PRETTY POISON (1968) Blu-ray
Director: Noel Black
Twilight Time

Ever since his groundbreaking performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), Anthony Perkins maintained a penchant for playing quirky, unbalanced types right up until the end of his all-too-short life. A sleeper when released in 1968, PRETTY POISON is a prime example of this, with Perkins (in his first American-made feature since PSYCHO) cast alongside 1960s sex kitten Tuesday Weld, making for an undeniable chemistry, despite them being a bit too old for their roles. Based on Stephen Geller’ novel She Let Him Continue and adapted for the screen by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (of “Batman” '66 TV series fame and later, KING KONG ‘76 and FLASH GORDON ‘80), the film was championed by critic Pauline Kael, yet still managed to fall into sudden obscurity but gathered a loyal fan following throughout the years.

Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins, EDGE OF SANITY), who years earlier was institutionalized for committing arson, is released to small town life and takes a job at a chemical plant. He immediately becomes magnetized to Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR) a stunning blonde all-American high school cheerleader living a boring lower middle class existence with her single mother. Dennis woes Sue Ann by putting on a fantasy-world act, pretending to be in the CIA, leading to several secret rendezvous’ and eventually a steamy relationship. He coaxes her into a dangerous scheme at his place of work, causing her to commit a crime that makes his prior unlawful actions look petty and tame in comparison. Outwardly innocent and naïve, sweet Sue Ann might be more mentally unbalanced than Dennis, who has apparently met his match.

Noel Black’s first feature film begins as a playful black comedy which later turns morbid (but still playful), resulting in a unique and engrossing viewing experience. Revisiting the film reminds one of how much Perkins is missed as an actor, and Weld (who always seems to be underrated) is at her best, despite her reportedly hating her own performance. Excellent support comes from fine character actors like John Randolph (SECONDS, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) as Dennis’ concerned probation officer, Dick O’Neill (GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) as his insensitive boss, and best of all, Beverly Garland (IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE) as Sue Ann’s bitch of a single mother (their exchange of cheek slaps is a highlight). Ken Kercheval (THE SEVEN-UPS), who later became a familiar face on TV’s "Dallas", has a small but pivotal role during the film’s ending. With lots of semi voyeuristic camera set ups shot through fields of glass or dirty window panes, the film creates a sense of rural gloom and tedium, with two central characters creating their own fantasy world, albeit, a realistically dangerous one. But revealing more about PRETTY POISON would not be fair to the uninitiated, since this is definitely a little gem worth checking out.

Licensing the film from Fox, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p HD in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. At the start, the image appears to be very grainy, but once the opening credits are done, the image looks excellent (“pretty” if you like), with distinct colors, fine picture detail, and no significant blemishes whatsoever. A strong DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English has perfect dynamic range, so dialogue, sound effects and music are consistently clear. The score by Johnny Mandel (MASH) has an isolated track along with the film’s sound effects. Optional English subtitles are also included.

As Fox’s initial DVD release from 2006 was essentially barebones, Twilight Time has included the commentary with the late director Noel Black and Munich-based film historian Robert Fischer, originally recorded for the UK DVD (in April, 2005). Black, who worked primarily in television, remained very proud of the film and it was evident in his enthusiasm for it, as he describes some of the differences between the film and the novel, the climate in the U.S. in the year it was released (when there were two devastating assassinations), that it was shot entirely in Massachusetts (except for two bookend scenes), and he discusses the filming techniques he was experimenting with while making it. Black also confirms that stock footage (during a movie theater scene) was taken from THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE and another quick shot from Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS, that at least two things were intentionally inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, and reveals that they were originally looking at unknowns for the leads but none of them worked out. He tells a great anecdote concerning the unselfish way in which Perkins accepted the role (and that he was the most professional actor he ever worked with) and also touches upon the numerous TV cuts in the network version. There’s also a new commentary (recorded exclusively for this Blu-ray) featuring executive producer Lawrence Turman (THE GRADUATE) along with film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman. As with the first commentary, comparisons to the film are made to later David Lynch works (and rightly so) as well as Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS and several other movies. Turman mentions being direct with Weld when she was being difficult about certain lines of dialog (he asserts standing by his director), how well-cast he thought the film was, his dissatisfaction with the score, and how he fought (along with Lorenzo Semple Jr.) to keep the title of the book as the title of the movie. The excised screen is also addressed, and with the moderators adding much to the conversation, the commentary is consistently lively and interesting to listen to.

A “deleted script” excerpt is another bonus, which is a few pages of screenplay in which Dennis is seduced by his sympathetic, older landlady Mrs. Bronson (Clarice Blackburn, at the time a regular on the daytime cult soap “Dark Shadows”). The scene was evidently shot and assumedly no longer exists, but you can get a glimpse of it in the theatrical trailer included here (look carefully when Perkins recites the line “I was unfaithful to you on Wednesday”). There’s also a separate “scene commentary” (3:12) over a photo of Black and Fischer during the recording of the 2005 commentary where Black describes the infidelity scene and why it was excised (basically to keep the Dennis character more sympathetic). Julie Kirgo writes the liner notes which can be found in the insert booklet. (George R. Reis)