc. To entice her, Pitt spins a tale of being a secret agent, investigating a plan to poison the water supply. Sue Ann seems to swallow it, hook, line and sinker, but after one of their ‘sabotage mission’ goes wrong, it’s apparent that Sue Ann has her boyfriend seriously trumped when it comes to sociopathic behaviour.

Black delivers a fairly bleak picking away at the fabric of semi-urban Americana, with a near-Lynchian feel for the rottenness that lurks just beneath the thin veneer of civility. Perkins is, more or less, repeating the same role he had played in Psycho eight years earlier, though in a slightly less socially-inadequate version. As noted, it initially seemed more like a comedy, with this Walter Mitty-esque character leading on the teenager, and is not particularly interesting as such. However, things skew almost completely around in the middle, with Stepanek becoming the dominant character in the relationship, controlling Pitt in such a way that makes the viewer wonder if that was always her intention (the final scene also suggests this to be the case). She’s a good deal better at concealing her darker side, and while the conclusion is somewhat contrived, requiring Pitt basically to surrender, it makes sense in its own twisted way.

Weld was actually 25 when this was made, which may explain the maturity of her “teenage” character, though physically, it’s not a stretch. Her background – a nervous breakdown at age nine, an alcoholic at 12, and a suicide attempt around the same point, all likely triggered by the pressures of her career as a child actress – certainly may have helped with her portrayal of a character that’s rather darker than many of her role in the decade. If there are certainly girls with guns who killed more people, few have done so beneath a more innocent-looking exterior.

Dir: Noel Black
Star: Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Beverly Garland, John Randolph

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