Katt Shea: Poison Ivy (1992) | poster excerpt
Drew Barrymore in Katt Shea's Poison Ivy (1992) | poster excerpt

Erotic Thriller ‘Poison Ivy’ Isn’t the Lolita Story You Think You Remember

Katt Shea’s subversive 1992 erotic thriller Poison Ivy, like its teenage villainess, is misunderstood, and American media remains obsessed with devious girls.

Poison Ivy
Katt Shea
New LIne
May 1992

Poison Ivy, director Katt Shea’s 1992 drama/thriller about a seductive teenager who infests a wealthy, troubled family was, until recently, difficult to find. It was not available on any major streaming sites; but for a while, it was on the Criterion Channel as part of a recent 1992 Sundance Film Festival retrospective collection. While a Google search for the film would return plenty of images of a young Drew Barrymore, with red lips and bleached, tousled hair, the film itself did not seem to have quite as lasting an impact as the stylish aesthetic of the “bad girl” protagonist. Why is that? Potentially, it’s the fact that Poison Ivy was a limited-release box office failure, recouping just over half of its $3 million budget.

Another reason for the film’s box office failure could be its strange placement in the canon of erotic thriller films from the period. Created to capitalize and innovate upon the adult-centered films that predated it, as discussed below, Poison Ivy was also at the beginning of a different microtrend within the genre: films that centered on the character of the teenage temptress. It is associated with both of these genres, but it doesn’t really fit into either. Like many of its contemporaries, Poison Ivy gained some popularity on the video rental market, when there still was such a thing, but what seems to distinguish the film in the public imagination is the indelible image of Barrymore on a rope swing, wearing a short skirt that exposes a tattoo on her thigh. But Poison Ivy, which premiered at Sundance 30 years ago this May, is worthy of reexamination for its paradigm of a teenage femme fatale markedly different from narratives that still emerge in films and television shows today.

How did Poison Ivy come to exist? According to Laurie Halpern Benenson, covering Poison Ivy‘s debut at Sundance for the New York Times, “New Line was aiming for a garden-variety exploitation picture with teenage appeal when it hired Katt Shea, a 35-year-old Roger Corman alumna, to direct a film about the friendship between two girls and how it goes bad…what the film company wanted from Shea was a ‘teenage Fatal Attraction.'” Benenson’s article also notes that Shea’s previous films had been made for less than $500k and earned between $5- and $10 million at the box office.

These films, like Stripped to Kill (1987) and Dance of the Damned (1989) showcased Shea’s training under B-movie legend Corman, and their track record had been enough to encourage New Line Cinema to increase Shea’s budget for Poison Ivy to $3 million. Though her marching orders were to imitate the success of previous “erotic thrillers” that had garnered both critical and commercial success in the 1980s, Shea used her increased resources to take the film in a more idiosyncratic direction. She and her husband, Andy Ruben, co-authored a screenplay for Poison Ivy that took place from the perspective not of a man but that of a dreamy, repressed teenage girl. In the role of the mysterious, villainous blonde, they cast 16-year-old Drew Barrymore in her first film role in nearly three years.

It is strange to think of anyone that young mounting a comeback. But Barrymore’s life was strange. In 1989, Barrymore (then 14) went public in People magazine about her struggles with alcoholism and cocaine addiction from an extremely young age. She reported that she had begun drinking at the age of nine, pouring bourbon over ice cream. Then, in 1990, she published the memoir Little Girl Lost, which went into great detail about Barrymore’s descent into addiction in the almost immediate aftermath of her acting debut in the hit Steven Spielberg film E.T. Shortly before being cast in Poison Ivy, Barrymore did interviews with talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Arsenio Hall to discuss the revelations contained in her book. These interviews, while sympathetic, focused on Barrymore’s lack of “supervision” from her single mother and the additional absence of her father (actor John Barrymore, who had been abusive towards both his wife and his daughter). Barrymore appears solemn and reserved in these appearances.

In Little Girl Lost, her co-writer Todd Gold’s narration describes her in this period as “reentering the world as fragile as a baby doe learning to walk on wobbly legs.” Barrymore’s goal and her representation at the time were to find a role that would suit this period of transition. Still, according to Shea, she was initially turned off by Barrymore’s unpredictability. “She stood me up like three times when she was supposed to come and audition,” she told Dazed in a recent retrospective of the film. “I didn’t want her at that point because she stood me up and everything…but then I saw her walking up to my front door, and she was like an angel.” 

