Pretty Poison (1996 TVM)

Canada, US / 89 minutes / color / National, TCF Dir: David Burton Morris Pr: Iain Paterson Scr: Brian Ross Story: She Let Him Continue (1966) by Stephen Geller and screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. for Pretty Poison (1968) Cine: Francis Kenny Cast: Grant Show, Wendy Benson, Lynne Thigpen, Michelle Phillips, Steve Adams, Dorothee Berryman, Walter Bolton, Doug Lennox, James Rae, Frank Schorpion, Ted Whithall (i.e., Ted Whittall).

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 2 Sue Ann decides to fall in with Dennis's plans

Wendy Benson as Sue Ann.

Anne Billson was recently talking on her MULTIGLOM blog about the original version of this movie, PRETTY POISON (1968) dir Noel Black, with Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld and Beverly Garland, and I was reminded that I had a copy of the 1996 TVM remake somewhere but had never actually watched it. To my astonishment, I found it almost immediately—see, I am Mr. Organization after all—and decided to remedy my ignorance.

Years ago, after a savage beating from his father, Dennis Pitt (Show) started a housefire that incinerated his parents; he insists that, while the arson was deliberate, the incineration was accidental in that he thought they were out. (This info is revealed late in the movie; however, since we know from the outset he committed some pretty heinous crime, the details are a mere confirmation.)

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 1 Janet Azenauer has high hopes of Dennis

 Janet Azenauer (Lynne Thigpen) has high hopes for Dennis.

Now he’s being released from the Kenneth M. Gordon Correctional Facility for the Criminally Disturbed, somewhere in Massachusetts, and his parole officer, Jane Azenauer (Thigpen), couldn’t be more delighted. In a plot point that’s a tad confusing, she seems also to be his psychotherapist, and regards him as one of her successes.

At their finally interview in the facility, there’s an interesting ambiguity. Dennis starts talking about his “contact” and asks if he and Jane can talk freely—or is the room bugged? The first interpretation is that he’s nutser than Jane is letting herself believe. The second is that he’s pretty comfortable with his life in the facility, and has no great urge to leave, so is putting on a nutsoid act. It’s an ambiguity that—rightly—isn’t sorted out until near the end of the movie, and even then the door is left slightly ajar for the alternative.

Whatever the case, Jane sends him off with a list of apartments and the info on a job at the post office, an employer unfazed by his past history.

But he doesn’t take the job at the post office. Instead, without Azenauer’s permission, he gets hired at the Sausenfeld chemical plant in the small town of Winsloe, Mass. Politely deflecting the advances of pretty new neighbor Bea (Berryman), he instead becomes infatuated with the fresh-faced blonde head cheerleader of the local highschool football team, 17-year-old Sue Ann Stepanek (Benson).

Soon he persuades her—with an ease of which someone brighter than Dennis might have been suspicious—that he’s a covert government agent in town on a secret mission. Could she assist him?

Assist him she will, you bet. In due course, despite the disparity in their ages (he’s perhaps in his mid-twenties), she seduces him. His “mission,” he eventually tells her, is to establish that the Sausenfeld plant is deliberately polluting the local river. There are dead fish everywhere, and indeed he’s correct in tracing a pipe from the plant to a hidden outlet in the river.

The poisoned state of the river is a symbol of much else that’s going on in the movie. During the opening credits we’re treated to a voiceover from Dennis that he repeats en plein to Jane in the closing stages:

“There once was a river, a very, very pretty river. And somehow, I don’t think you ever really know how, this poison got into it. The river still looked pretty as ever—got prettier, even—but, if you drank from it, it would poison you, too.”

What he and Sue Ann must do is commit an act of nocturnal sabotage that will make the plant’s crime manifest to the world.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 6 Dennis & Sue Ann casing out the factory beforehand

Dennis (Grant Show) and Sue Ann (Wendy Benson) case out the plant in preparation for their act of sabotage.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 7 Sue Ann creeps up behind Joyles

Sue Ann (Wendy Benson) creeps up behind the oblivious Joyles.

In the committing of that act, they’re caught by security guard Sam Joyles (Bolton). To Dennis’s horror, Sue Ann strikes the man unconscious with a heavy wrench, then drowns him in the river. Afterwards, she’s red-hot for sex—again a warning that Dennis overlooks.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 4 Not Sylvia's but Sue Ann's mother

Michelle Phillips as Sue Ann’s mother.

Sue Ann’s mother (Phillips) is already aware of the relationship between the two, and is rather too ready to believe that Dennis’s intentions are “honorable”—she’s fairly aware that Sue Ann is the “pretty poison” of the title. Besides, she’s vulnerable to Sue Ann’s taunts that she’s no great paragon herself, what with her ill concealed relationship with materialistic boyfriend Benjamin (Schorpion). Sue Ann tells Dennis she hates them both, and Dennis obligingly—as he and Sue Ann head off to sabotage the chemical plant—hurls a rock into the windshield of Benjamin’s snazzy car. Neither Mrs. Stepanek nor Benjamin seem to have any idea who committed the vandalism, even though there’s one very obvious suspect: Sue Ann.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 3 Dennis prepares for revenge omn Benjamin's car

Dennis (Grant Show) prepares for revenge on Benjamin’s car.

