The Best Movies You've Never Seen Featuring Poisoned Milk!

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we go swimming in bad milk. Not like, evil milk, but milk that's gone bad at the hands of man. More specifically, it's... milk... poisoning!)

If you're like me, you spend a few minutes each day thinking about Joan Fontaine. Not in a weird way, of course, but with a respectful appreciation for her acting talents, her wit (as evidenced in her autobiography No Bed of Roses), and the playful look in her eyes teasing the curious intelligence behind. From her star-making turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) to her battle with the supernatural in The Witches (1966), she was an unforgettable talent.

So what does she have to do with milk?

Fontaine won an Oscar for her performance in Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) – the only nomination for acting his films ever received – and one of the film's most famous scenes involves poisoned milk. Well, she suspects it's poisoned anyway, and Hitchcock shoots the hell out of it with ominous angles, increasing tension, and a small light hidden in the glass to make it glow against the black & white photography. It's a nerve-wracking scene as we wonder and worry that her suspicions may be correct, but while it's the most well-known sequence involving milk poisoning, it's not the only one.

See? That wasn't a convoluted journey at all. Now let's take a look at some other good to great movies featuring poisoned milk.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

A woman on vacation in the United Kingdom finds herself falling for a man who she soon learns is married. It's a case of bad timing, but two years later the pair are married and living happily together. It seems his first wife fell ill and soon succumbed to a mysterious illness, but hey, people die all the time right?

There are reasons to be suspicious of Geoffrey right off the bat. For one thing, he's an artist. For another, we see him pick up an unknown package in the beginning from a sketchy chemist on his way home to wife #1. Sally's oblivious of what's transpired, but things change after they host a party where Geoffrey meets a new female friend and grows a bit enamored of her. He starts painting the new woman, and not so coincidentally, Sally soon starts feeling oddly ill. Could he be poisoning her nightly glass of milk? Yes, yes he could be.

There's probably not much that Humphrey Bogart learned from watching Cary Grant movies, but you can imagine him viewing Suspicion and thinking "I too can play a man capable of murdering his wife with milk." Hitchcock's film famously saw an original ending fare poorly with test audiences – an ending which confirmed suspicions and cast Grant as a killer – but it was nixed in favor of something more positive. Audiences simply didn't want to see Grant as a murderer, but a few years later they had no such compunctions buying Bogie as one. The wife here is played by Barbara Stanwyck who does Fontaine proud in a similar role even as she faces a darker outcome.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.

Bitter Harvest (1981)

Ned is a dairy farmer in Michigan with a family to support and a farm to do it with, but his luck has gone south in recent days as he begins finding sick cattle among his herd. He reaches out to the proper authorities, but blame is left squarely at his own feet. More animals grow sick, his family takes ill, and his American Dream lands on death's door.

Further investigation leads to the discovery that the sick and dead animals have a chemical substance in their bloodstreams and tissue that's an ingredient in fire extinguishers. That chemical, in turn, contaminated the milk being harvested from the cows, which left calves and Ned's own family alike ill from consuming it. The poisoning isn't intentional, but the outcome is the same as health deteriorates with the risk of death. As is always the case, the animals fare far worse, though, as scores of them are shot and buried in a large mass grave. Not cool Ned! There are familiar faces here including a young Ron Howard in the lead role, and he's joined by more seasoned actors like Art Carney, Barry Corbin, Richard Dysart, and more.

The film is a straight drama that succeeds on the power of its reality, meaning that there's real weight to its story as opposed to mere thrills. That's fitting as it's not-so loosely based on a very real event that occurred in 1973. The chemical in question (polybrominated biphenyl) is the main ingredient in a flame retardant that was accidentally mixed into cattle feed and shipped out to farmers. It's a very specific story, but it touches on the very real problems still occurring in the agricultural field today as impersonal monopolies – cough Monsanto cough – put a stranglehold on farmers at every turn.

Bitter Harvest is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.

Impulse (1984)

When Jennifer gets an angry and erratic call from her mother that ends with a gunshot, she heads back to her small town with her boyfriend in tow. Her father's dairy farm looks the same, but the townspeople are changing and growing more aggressive in their words and actions. Could a recent earthquake have something to do with it? Well could it?!