Barrymore’s irrepressible charisma, and the contradictions she embodied, are central to Ivy’s magnetism for both the viewer and the protagonist/narrator. Poison Ivy is narrated by Sylvie Cooper (a 16-year-old Sara Gilbert, then already four seasons into her role as Darlene Conner in the sit-com Roseanne), the introverted only child of wealthy parents played by Tom Skerritt and Cheryl Ladd. At the film’s beginning, Sylvie meets a mysterious and glamorous scholarship student, who Sylvie calls “Ivy” for the tattoo on her thigh. Sylvie is the first of her family members to develop an erotic fixation on Ivy. The opening voiceover is explicit about this: Sylvie watches Ivy on a rope swing, expressing to the audience the confusion she experiences over her interest in her classmate:

“There’s something about her, I don’t know. Those lips…you know that lips are supposed to be a perfect reflection of a woman’s anatomy. Not that I’m a lesbian. Well, maybe I am. No, definitely not.” 

However, as the friendship between the two girls deepens, her parents practically allow Ivy to move into their mansion. Sylvie’s beautiful blonde mother, Georgie (Chery Ladd), is sickly and requires an oxygen tank; mostly bedridden, she allows the beautiful blonde Ivy to function as her surrogate, encouraging Ivy to borrow the glamorous clothes she can no longer wear. In a short amount of time, Sylvie’s father, Daryl (Tom Skerritt), develops a sexual relationship with Ivy, much to his daughter and wife’s distress.

Ivy’s infiltration of the Cooper family is intentional but, at the same time, it seems aimless. We know that her goal is to seduce the father and replace the mother, but we never quite know why – whether she’s motivated by a desire for love, a desire for money, or by destructive jealousy of her more privileged friend. Some of her actions, such as drugging Georgie’s champagne so that she can be alone with Daryl, are sophisticated enough to be genuinely menacing. Other schemes, like stealing away Sylvie’s dog’s affections by hiding treats in her pockets, are more juvenile and merely mean.

Director and co-writer Shea declined to characterize Ivy as a criminal mastermind, insisting in interviews that the title character was, above all else, lonely. (Singer S.Z.A., whose love for Drew Barrymore influenced the title of a song on her album CTRL,  would describe Ivy the same way in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview: “she was fucking up families and being weird, but she was really just wanted to be loved. She was lashing out because she was lonely and pissed that her life was like this.”) 

Despite this, today, Ivy in Poison Ivy is generally remembered as a villainess, one whose machinations are the same combination of frightening and satisfying. In 2008, she landed on an Entertainment Weekly list of the “26 Best Big-Screen Bad Girls”, clocking in at #6 between Melanie Griffith in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) and Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981). Part of this, no doubt, is because Poison Ivy was branded as an erotic thriller, with the theatrical poster comparing Barrymore’s performance to Sharon Stone’s in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). Another reason for Ivy’s enduring popularity is also likely her distinctive personal aesthetic, which online outlets still dedicate articles to dissecting.

But Ivy is different from the terrifying cinematic teens that followed her – her motives are vaguer, and her actions more impulsive. Ivy is ambitious, but she is also a blank slate upon which Sylvie and her family project their desires. As film critic Peter Rainer put it for the Los Angeles Times, “For the father, she’s a Lolita who, in her finest moment, catches him without his toupee and tells him he looks better without it. For the mother, she’s a sympathetic soul who fixes her oxygen mask and isn’t afraid to breathe through it…For Cooper, Ivy is like her own id gone wild.” The existing vulnerabilities within the Cooper family allow them to fall under Ivy’s thrall: Sylvie’s isolation and alienation from her parents, her father’s midlife crisis, her mother’s anger at her physical ailments, and the cold, empty house itself. The Coopers’ lives are like an unclean wound, open to infection. Ivy’s genius, if she has any at all, is that she can identify these insecurities. 

Furthermore, in depicting the relationship between Ivy and Daryl Cooper, Shea, like other women filmmakers after her, would at least in part attempt to indict a culture of what New Republic writer Ira Wells calls the “polite pedophilia’ that fructifies in the American sexual imaginary.” Like Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, Poison Ivy would develop a dual legacy: the legacy of the film itself, in which the sexual politics are complex and troubling; and the legacy of the archetype its main character came to represent, a “bad girl” whose only goal was to lure otherwise upstanding men into committing statutory rape. In the case of Poison Ivy, some of this was likely due to Barrymore’s public image in the years following the publication of Little Girl Lost.