The cops, in the shape of Chief Hagerty (Whittall) and his colleague Goodman (Adams), investigate the sabotage of the plant and the murder of Joyles, and obviously Dennis, with the criminal record that has recently seen him fired by plant manager Bud Munsch (Lennox), is front and center of their list of suspects. At the same time, he has an excellent alibi . . .

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 5 Bud Munsch

Doug Lennox as Bud Munsch.

There’s more murder, more crime, more conspiracy, and it’s no surprise when we discovered that Sue Ann has been manipulating Dennis all along. As she tearfully tells the cops all the dreadful things he has forced her to do, it’s clear there’s not a cop in the room who harbors the slightest doubt that Dennis is a homicidal maniac. Yet Jane Azenauer smells a rat, and even more so when Dennis, while on the one hand still insisting that he’s the killer—it’s his free pass back to the security of the Kenneth M. Gordon Correctional Facility for the Criminally Disturbed, after all—nevertheless still gives her a fairly strong hint that Sue Ann might be worth continued observation.

Dennis’s past crime, although interpreted in the typically atavistic fashion of the US judicial system as murder, was in fact one of inadvertent manslaughter. Sue Ann’s murders are deliberate psychopathic acts, committed in the pursuit of an agenda that we don’t discover until right at the movie’s end. And there’s another murderer in the movie, the Sausenfeld chemical plant, whose murders through willfully poisoning the local waterway are so far unseen and therefore uncounted. There’s guilt all around, in other words, and the apportionment of it by the authorities is hopelessly skewed.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 8 Chief Hagerty interrogates Dennis

Chief Hagerty (Ted Whittall) interrogates Dennis.

It’s been some years since I watched the 1966 original of Pretty Poison, but according to my recollection this is a fairly faithful remake, at least insofar as the actual events are concerned. Yet there are various big shifts in the dynamics of the movie, shifts that perhaps have more to do with the input of ourselves as watchers than anything else.

Wisely, Grant Show doesn’t try to reproduce Anthony Perkins’s version of Dennis—to serve up a sort of Perkins-lite. His interpretation of the character is every bit as admirable as Perkins’s, but it’s his own. This in fact changes the portrayal far more than we might expect. Anyone who views the 1966 version of Pretty Poison can’t help but bring to it the mental baggage of PSYCHO (1960). Anthony Perkins was Norman Bates and he was a sociopathic nut; so when we saw him on the screen in Pretty Poison we quite illogically, even if consciously we affirmed otherwise, assumed he was that same sociopathic nut. The power of the slow revelation that he wasn’t the sociopath in the tale was dependent, in other words, on information that we had that had nothing to with the tale itself.

Grant Show doesn’t have that luxury: he has to enact a Dennis whom we know just from the portrayal on the screen in front of us. That he does so (I think) very well is beside the point. What’s important is that the fact he’s not Anthony Perkins radically alters how we are able to judge the tale.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 10 Sue Ann's duplicity finally revealed

Wendy Benson manages to portray pretty poison perfectly.

Wendy Benson’s rendition of the Tuesday Weld role seems more faithful to the original—at least superficially. She’s the seemingly All American girl, innocent to a fault, so virginal even in her extraordinarily skimpy miniskirts that you imagine she finds the average Disney cartoon a bit racy. And yet she’s also both promiscuous and a psychopath. So much we got from the Tuesday Weld depiction. But Benson (or, to be realistic, more likely director Morris) decided on something a bit different. Benson plays Sue Ann as a 17-year-old trying desperately to be a 25-year-old, with all the gauche pseudo-sophistication of teenagers going through that phase. Since Benson was a 25-year-old actress presenting herself as a 17-year-old, this effect works surprisingly well. I’ve seen reviews slating Benson for being just an irritating clown in the role, but the “irritating” part of it seems to me quite deliberate: she (or Morris) set out to create Sue Ann as a self-obsessed 17-year-old, flexing her muscles in anticipation of womanhood, fully aware of her ability to manipulate the stupider sex (and also a narcissistic sociopath, as teens can be), and I think she succeeded quite brilliantly in that aim.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 9 Sue Ann almost convinces Dennis to shoot mom

Sue Ann (Wendy Benson) almost convinces Dennis (Grant Show) to shoot her mom.

Is this as good a movie as the original? I’m not, to be honest, sure if I can give the question a sensible answer. Normally, when I see that something’s a TVM remake, my heart not so much sinks as plummets. In this instance I was caught up fairly quickly and, despite my liking for the original and my consequent foreknowledge of what was going to happen, was happily held for the duration. It’s a top-tier TV movie, for whatever that description’s worth, and it has a great supporting performance from Thigpen.

Pretty Poison 1996 TVM - 0 opener the poisoned river



6 thoughts on “Pretty Poison (1996 TVM)

  1. Well, I am a huge fan of the original, which I watched again over the past year, but you certainly do have me more than intrigued with this re-make, which I would have otherwise avoided. Terrific piece here John!

    • It really does come at least close to matching up with the original — well worth a quick watch if you ever get the time . . . 4am on a Sunday morning, perhaps. 🙂

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