Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1992)

10. Basic Instinct

After successfully bringing his love of graphic violence to Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven's next movie would try and sell the West on his love of explicit sex. “Basic Instinct” would team the director with Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter of “Flashdance” and other, less successful films. The teaming would pay off. “Basic Instinct” would become the fourth highest grossing film of the year. It remains one of the most iconic movies of the nineties. Eszterhas would become Hollywood's highest paid hack. Verhoeven's string of super hits would continue. And Sharon Stone would become a superstar. But how does “Basic Instinct” hold up, twenty-five years later?

A washed-up rock star is brutally stabbed to death with an ice pick by the woman he's having sex with. The homicide team, including Detective Nick Curran, immediately suspect Catherine Tramell, the dead man's girlfriend. Tramell is an author, whose latest novel seems to mirror the murder. Curran soon discovers Tramell has a fascination with violent crimes. And that people around her have a habit of dying, usually in ways predicted by her writing. Yet Nick can't resist the woman and begins a steamy affair with her. Soon, he begins to suspect somebody wants him dead and he's not sure if Catherine or someone else is responsible.

“Basic Instinct” has often been compared to Verhoeven's own “The 4th Man.” Both are thrillers loaded with graphic sex, utilizing similar black widow story lines. The big difference is “Basic Instinct” is incredibly dumb. In “The 4th Man,” the audience's suspicions rise with the protagonist's. No such doubt exist in “Basic Instinct.” From the moment Catherine slithers on-screen, it's obvious she's the killer. Catherine practically tells Nick she's going to kill him. Characters repeatedly make bad decisions, choosing to associate with an obvious serial killer or rush head-first into danger. And that doesn't even consider Eszterhas' ridiculous, overheated dialogue.

By 1992, Michael Douglas had already starred in “Fatal Attraction,” the previous high water mark for the erotic thriller genre. As in that film, Douglas is an anti-hero at best. Yet Nick Curran is an even bigger scumbag than Dan Gallagher. He's a moron, continuously associating with a woman that obviously kills people. He's an asshole, being a mean-spirited jerk to everyone around him. His default response to everything is violence, attack two fellow cops throughout the film. Worst yet, he has rough sex with his ex-girlfriend in one scene, grabbing her and pushing her over a chair. She doesn't seem to entirely enjoy it. Douglas' performance is at maximum sweatiness. He's tense at all times. He plays the part like a raging gonad, all macho bluster and asshole bullshit. (Douglas would also appear in “Disclosure,” making him the go-to guy for this sort of thing.)

Douglas was already a star during “Basic Instinct.” The film would make Sharon Stone a superstar, if only for a fleeting moment. Stone was having bitchy fun in “Total Recall” but, as Catherine Tramell, she slithers through every scene. Stone purrs all her dialogue. Every movement is made to generate as much sex appeal as possible. It's over-the-top but is one of the most successful elements of the film. When Tramell shows a sensitive side, Stone makes it clear that it's just another performance while still being convincing to the characters around her. It's easy to see why Stone would become a star. But you also understand why her fame was so short lived. This kind of acting probably wouldn't work outside the high-strung world of “Basic Instinct.”

The only person who seems to be taking “Basic Instinct” seriously is Jeanne Tripplehorn. She plays Beth Garner, the police psychologist who has had an on-again/off-again relationship with Nick. This is flagrantly unethical but that's the stupid, trashy world “Basic Instinct” exists in. Anyway, Tripplehorn is the only person concerned about the events around her. She's shaken by Nick's bad behavior and Catherine's obvious murderous streak. It's a personable, human performance in a movie of sweaty excess. (I also find her way sexier than Stone but that's a matter of taste, I suppose.) At the other end of the spectrum is George Dzundza as Nick's partner, Gus. Dzundza must be going for comedy. While everyone else chokes on Eszterhas' outrageous dialogue, Dzundza bites into it. He has the movie's most ridiculous liens but manages to make them funny.

“Basic Instinct” would see Paul Verhoven re-team with Jan de Bont, the director of photography would worked on most of his Dutch film. It would also be their last collaboration, as de Bont would soon launch his own directorial career with “Speed.” Jan de Bont guarantees that “Basic Instinct” looks good. The film is incredibly slick visually. This is most obvious during “Basic Instinct's” most notorious moment. Yes, I'm talking about the crotch shot that launched a thousand Skinemax flicks. The scene is tensely directed, the camera angle's tight, focused on the characters' faces. I keep describing “Basic Instinct” as sweaty but that adjective certainly describe this moment. Everyone's faces are caked with perspiration. The luridness of the scene is stretched to its breaking point. If only all of the movie balanced sleaze and entertainment equally.

