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

If, pre-Poison Ivy, the media had viewed Barrymore as a sympathetic figure, a troubled child, playing Ivy seemed to invite a more sexualized version of this image. Moreover, the combination of this character and the descriptions in Little Girl Lost seemed to permit many reviewers to construct Barrymore as experienced and seductive beyond her years. References to Lolita abound in contemporary reviews of Poison Ivy, and it appeared irresistible for critics to conflate Barrymore’s real-life persona with the precocious Ivy. “After her long and well-publicized burnout period, Ms. Barrymore is an actress again, and quite a sly one in this coquettish role,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times, and referred to Ivy as “an older and much worldlier Lolita.” Probably the best summation of the media response to Barrymore post-Poison Ivy came from Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly, who dedicated the opening paragraph of his review to describing Barrymore’s appeal: 

As Ivy, a rootless Los Angeles teenager with blond, tousled hair and an ivy-wrapped crucifix tattooed on her thigh, Drew Barrymore is this year’s model of the all-American junior vixen — the haughty girl-child who drives men wild. Barrymore, the adorable tot from E.T., has grown up into a startlingly salacious young woman. With her alabaster skin and a face that’s all smooth, dimply, little-girl curves, she’s a Pre-Raphaelite waif who seems to cry out for protection. But then she flashes her dark, prematurely come-hither eyes and lets her lips curl into a knowing smirk. ‘However dirty your thoughts are,’ she seems to be saying, ‘I’m already way ahead of you.’

– Owen Gleiberman

This kind of press coverage is inextricably tied to Barrymore’s public image. It promises a very different film than the actual film, which is not a Lolita story at all. In Poison Ivy, Ivy is primarily viewed and objectified not by an adult man but by a fellow teenage girl. Ivy’s creeping influence over Sylvie, and the latter’s mounting horror at the fallout from their friendship, is what compels the story forward and comprises its emotional core. In contrast, Ivy’s seduction of Daryl is so easy that, at times, she looks almost disappointed, as if she always knew it would happen this way and merely hoped it wouldn’t.

Sylvie’s father is not a self-aggrandizing pedophile like Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. He is a man whose wife is physically unavailable to him, a man subject to the same cultural adoration for youth that prompted Calvin Klein to put 15-year-old Brooke Shields on its billboards. He is the kind of man who might have looked at a photo of a young Barrymore in a magazine and imagined her thoughts to be “even dirtier” than his.

In the decades since Poison Ivy’s release and subsequent slow-burn cult status, critics and viewers alike are still grappling with how to classify the film. But its themes reverberate throughout the 1990s, a decade rife with films that reimagine Lolita as a femme fatale. Films entirely different from Poison Ivy in tone seem to have become conflated with it in the public imagination due to their depictions of devious teenagers. Compare Poison Ivy to The Crush, released 11 months later in April 1993, the first starring role for the then 15-year-old Alicia Silverstone. If Poison Ivy was inspired by Fatal Attraction, The Crush is nearly a direct copy, with an adolescent Silverstone in the Glenn Close role. The Crush, written and directed by frequent Disney collaborator Alan Shapiro, tells the story of a handsome young journalist, Nick Elliott (played by Cary Elwes, then 30), who takes up residence in the guest house of a wealthy family and befriends their precocious teenage daughter, Adrian (Silverstone). Like Fatal Attraction, The Crush positions its male protagonist as an everyman confronting the daily temptation to transgress. 

As much as the film tries to downplay it, Nick does transgress. At first, flattered by Adrian’s attention, Nick flirts back. “Are you sure you’re only fourteen?” He asks in an early scene when Adrian visits him in the guest house late at night. “Almost fifteen,” she says, smiling knowingly. One evening, Nick encounters Adrian at a party held in the main house and watches her play piano in an off-the-shoulder white dress. “If you were ten years older…” he says to her, and again, Adrian smirks knowingly. “You’d what?” That evening ends with a kiss between the two: a mistake, like Dan Gallagher’s one-night stand in Fatal Attraction, for which Nick will be punished a thousand times over. As Adrian’s crush deepens into a dangerous obsession, Nick revises the beginning of their relationship, denying that he did anything to encourage her affections.

The Crush is a morality tale about adolescent girls the way that Fatal Attraction is a morality tale about infidelity. It seems to assert that any ordinary, heterosexual man, for the most part morally healthy, could understand how Nick might be attracted to Adrian, but that the terror he faces after his relatively minor slip with her should serve as a warning to all. Interestingly, although the theatrical poster for Poison Ivy makes a point to compare its star to Sharon Stone, the promotional materials for The Crush seem intent on emphasizing Alicia Silverstone’s girlishness. The poster, which features a close-up of Silverstone’s face in sunglasses and red lipstick, is almost certainly a visual reference to the promotional poster for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, Lolita

The difference between the films Poison Ivy and The Crush also shows up in the different ways that the young actresses responded to more sexualized press coverage. The nuances of Poison Ivy, along with her friendships with costar Sara Gilbert and director Shea, seemed to give Barrymore the tools to play with and reclaim some of her very public trauma. In interviews of the time, she seems to be, as an actress, interested in Ivy and, as a teenager, amused by the fascination with her willingness to play her. Perhaps sensing a continued opportunity to reference her reformed juvenile-delinquent image, Barrymore followed Poison Ivy by taking on the role of infamous “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher in Andy Tennant’s made-for-TV movie, The Amy Fisher Story, the following year.

