Revisiting the erotic coming-of-age thriller Poison Ivy

A 15-year-old Drew Barrymore fronted a tale of complicated teen friendship, rebelling with piercings and tattoos, murdering moms and fucking dads

Pin It
Poison Ivy film

In SZA’s “Drew Barrymore”, the confessional alt-R&B chanteuse pines for an estranged lover while repeatedly second-guessing her own behaviour. “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth. / I just need to see you. I’m sorry I’m so clingy, I don’t mean to be a lot”. It’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking torch song, but one that leaves a major lingering question: what’s with that title?

Speaking to Rolling Stone earlier this month, SZA explained that it was Barrymore’s first major adult role, as a teenage outcast slowly infiltrating the family of her new best friend in the 1992 coming-of-age thriller Poison Ivy, that inspired the track, along with resonating with her own adolescence.

“She was fucking up families and being weird, but she really just wanted to be loved,” she said. “She was lashing out because she was lonely and pissed that her life was like this. I felt that.”

It’s not unusual to see Poison Ivy spoken about in relation to various other early-90s erotic thrillers, films full of sexual dysfunction and fancy houses, where every cool marble surface seems built to show off the sweaty, softly-lit naked bodies of a Sharon Stone or one of the cheaper Baldwins.

Director Katt Shea, who also co-wrote the film with her then-husband Andy Ruben, stocks her movie with genre tropes, from its hilariously porny saxophone score to an almost chronic abundance of billowing white curtains. But her film also has far more things on its mind, unexpectedly conjuring one of the most convincing, queasily relatable adolescent friendships in 90s cinema.

“I don’t think New Line Cinema intended for it to be about a friendship between two girls, but we always knew that’s what it was,” Shea tells me from her home in Los Angeles. “They wanted Fatal Attraction with teenagers, and that is not what we gave them. I always worked for companies that wanted an exploitative movie, but when they’re asking me to do it, it’s going to be really deep and complicated.”

Poison Ivy’s central protagonists, Barrymore’s immaculately-costumed unnamed loner and Sara Gilbert’s grouchy rich girl Sylvie, are thrown together in detention, and quickly bond over their shared isolation. Sylvie dubs her new friend Ivy after the tattoo she sports on her leg, while they pepper their conversations with white lies to make themselves seem cooler. They talk of the inherent grossness of teenage boys, rebel via tattoos and piercings, and confess to each other their deepest resentments and sadnesses. “Her acceptance didn’t make me think less of her,” Sylvie says in voiceover early in the film. “It made me think more of me.”

“They wanted Fatal Attraction with teenagers, and that is not what we gave them. I always worked for companies that wanted an exploitative movie, but when they’re asking me to do it, it’s going to be really deep and complicated” – Katt Shea

As the pair become more entwined, Ivy begins to take up various roles in Sylvie’s life, from a sort of long-lost sister to a vaguely sinister surrogate mother, a development that happens to involve a kinky affair with Sylvie’s dad. Being 90s erotica, there’s an undeniable queer subtext, too. But rather than exploiting it for salacious kicks, Poison Ivy zeroes in on the thin line between platonic friendship and romantic love, an often unspoken thread that can’t help but appear when you’re growing up, discovering emotional connections and still figuring our your own identity.

Shea, a one-time protege of B-movie maestro Roger Corman, says that she’s always been attracted to stories about outsiders. “I was the kid in elementary school that was made fun of and got bullied,” she says. “I was the one, the designated pariah, and that sticks with you. I guess I was always drawn to giving that person a voice.”

Shea knew that she wanted to cast Sara Gilbert, then best known as the snarky miserabilist Darlene on the TV sitcom Roseanne, in the role of Sylvie, but says that she went back and forth over the possible hiring of Drew Barrymore for Ivy. Fresh out of rehab and carrying around the sort of ‘fallen child star’ baggage that made her Hollywood casting director kryptonite, the 16-year-old Barrymore needed a role that would help her transition to adult work. Shea remembers her as being difficult to pin down.

“She stood me up like three times when she was supposed to come and audition,” she says. “So finally I told her agent, ‘I’m not going to meet with her again,’ and he begged me, and promised that she’d come to my house. And so she came over, and I didn’t want her at that point because she stood me up and everything, and I thought, ‘Oh, she really is like her reputation. She’s just horrible, I don’t like her.’

