Two Years Too Late: “Basic Instinct”

Just for clarification’s sake, I am writing today about the first Basic Instinct film. I understand the sequel is an entertainingly awful film, as it has been championed by the Yakmala! team. But it seems like the first movie gets off too lightly, and it’s terrible in its own regard.

Queta and I had a mini-movie marathon this past Sunday. She wanted things to occupy her time as she completed a school project. We chose Pixar’s Up and John Waters’ one-man show This Filthy World from Netflix Instant. After a break, Queta found Basic Instinct playing on one of the thirty-eight Cinemax channels we have, and decided to leave it on there, as our own Junior Yakmala! party. She had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it in full since film school (that’s right, this was taught at USC Film), and believe me, it hasn’t lost its ridiculous edge.

The “erotic thriller” genre has been skewered here before, and Basic is arguably the king of that genre. Released in 1992, it feels vaguely like an 80s movie (hence the article’s title). As happens with many things, changes in taste and aesthetics, though often designated by decade, don’t exactly make clean breaks every ten years. There is an uncanny valley of movies from the early 90s that still have the residue of the 80s on them. Basic is definitely one of those movies. There are Porsches, and clubs, and dancing, and cocaine, and Michael Douglas. I guess, with a release in early ’92, it was filmed in early ’91 or so, meaning the script was written at least some months before that, putting it very close to the 80s. Still, it could’ve been released in 1986, and few would probably think it out of place.

Now, Basic still has a 6.9 rating on IMDb, and I have no idea why. The movie’s plot is insane, based upon the idea of throwing Occam’s Razor into a pit and urinating on it. Nearly everyone Catherine Trammell (Sharon “The Beaver” Stone) knows ends up murdered in the film – she even laments this to Nick Curran (Michael “The Cradle-Robber” Douglas) as she cries over her dead lesbian lover Roxy (Who “The Fuck” Cares) – and though there are early attempts to pin the murders on her, it’s just easier for Nick to accept that there’s some vast conspiracy against her; that someone is setting her up. This is a (fictional) distillation of some of the dialogue:

Cops: He was found dead, tied up with a white scarf, stabbed with an icepick.

Catherine: I enjoy white scarves and icepicks.

Cops: Did you kill him?

Catherine: No.

Cops: OK, then. You run along now.

The SFPD in Verhoeven's mind.

Oof. And when the SFPD finally catches on, and insists that Catherine DID kill all those guys, Nick is so blinded by love (?, lust?, coke?) that he refuses to believe them until it’s too late… OH WAIT, someone else did it, I guess? It was his ex-girlfriend (Jeanne “The Sister-wife” Tripplehorn), who happened to not only know Catherine in college, but KNOW her in college? I guess? Except the actual ending says no? I also guess? What?

The dialogue isn’t much better. I’ve touched on the exchanges between Catherine and the cops, where a cop brings up something, and she accepts it, but she didn’t kill him, over and over again. But there are some really choice lines. My personal favorite is Catherine’s line right before the infamous “shot” (which I will get to momentarily), “Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick?” If any single line sums up the filthy 80s-ness of this movie, it’s that one. I’m planning on making it my Christmas card this year:

Nick’s partner, Gus (George “The Manchild” Dzundza), is Emperor of Dialogue in this movie. Here are some samples:

He got off before he got offed.

Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!

You got goddamned Tweety Birds flutterin’ around your head, that’s what you got! You think you can fuck like minks, raise rugrats, and live happily ever after?

Note the last sentence: it’s used in the ending. Nick knows that Gus, even in the throes of his insane, drunk cowboy ramblings, has something resembling sense.

Now I should address the 500 pound beaver in the room and discuss “The Shot”; that half-second of exposed flesh that ignited a firestorm of publicity and, in my opinion, was basically the reason the film got such notice in the first place. First off, it’s not that impressive. There was such an air of salaciousness about it when it came out that I thought it would be something amazing. Alas, when I finally saw it, it wasn’t. It’s just a fleeting upskirt shot, most likely a filming accident that was capitalized upon for publicity. All it does is prove that Sharon Stone, indeed, has one.