In the years since Poison Ivy, Barrymore perfected a kind of tongue-in-cheek wild child persona that departed from the solemnity of her post-Little Girl Lost press appearances. In April 1995, 19-year-old Barrymore appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman braless in low-rise black pants. The camera pans over her lower back to show her tattoos as she hugs Letterman in greeting. During the interview, Letterman asks Barrymore about a story he heard about her dancing nude at a nightclub. “Please tell me you didn’t do that,” he says in a fatherly tone, and she tilts her face down demurely and admits she did. “It’s liberating, it’s free!” she protests, and explains that her dancer persona’s name is – what else? – Lolita. “Would you like me to do a dance for you?” she asks, and as the audience begins cheering, she climbs up on Letterman’s desk, launching into a playful, improvised routine that ends with her flashing the late-night host as he pulls amused faces into the camera.

Barrymore, who also posed for Playboy that year, seemed to revel in the trouble that she created. In moments like the Letterman appearance, she seemed to think of her “bad” behavior as ultimately fun-seeking, designed to shock, maybe, but not necessarily to titillate. “It was all very playful and well-intended,” she said on a 2021 episode of The Drew Barrymore Show, reflecting on the incident.

Meanwhile, actress Alicia Silverstone was uneasily confronting a reputation as a forbidden sex symbol and vocally lamenting the lack of control over her image. After her performance in Alan Shapiro’s 1993 film, The Crush, director Marty Callner cast Silverstone in three music videos for Aerosmith: first “Cryin'”, followed by “Crazy” and “Amazing”. These videos showcase Silverstone’s embodied acting style, particularly her elastic facial expressions, but they also work to methodically construct a sexual ideal. In the video for “Cryin’,” the girl played by Silverstone undergoes a period of rebellion after a fight with her boyfriend. Throughout the song, she alters her tattoo of his name, gets her navel pierced, and changes out of a floral sundress into jeans by the side of the road. The video for “Crazy” begins with Silverstone, clad in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, climbing out of the window of her school, her plaid skirt lifting to reveal lacy tap pants underneath. 

The Crush turned a profit of over $7 million at the box office, but it was the Aerosmith videos that catapulted Silverstone to national fame and cemented her image. In 1994, she appeared on The Jon Stewart Show, where a grinning Stewart introduced her as “the chick from the Aerosmith videos” and interviewed her in a way that seemed designed to make Silverstone squirm. “Did any of that really happen?” He asks, referring to her navel piercing in the video. When she says no, he replies, “I’m crushed.” Not even a minute into the interview, he brings up the subject of her age. “How old are you?” asks Stewart. “Seventeen,” replies Silverstone. “Seventeen,” Stewart repeats, leering at her. “Cool.” The audience starts to laugh. “Man,” he says, as their laughter swells. “I feel like Joey Buttafuoco all of a sudden,” referencing, of course, the much-older boyfriend of Amy Fisher. 

Silverstone herself revealed in a 1995 Rolling Stone profile that she found being seen as a teenage temptress both confusing and upsetting. “What people think about me, of doing with me – it can be gross,” she told reporter Rich Cohen, even as, elsewhere in the article, costars like Paul Rudd insist that she is “seductive beyond her years.” “I can’t see anything about me that equals sex,” she says. Cohen could: he opened the profile with the line “Alicia Silverstone is a kittenish eighteen-year-old film star whom lots of men want to sleep with,” and extols her youthful, pristine beauty. “She has the brand-new look of a still-wet painting – touch her and she’ll smudge.”

By 1995, Amy Heckerling’s teen comedy Clueless made Silverstone an even bigger star than the Aerosmith videos, but she felt compelled to distance herself from her teen-dream image. In the same Rolling Stone profile, she insists that she was not a part of the “young Hollywood” scene and stresses that her legal emancipation at age 15 had nothing to do with forgoing adult supervision; she remained very close with her parents, particularly her father. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, Silverstone recalls feeling depleted by fame early on: “It was really just extreme how I was being talked to and talked about.” This interview refers heavily to Cohen’s Rolling Stone article. 

That “provocative behavior” from teenage girls could be anything other than calculated was not an idea that thrillers seemed willing to consider as the ’90s wore on. In 1997, Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne mounted his adaptation of Lolita with a new screenplay by Stephen Schiff, designed, apparently, to be more faithful to Nabokov’s original novel than Kubrick’s film. In the titular role, Lyne cast 16-year-old Dominique Swain. The lanky, redheaded Swain, who spends most of the film glaring or else eerily expressionless, certainly seems less obviously an object of fetishization than Sue Lyon’s blonde sex kitten from the 1963 adaptation – at least in still photographs. In the film itself, though, the control that Humbert imagines Lolita has over him is made literal.