By this point, Paul Verhoeven had established himself in America as an action director. Maybe that's why “Basic Instinct” also features some action sequences. There's at least two elaborate car chases. One of which has Douglas' vehicle weaving in and out of traffic on a perilous cliff-side road, a really stupid decision he sticks with. This is just a precursor to an even big car chase in the middle of the movie. Two muscle cars leap through the hills of San Francisco. When that isn't enough, they literally drive down a staircase. Naturally, the scene concludes with a big car wreck, a vehicle twisting off an incline. If that's not enough for you, the movie also features a few tense foot chases too.

Of course, “Basic Instinct” isn't really an “action movie.” It mostly features action of a markedly different type. The multiple sex scenes – a montage of the humping sequences, that can be found in the disreputable corners of the internet, runs over twelve minutes – vary from genuinely erotic to laughable. Nick taking Beth in his living room is intimate and passionate, skeezy as the scenario is. When Nick and Catherine finally do it, “Basic Instinct” features one of the more explicit depictions of oral sex you'll find in a mainstream movie. Yet most of the sensual moments in “Basic Instinct” are overly choreographed, featuring the kind of elaborate movie sex that would send most people to the emergency room. Lots of arched backs and exaggerated moaning. This is not the raw sexiness seen in Verhoeven's Dutch films. This is shiny, slick, mid-nineties eroticism. If this stuff tickles your pickle is entirely a matter of personal preference but it threatens to push “Basic Instinct” into the realm of camp.

Verhoeven being Verhoeven, the director can't help but throw in some ultra-violence with his graphic sex. Sometimes in the same scene! The opening ice pick murder focuses on spurting blood and agonized twitching. In the last act, “Basic Instinct” features a moment that wouldn't be out-of-place in a slasher flick. A killer clad in an obscuring rain slicker corners a victim in an elevator. The man is stabbed repeatedly in the neck, oozing more blood than is probably in the human body. It's a fantastic moment, providing catharsis to the tension running under most of the movie. You know the gore is good because it's provided by Rob Bottin, who made the mutants in “The Thing” and “Total Recall.” Honestly, if “Basic Instinct” favored the hacking and slashing over the fucking and humping, I probably would've liked it more.

“Basic Instinct” is one of the few films that has been described as both feminist and misogynistic. I guess it depends on how you read things. Those that call “Basic Instinct” feminist point out that Catherine triumphs over all the men in the film, using her feminine wiles to succeed over the men who oppose her. Those that accuse the picture of sexism point out that Catherine is depicted as a venomous she-cobra, that murders everyone in her life. And both camps are right, so I have no idea what to think. Neither group can support the obvious biphobia in the picture. Catherine has a lived-in girlfriend who ends up dead. Later, another bisexual women gets Catherine's crimes pinned on her. This stuff just hasn't aged well.

“Basic Instinct” is trash and knows it. Which makes Jerry Goldsmith's elegant, haunting score surprising. Goldsmith created a sense of mystery with plucking harp chords and chiming piano beats, while whining strings build suspense throughout the music. When the film goes in for the kill, so does Goldsmith's music. During the attacks and pseudo-attacks, Goldsmith's score blares to bombastic heights, doing a jump scare's job without overdoing it. The music's strength was such that the Academy Awards honored it with a nomination, even though erotic thrillers are not the types of movies Oscar usually singles out.

“Basic Instinct” was the right movie at the right time. I can't imagine something like this making 352 million dollars in 2017. That the long delayed sequel flopped so hard, that Sharon Stone's career burned so bright so briefly, should attest to that. It built upon the AIDS-era “be careful who you fuck” subtext of “Fatal Attraction” but in a campier, more high-strung direction. Which was perfect for the nineties. It also shows Verhoeven becoming more self-aware in his trashiness. Yet several sequences – the opening, the interrogation, the car chase, that stabbing near the end – work extremely well. I'm not quite sure what to make of the final product, a movie that irritates me with its dumbness even when it's being entertaining. [Grade: B-]

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