Furthermore, it’s just one in a series of incidents of “heightened sexuality” that put this film at the top of the “erotic thriller” pile. “Heightened sexuality” is in quotes because, really, it all seems like a desperate attempt by the filmmakers (Verhoeven and Eszterhas especially) to inject sexual controversy into a standard detective B-movie. The Shot, the often violent sex, the trendy lesbianism, the blase discussions of sex – all of these smack of filmmakers trying to manufacture “daring.” It all seems like they wanted to discuss changing sexual ideas in society, but the overall campiness of the film undercuts what could have been a strong debate. I can’t take themes like that seriously when I hear something like, “Have you ever fucked on cocaine?” It wanted to be dirty, and perhaps at the time of its release it was, but now it just seems tacked-on and desperate.

So, the time of Basic Instinct came and went, and what did it leave? Michael Douglas has since gone on to a steady, successful career, though it has slowed down lately, and with his cancer diagnosis, he’ll probably take some time off. Jeanne Tripplehorn was never a huge star, but as one of the anchors of “Big Love” she’s doing just fine. The film is also full of “Hey, it’s that dude!” character actors: Dzundza, Daniel Von Bargen (of “Seinfeld” and “Malcolm in the Middle”), Mitch Pileggi (pre- “X-Files”), and Stephen Tobolowsky (of every film ever made). That I can recognize them in current work means the film didn’t seem to ruin any of their careers. And director Paul Verhoeven weathered through Showgirls before directing Starship Troopers, a film I also didn’t enjoy, but that many have taken to heart as some sort of subversive discussion of fascism (or glorious camp flick).

The two people who really went downhill since the film are writer Joe Eszterhas and Sharon Stone. Eszterhas made his name with this film, becoming that rare breed of screenwriter: Writer People Outside of Hollywood Knew By Name. He managed to write a few other bizarre, sub-par erotic thrillers before the wonderful mistake that was Showgirls, the film that took “sexual daring” too far into the land of campiness, and came out a cult classic. He hasn’t done much in Hollywood since then, and his name, once synonymous with Hollywood power, is now almost an insult if applied to someone.

I've seen more creases in an origami swan! FACE!

Stone? Basic made her career, and she went on to a couple of other similarly pulpy thrillers, Sliver and Intersection, before what would probably be her critical peak, the role of Ginger in Scorsese’s Casino (and, though I’m really not a fan of hers otherwise, she did a great job in that role). After that, though, came a series of critically reviled (if not simply ignored) films: Sphere, Antz, Gloria, The Muse, Cold Creek Manor, and (ugh) Catwoman. Since then, it’s been small roles in decent-sized films, and starring roles in films I’ve never heard of, like Streets of Blood, and a Turkish TV crime series. Seriously.

Look, this probably wasn’t a film for me, but after watching it, I still can’t understand how audiences at the time went for Basic Instinct. The film is so silly, so saturated in sex, so ridiculously acted and written and directed that I don’t understand how it was such a big hit.

Oh, right. That.

About Louis

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3 Responses to Two Years Too Late: “Basic Instinct”

  1. Clint says:

    My theory is that it’s the straight up porn factor. You say it debuted two years too late. I say that its timing was perfect, because it squeaked in just prior to when the Internet starting delivering porn-on-demand to the average Joe and Jane, not to mention publicizing all sorts of fetishes that make the ones in Basic Instinct look tame.

    We watch it now and we wonder what the big deal was, and since the shock and titillation aspects are gone we start looking past the sex to things like character and plot to hold our interest (and as much as I enjoy his action flicks, Verhoeven has never been strong on that). By the time of Showgirls you could get titties on your home computer rather than having to sneak into a cineplex to watch Berkeley flopping around spastically, and that was a death knell for anyone relying on it to cover for weakness elsewhere.

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