As the teen fatale of this low-budget, high-style find, leggy Drew Barrymore kicks her E.T. image over the rainbow. Now little Gertie rivals Sharon Stone in indulging basic instincts. She slips the tongue to a tomboy school chum, plays footsie with a man’s crotch, fucks on the hood of a Mercedes (in the rain, yet) and kills . . . well, more of that later. Poison Ivy sounds like B-movie trash, which sometimes it most deliciously is. This kinky spellbinder also manages to stir thoughts of Nabokov, Joe Orton, Groucho Marx, All About Eve, Fatal Attraction and those dirty videos your cousin Herbie stashes in his locker. Poison Ivy moves beyond wickedly erotic fun to become an acutely unsettling psychological thriller. That raises a question: Who made this wild thing?
Her name is Katt Shea, an actress turned director who co-wrote the Ivy script with her former husband, producer Andy Ruben. As protégés of Roger Corman, the Rubens turned out such bimbo-and-slasher cheapies as Dance of the Damned, Streets and Stripped to Kill I and II. Movie snobs may laugh until they see Shea’s gift for transcending pulp. The emotional resonance, visual sophistication and feminist subtext of Shea’s work fuse to create a distinctive style that’s worth monitoring.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art thinks so; it recently featured a Shea retrospective. Although Poison Ivy prompted a few noisy walkouts at the Sundance Film Festival, the New York Times acclaimed it as a “commercial art film.” B movies give new directors a chance to exercise their subversive talents; look at Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat or Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha. Shea follows in that tradition and does it proud.
From the first scene of Poison Ivy, Shea shows a remarkable assurance. Sylvie Cooper, superbly played by Sara Gilbert (Darlene the dis queen on TV’s Roseanne), is sketching a cross entwined with ivy. The model for her drawing is a tattoo on the leg of the new girl at Oak-hurst High School, who’s gliding dangerously over a ravine on a rope swing. The atmosphere is hypnotically sensual as Phedon Papamichael’s camera takes in this mystery creature from her pouty mouth to the peekaboo hole in her boot.
She’s definitely a turnoff — too overt,” says Sylvie in a voice-over. “I mean, most girls don’t fly through the air with their skirt around their waist.” Sylvie, a self-described “politically, environmentally correct, feminist, poetry-reading type,” dresses down with a vengeance. Sylvie is fascinated with the girl’s mouth; lips, she’s heard, are supposed to be a perfect reflection of another part of a woman’s anatomy. “Not that I’m a lesbian,” says Sylvie. “Well, maybe I am.” As ever, Sylvie is conflicted. She dismisses the sexy stranger as “scangy” and then wishes devoutly that they could be friends.
An accident brings them together. A dog is hit by a car. Sylvie stares helplessly. But the new girl coolly whacks the animal on the head with a pipe and ends its misery. Sylvie is impressed. They share confidences. The girl’s a scholarship student; she’s been living with her aunt since her cokehead mother died and her father split, even though she tried to hold on to him by dressing like “the chicks in high heels” she found in his Hustler collection. Sylvie’s a rich kid rattling around in an L.A. mansion; she’s impatient with her invalid mother, Georgie (a vividly edgy Cheryl Ladd), and in deep shit with her reformed-alcoholic father, Darryl (a touchingly beleaguered Tom Skerritt), because she called in a bomb threat to the TV station he manages. The two loners form a bond. Sylvie dubs her new friend Ivy, after the tattoo; Ivy’s androgynous name for Sylvie also sticks — Coop.
Shea gets the sexual confusion of female adolescence just right. And Barry-more nails every carnal, comic and vulnerable shading in her role; she’s a knockout. Sylvie likes that Ivy makes her parents cringe. But when Ivy moves in with the dysfunctional Coopers (even the maid is uncommunicative) and starts sucking up to them, Sylvie grows more alienated. In a darkly comic scene, the girls fight over the affections of Sylvie’s mutt, Fred. “The fact that Fred hated every human except me really meant something,” says Sylvie.
Things quickly turn sinister. Georgie sees Ivy as a reminder of happier times, when she drove her red Corvette in the rain with the top down. “One day with the top down is better than a lifetime in a box,” says Ivy, encouraging suicidal thoughts in Georgie. Darryl, whose sex life ended with his wife’s illness, is aroused when Ivy wears Georgie’s low-cut dress. One night they find Georgie passed out in bed from Percodan and champagne. Sitting on the edge of the bed while Darryl picks up a broken glass on the floor, Ivy rubs his crotch with her high-heeled foot while Darryl nuzzles between her legs. The only sound is Georgie’s tortured breathing.
Shea uses tantalizing eroticism to reveal the film’s emotional undercurrents. When Georgie is pushed from her balcony, feelings reach a fever pitch. Though Poison Ivy can be read on several levels, it plays most provocatively when seen as Sylvie’s guilty nightmare over her mother’s death, with Ivy as her imaginary evil twin. As Ivy, Sylvie can express her repressed longings for her father and her hostility toward her mother. As herself, she cannot. Ivy’s tattoo, miniskirt and black fuck-me pumps are the fetishes of a naive, neurotically insecure girl. The film builds to Sylvie’s mature realization that she can’t replace Georgie in Darryl’s life. That this doesn’t come off as dimestore moralizing is a tribute to Shea’s layered direction and the dynamic Gilbert-Barrymore teamwork. Sylvie’s last words about Ivy — “I miss her” — become a poignant farewell to childhood.
Shea is examining the differences in how women and men define intimacy and the ways those differences can drive a wedge between families, lovers and friends when communication stops. These are rare things to do in a thriller, and Shea knows acceptance is hard to come by. Though Poison Ivy is more than whoopee, audiences may find the movie easier to get off on than to get into. But why settle for the usual walk around the exploitation block when Shea offers a wild ride with the top down into uncharted territory?