Irons portrays literature’s most famous sex criminal as a meek prisoner of his desire, which Swain’s Lolita successfully weaponizes against him. In 1998 came the release of John McNaughton’s Wild Things, a satirical thriller that sent up the trope of the dangerous teenager and the helpless adult man with playful pornographic imagery that seemed to directly poke fun at the little-girl fetishes that Lyne’s Lolita had stoked. Nevertheless: Like The Crush, Wild Things creates a teenage girl (here played by 25-year-old Neve Campbell) who manages to wield immense power over the adult men in her life via superintelligence, the kind of intellect that allows her to stay one step ahead at all times, and crucially, to never really be the victim of predation. These girls are, at all times, utterly in control; they are the ones to be feared. 

Erotic thrillers that featured adults emerged partly to express anxieties about changing sexual mores. It follows that those that featured teenagers were curious about how the objectification of young women moved from the explicit to the implicit at the end of the 20th century. It was no longer socially acceptable to state openly the desire to have sex with an underage girl. However, the appearance of being “barely legal” still set the beauty standards used in marketing, onscreen, and of course, in pornography (running the term “jailbait” through the Google nGram viewer, one sees an exponential increase in usage in the ’90s that has only recently started to decline).

Post-Poison Ivy, thrillers were more interested in refracting these anxieties from the perspective of men, as in The Crush, Lyne’s Lolita, or Wild Things. This focus makes sense when one accounts that many of these more commercial films were projects helmed almost entirely by men. Additionally, the erotic thriller genre took its reference points from film noir, a genre in which women almost universally represented the moral downfall of the male protagonist. 

Films that took on the point of view of the teenage girl, as Poison Ivy had done, tended to remain the purview of women filmmakers with much smaller budgets and less of an interest in genre conventions. For example, Poison Ivy contains many of the same plot elements as Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 cult classic Thirteen: a toxic, erotic friendship between two young girls, one from a troubled family, one seemingly without family; a precociously sexual and frequently cruel teenage interloper; a well-intentioned mother who struggles to parent a traumatized daughter. And both are an indictment of a culture that is as much titillated by troubled teens as it is disturbed by them.

Thirteen, whose screenplay was co-authored by Hardwicke and eventual star Nikki Reed, who was then 14, also caused a sensation at Sundance. The relationship between the two girls in Thirteen echoes the meet-cute in Poison Ivy: as they stand face to face, Tracy (played by Evan Rachel Wood, also 14 at the time of filming) catalogs the elements of Evie (Reed) she admires and covets, the camera flickering through close-ups of glossed lips, straightened hair, and a belly ring. Evie, like Ivy, is a “bad girl” of shadowy origin; like Ivy, she inspires fear, lust, and whispers among her classmates. Evie, like Ivy, annexes Tracy’s family – here, a single mother and recovering addict, played by Holly Hunter, and a put-upon older brother (Brady Corbet), striving to be the man of the house.

Under Evie’s influence, Tracy begins to use drugs, dresses in midriff-and-cleavage-baring outfits, and has her tongue and navel pierced. Together, they impulsively attempt to seduce Tracy’s 20-something neighbor, Luke, with mixed results: he first brushes them off as “jailbait”, then, as both girls climb on top of him, he seems to relent. In the end, he throws them both out of the house before things can go too far. In rewatching the film, what struck me the most about this scene was how tiny the girls look straddling then 28-year-old actor Kip Pardue. This scene is startling, but it’s not erotic. We see Luke struggling against temptation, but Evie is not so dangerously sexy as she is wheedling and insistent. 

Even so, reviews of Thirteen tended to place her into the Ivy/Adrian archetype. “Evie exerts more control than anyone else in the film because she’ll do and say whatever it takes to get what she wants,” wrote Elvis for The New York Times, “She’s a master, a child expert of ratiocination.” I watch the film, and I don’t see it. Would Tracy have tried something like this without Evie? Probably not. But Evie is not strategic. In Poison Ivy, Ivy is the teenage femme fatale as imagined by a woman screenwriter and portrayed by a uniquely precocious young actress; this is why she feels remarkably grounded despite her terrible actions. Evie is the same character imagined by a screenwriting team composed of an adult woman, Hardwicke, and a teenage girl, Reed.

In watching it, one understands how Tracy could build Evie up as a brilliant seductress or a master manipulator – it’s the perspective of a peer who feels herself always a few steps behind. Mitchell’s review, weirdly enough, is titled “Trading Barbie for Drugs, Sex, and Halter Tops”, a title that reminded me of something the 15-year-old Barrymore told Oprah in a 1990 interview, reflecting on her descent into drug and alcohol addiction while still a child: “I didn’t want to play with Barbies. I wanted to go out to a club and dance.” The characters in Thirteen seem to be struggling with the same conundrum as a young Barrymore: when one is forced, through trauma, to grow up quickly, the trappings of childhood no longer feel appropriate.