“But then I saw her walking up to my front door, and she was like an angel. She had her hair up in this little bun, and she just looked very angelic. And I loved her, like right away. She had that charisma. I (then) wanted to see Sara and Drew together, and they came over to my house and we went over the script, and they were like two little kittens playing. It was instant rapport.”

Also in the cast was a young Leonardo DiCaprio, but outside of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo, his part was left on the cutting room floor. Shea admits he was slightly miscast as a school bully who teases Sylvie, but confesses that she could hardly resist the future grizzly bear botherer.

“He was just so cute!” she recalls. “I saw a million actors for this little tiny part, and I knew I was miscasting him, but I just loved him so much that I went, ‘I don’t care if he doesn’t even say his lines right, I just want him in the movie.’ But the executive at New Line was like, ‘The kid’s not that good, you need to cut him.’

“I had to tell him that he got cut out at the wrap party, and Sara made fun of him and everything, because they were kids and they do that,” she laughs. “But I felt so bad about it that I kept his name in the credits so he would get residuals. I was like, ‘Fuck New Line, they’re gonna pay him residuals!’”

“I saw Drew walking up to my front door, and she was like an angel. She had her hair up in this little bun, and she just looked very angelic. And I loved her, like right away. She had that charisma” – Katt Shea

Poison Ivy began filming in the summer of 1991, but production was reportedly a nightmare. Unhappy with the lack of Cinemax-style trashiness, New Line executives fired Ruben, believing it would be easier to control Shea if she was isolated on set. Instead, Shea rebuffed her bosses, putting on a united front with Gilbert and threatening to drop out of the film if he wasn’t reinstated. Barrymore, potentially with more to lose if she were to cause trouble, declined to participate in the stand-off.

“They wanted straight exploitation,” Shea remembers, “and I gave them Poison Ivy.”

After a studio cut resulted in test audiences giving disastrous scores, New Line allowed Shea to re-edit the film to her satisfaction. When Poison Ivy was finally released a year later, it became a minor sensation, grossing a million dollars on a limited number of screens and eventually cleaning up on VHS. As a result, it gave way to an unexpected franchise of increasingly thrusting-centric Poison Ivy movies, ones with only the loosest of connections to the original film, and substituting Barrymore for the likes of Jaime Pressly and Alyssa Milano in her pre-witchcraft softcore phase.

“I hope it didn’t ruin the original, that there are all those sequels,” Shea admits. “I actually kind of thought that they had tainted it in some way, that unfortunately people would then go and watch Poison Ivy 2 and 3 and 4 and whatever, and I just hope they don’t confuse them all.

“I’m really horrified when people think that I directed them,” she laughs. “Just horrified!”

Shea would follow up Poison Ivy with 1999’s very belated sequel The Rage: Carrie 2, an unfairly maligned horror that trafficks in similar themes to Shea’s previous work, but was seemingly sunk by the weighty spectre of its 70s predecessor.

“I think there was a lot of prejudice against it, but I knew that going in,” Shea says. “When I said yes to directing it, I thought, ‘God, I’m gonna get crucified for this.’ But, you know, it was what I got offered. It was really weird because, after Poison Ivy, I got very few offers to direct, unfortunately. And I’m sure that’s because I’m female, you know? Up to that point, I really hadn't run into that glass ceiling. Because I was working with such low budgets, and I wasn’t really aware of any male/female thing. I never even thought about it. And then when it got to the point of hiring me to do studio movies, I hit that glass ceiling really hard, and then I never worked again.”

Currently based in Los Angeles, Shea now runs a successful acting class and remains proud of her film work, even if she expresses some sadness at how Hollywood largely turned its back on her.

“It would have been nice to make a few more movies,” she says. “Because I’m very at home on a set and when I’m directing. It’s very easy for me. I would have loved to make a few more. But the fact that I’m where I am now is all that matters.”

Any wistfulness should be quelled by Poison Ivy’s legacy, however. 25 years after its release, Poison Ivy remains a cult classic, laying the groundwork for a host of modern psychosexual thrillers, inspiring incredible music, and helpfully teaching new generations of young rebels the timeless power of nose rings, leather jackets and fucking your best friend’s father.

More Arts+Culture

Like this?
Like Dazed on Facebook