Basic Instinct at 30: a lurid throwback to the days when Hollywood was still taking risks thriller

TThirty years ago, Basic Instinct was all there was to talk about. Before our present age of Insta controversy and aggregate showbiz news, it was widely known that screenwriter Joe Esther had sold his screenplay for a record $3 million and that protesters in San Francisco, including Esther himself, opposed the film’s association with lesbianism had violent psychosis. Director Paul Verhoeven was known to have fought the MPAA from an NC-17 rating to the toughest R rating in the States, and it wasn’t long before the famous interrogation scene involving Catherine Trammell, the author and Power, was, caused a stir – a murderess, played by Sharon Stone, crosses her legs in front of a room full of sweaty men. (However, the hideous trick behind this shot was still unknown.)

It wouldn’t be right to call an artist of Verhoeven’s caliber a troll, but he’s a button pusher of the first order. While his films, including last year’s nun-ploitation howler Benedetta, have an underlying seriousness in their provocations, they also like to poke at the wasp’s nest and seize every opportunity to crush the scolding. Basic Instinct is a lively, sexy, and erratically repugnant vulgarization of film noir aimed at American audiences with such surgical precision that its title refers to them as much as it does to the pleasure-seeking lunatics on screen. Although he was from Holland, Verhoeven understood better than anyone in Hollywood the puritanical response of sex and violence, how they could simultaneously attract and repel. Like a chemist dabbling with acids and bases, he knew how to generate heat.

Still, Basic Instinct was less SUI generic Phenomenon as a studio that finds the right person for the job. The $3 million spent on Esther’s embarrassing but grossly effective screenplay was a bit of a gamble on the hundreds of millions Fatal Attraction had made a few years earlier, which also starred Michael Douglas as the offended victim of his own lust. Verhoeven just made F1 better: he had already given a Hitchcock blonde a knife in his great Dutch thriller The Fourth Man, and Basic Instinct allowed him to do it in San Francisco, home of Hitchcock’s Vertigo to do once. And he was commissioned to shock.

It doesn’t take time for him to get through. To the swells of Jerry Goldsmith’s score – a brilliant harlequin version of something Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Herrmann could have done – Verhoeven begins with a suggestive dance of images around a blurry reflective surface before finally focusing on a ceiling mirror above two themselves writhing bodies sharpens under. The woman at the head, her blond hair obscuring her face, first reaches for a white silk handkerchief to tie her husband’s wrists to the bedpost. She then grabs an ice pick and repeatedly brutally stabs him in the face and chest. (How wild? Rob Bottin, legendary effects and makeup artist on The Thing and Verhoeven’s Total Recall, went all out again here.) The victim is a retired rock star who’s never retired from sex and drugs. “He got out before he got out,” jokes a crime scene investigator, spitting out one of Esther’s multi-million dollar one-liners.

As Nick Curran, the ultimate cop-on-the-edge dude, Douglas returned to the town that gave him a career as TV cop The Streets of San Francisco, but his detective here follows his impulses as much as he follows evidence – and mostly you confuse the two. This makes him an ideal character for Catherine, who as a perpetrator portrays such an open case that the obviousness of her guilt becomes her best defense. Not only is she the victim’s longtime sex partner, who was spotted leaving a club with him on the night of the murder, but she also wrote a novel about the murder of a rock star. Nick comes back to her mindset, not least because he’s being drawn into a pansexual orbit despite her stated intention of writing one New Book about a police officer who is killed after falling in love with the wrong woman.

Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. Photo: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Esther’s script adds some hot alternatives to Catherine, like her jealous lesbian lover Roxy (Leilani Sarelle) and Nick’s ex-lover Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a police psychologist who protects him from an internal affairs investigation. There’s also endless lore about Catherine’s past, in which her billionaire parents and Berkeley professor of psychology died under mysterious circumstances. In one of the film’s more ridiculous scenes, Nick finds Catherine at home crying over the many, many, many people in her life who appear to be dying prematurely. She cries about 10 feet from an ice pick. She likes “corners” in her drinks.

One of Verhoeven’s strongest qualities as a filmmaker is that he is sophisticated without ever having to be respectable, allowing a film as unabashedly cheesy and “fake” as Basic Instinct to plumb depths that exploitation of the seas never reach can. Verhoeven knows enough about cinema to realize that you can’t turn back the clock on noir, so his solution is to make the implicit explicit and allow his femme fatale’s sexual and intellectual confidence to engulf the entire film. Though Stone was low on the list of actors who were offered the role — and flatly turned it down given the demands of the job — in hindsight she makes any other choice seem unthinkable. Vertigo is about a woman (and then a second woman) held captive by a man’s obsession; Basic instinct has the man captive, and Catherine is the one pulling the strings, often accompanied by Stone’s half-sinister/half-seductive grin.

At the same time, it’s not revisionist thinking to flinch at certain moments in Basic Instinct, like when Nick crosses consensual boundaries with Beth or Roxy suggests they talk “man to man”. And it’s just good taste to laugh at Esther’s over-the-top style of writing, which Verhoeven doesn’t repress here any more than he would later on Showgirls. But the fact of the matter is, nothing like Basic Instinct could come out of risk-averse Hollywood today, at least not to the extent that it could propel it to the heart of American culture. The thirst is still there and hardly anything can quench it.

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