Spoiler, it totally does. The quake has ruptured water pipes opening them up to toxic chemicals buried nearby, and the newly contaminated water is leaking into the cattle's drinking troughs. Everyone in town drinks milk – Americuh! – except Jennifer, and soon everyone's acting a little nutty, including her physician boyfriend. They grow violent, they grow horny, and they pretty much turn into raging jerks. The discovery isn't made until far too late, which threatens to leave the town in ruins and cut off from the outside world. The always great Meg Tilly takes the lead here with Tim Matheson playing a rare serious role as her beau, and we also get a young Bill Paxton as a farmhand.

While the cause here is particular the symptoms and outcomes bear some similarities to the likes of The Crazies (1973 and the superior 2010 remake) and David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975). This film lacks the deeper social commentary of Cronenberg's classic, but it pairs well with The Crazies as a thriller fueled by government callousness and paranoia. It's not all that well regarded from what I can tell, but it's a pretty terrific little horror film that delivers some tense sequences as normal people go mad including kids trying to burn a woman alive, another woman playing demolition derby over a parking spot, and a kid being gunned down by an angry cop. Add in a good cast and a solid ending, and you have a forgotten mid-80s thriller worth seeking out.

Impulse is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.

The Woods (2006)

Heather is something of a troublemaking teenager, and with no options left, her parents decide to send her to a remote and exclusive boarding school deep in the woods and away from temptation. She's not there long, though, before more troubles arise as she clashes with other students, fights with teachers, and discovers some creepy supernatural shenanigans going on after hours.

She tries, somewhat, to fit in at first, but as girls go missing and weird dreams plague her nights, Heather comes to suspect the faculty is somehow behind it. She's not wrong, and the key is in the milk they're serving to the girls on a regular basis. Can you guess? That's right, it's poisoned! Rather than simply killing the girls, though, the foreign elements they're ingesting have a far more unsettling purpose. Nightmarish visions of unsavory deeds combine with visceral sequences of ax-play and aggressive tree branches, and the film builds to a fun and bloody denouement.

Lucky McKee's film teases elements of Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) and William Friedkin's The Guardian (1990), but they're compartmentalized to the witchy faculty and living, breathing trees outside. The movie takes those parts and builds its own tale and world, and what starts as a story about not fitting in grows into something more mysterious and creepy. Agnes Bruckner is wonderfully compelling as the spunky teen, and she's supported by Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, and Bruce Campbell (who's no stranger to violent tree limbs).

The Woods is available on Blu-ray/DVD and streaming from Amazon.

Confessions (2010)

A teacher stands before her class and recounts a sad story of her husband dying from HIV and their child who recently drowned in the high school's pool. As the teens drink their milk and chatter among themselves, wholly disinterested in what their teacher is saying, she reveals something that grabs their attention with an icy grip.

You know where I'm going with this one right? She announces that her daughter was murdered, that the two killers are in the classroom, and that she's poisoned their milk with her husband's tainted blood. Opening scenes don't get much more twisted than this, but the film's just getting started. The film shifts between a handful of characters including the teacher and both student killers, and the story grows around them in interesting and devastating directions.

Writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima (Memories of Matsuko, 2006) is no stranger to dark, messed up tales of guilt, anguish, and madness, and while this remains his most challenging, it's also his most rewarding. The film tackles themes of indifference among the youth of today, but it's also targeting a general need for attention. The two may seem at odds, but they converge at the interaction of selfishness which is where the teacher's targeting on her way to a beautifully cruel final scene. It's a film requiring your full attention, but it's worth it.

Confessions is not currently available.

Edge of Darkness (2010)

A detective used to investigating the deaths of strangers is forced to shift gears when his daughter is gunned down in front of him. She was an activist targeting her own employer, a company working with weaponized materials under the radar, and the closer he gets to the truth the closer he gets to dying himself.

Threats come both actively and passively here, and while Det. Craven successfully fends off the traditionally physical ones he falls victim to a more insidious attack. Poisoned milk! Did you see that coming? You should have. His daughter's fridge milk has been irradiated, and Craven is soon on a ticking clock in his attempt to bring those responsible to justice. The grand threat here is one of unchecked power, and it applies elements of films like Silkwood (1983) to a more traditional thriller in its exploration of that very real issue through a father's grief for his daughter.

Mel Gibson headlines this redo of the popular UK miniseries, and with Martin Campbell in the director's chair the result is a slick and solid thriller for adults. It's not very flashy and is instead fairly grim, but it's a movie that would feel at home in the '70s as its condemnation of corporate power and (not-so) paranoid fears about government activities are weighty downers. But in a good way? I'm a Gibson fan, and he does strong work here doing what he does best – play characters who are tortured both physically and mentally until the end credits.

Edge of Darkness is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon.