AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 121 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In San Francisco, former rock star and nightclub owner Johnny Boz is stabbed to death with an ice pick whilst having sex with a mysterious blonde. On the case is Nick Curran, a detective who has a history of drink and drug abuse and who also once shot two innocent people. The chief suspect is Catherine Tramell, a writer whose latest novel has a killing virtually the same as that of Johnny, but nothing can be proved. Nick is instantly attracted to Catherine, who starts to taunt Nick, causing him to start drinking again and take out his frustration on his ex-girlfriend Beth Garner who was his psychiatrist. Then a cop who Nick had had a row with is found shot dead in his car….
I doubt anyone would claim Basic Instinct as one of director Paul Verhoeven’s best films. It’s a trashy, exploitative, big budget Hollywood fusion of a straight-to-video ‘erotic thriller’ [remember those, and how boring most of them were, and how many more came out after this movie?] with elements of film noir, a giallo [the idea of killings imitating murders in books is from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae] and two of writer Joe Esterhaz’s previous scripts for films, Betrayed and Jagged Edge, and I always have a good time watching it. It might lack the intelligence of most of Verhoeven’s other movies, but it’s a cleverer film than many take it credit for, a fine example of audience manipulation in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, and, well, I’m almost automatically drawn to any film that pushes the boundaries of mainstream or even ‘fringe’ cinema, goes right to the edge of what your ‘average’ person might deem ‘acceptable’, and pisses a lot of people off!
Esterhaz’s original script, entitled Love Hurts [after the title of one of Catherine’s novels] was apparently written in thirteen days and the subject of a bidding war in Hollywood. When Carolco bought the script, Micheal Douglas and Verhoeven, fresh from Total Recall, signed up straight away and Verhoeven fell out with Esterhaz and hired Gary Goldman to rewrite bits of it, in particular making Nick more sympathetic and tougher at Douglas’ behest. However he then brought Esterhaz back and what was eventually filmed was virtually the original script. Verhoeven didn’t get his way with some things, including showing an erect penis [this would have been a first for Hollywood] and a lesbian scene between Catherine and her girlfriend Roxy [what a shame we didn’t get to see that!]. Greta Sacchi, Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfieffer, Kathleen Turner and Meg Ryan were among the many actresses who turned the part of Catherine down, mostly because of the sexual content, until Verhoeven suggested Sharon Stone, inspired by her character in Total Recall. The production was picketed by gay and lesbian rights activists, who saw the film as another in a long line of Hollywood films depicting gay and lesbian people in a bad light, and they even tried to sabotage the production, which had to be constantly guarded by riot police. Unsurprisingly, all this controversy helped make the movie the biggest box office success of 1992, an unusual thing for an ‘18’ or ‘R’ rated film. It lost 45 seconds to the US censors the MPAA, toning down both the sex and the violence, though it was of course later released uncut and us lucky Brits had it unedited straightaway.
Basic Instinct opens in tremendous fashion with a blonde, whose face we don’t see [and whose body looks a little different from Stone’s to me though that makes me sound like a pervert and some have said otherwise] on top of a man having sex, and, at the point of orgasm, stabbing him viciously in the face and the stomach with an ice pick, with loads of blood. Then we get into the investigation, and for a while the film is rather slow, though not at all boring. Though everyone goes on about the sex in this movie, a great amount of time is spent on things like Nick following Catherine, in scenes inspired from similar bits in Vertigo, though we never got to see Kim Novak strip in her house watched by James Stewart. There’s a real seductive grace in some of these sequences, which are beautifully photographed by Jan De Bont, really making great use of the San Francisco locations and occasionally doing some really clever things, such as having Stone’s face appear in a sun-created halo, showing Nick’s increasing infatuation with her. Then we get to the famous interrogation scene, where Catherine is questioned by some cops including Nick, and through her taunting manner and behaviour, has the upper hand throughout. t takes place in a bizarre blue room which is light where Catherine is sitting and dark where the police are sitting. It probably doesn’t resemble any police interrogation room on earth, but it really adds both visual and emotional interest to the scene. The famous bit where Catherine crosses her legs and we see that she’s wearing no knickers was added by Verhoeven, and Stone claims he shot the ‘view’ without telling her, something the director has always denied. It was inspired by something that once happened at a party Verhoeven was at, where a woman kept crossing her legs and wasn’t wearing any underwear. He asked if she knew she was doing that and she replied “of course I do”!
There’s a slightly unsavoury subplot involving Nick being really quite horrid to his psychiatrist and ex-girlfriend Beth, culminating in a scene where Nick ‘semi-rapes’ her, but the latter does show Nick’s increasing frustration and surprisingly Verhoeven cuts away quite early. This is of course not the case with the lengthy Nick/Catherine sequence, which remains pretty explicit for mainstream cinema even today. It also shows a bizarre attitude by the MPAA, who cut Nick doing performing oral sex on Catherine but not Catherine doing the same thing to him. Of course, as things begin to be tied up, the script also throws in a couple of cracking car chases and another brutal murder at the end, and then – well, Esterhaz cheats, to be honest. All the evidence shows a certain person to be the killer, but a final shot shows it to be somebody else! It really doesn’t make much sense, but then I don’t think we’re intended to take it all too seriously, throughout Esterhaz throwing in lots of corny lines and situations. At times though the script is very knowing in its satirising of cliches, and becomes almost a spoof, but not quite. My favourite bit of dialogue is
Dr.Mick Elwaine: Nick, when you recollect your childhood, are your recollections pleasing to you?
Nick: Number 1, I don’t remember how often I used to jerk off, but it was a lot. Number 2, I wasn’t pissed off at my dad, even when I was old enough to know what he and mom were doing in the bedroom. Number 3, I don’t look in the toilet before I flush it. Number 4, I haven’t wet my bed for a long time. Number 5, why don’t the two of you go fuck yourselves; I’m outta here.
In some ways this is also quite a brave script, in that nobody, except maybe for Nick’s friend Gus, is very likeable, and the straight characters are no nicer than the gay or bisexual ones, not the only thing which makes nonsense of the fuss that was made. Nick Curran is a superb anti-hero, and Douglas really convinces us that this guy is on the edge, and, though he doesn’t make us like him very much, he makes him great to watch. I think this is his best performance and role after Falling Down. I will say there’s still no excuse for the sweater he wears in a nightclub though,why did they even let him in? As for Stone, she’s just hypnotic in the role of one on the greatest femme fatales in screen history. Often she seems to be almost playing it for laughs, but she never crosses the boundary into actual humour, you believe her for the duration of the film. Out ff the rest of the cast George Dzunda adds a welcome touch of humanity and pathos as Gus and Leilani Sarelle as Roxy just isn’t in the film nearly enough. There’s also a great final role for Dorothy Malone, very small but quite memorable. Verhoeven’s direction is superb throughout, especially during the action and murder scenes, I really think he was a very good directors of action; his precise cutting and angles add great excitement without drawing attention to themselves, and you can still see everything that’s going on. Perhaps some of the sex looks too staged, but so what, this is a movie, not reality.
Now I really need to go into Jerry Goldsmith’s score a bit, because it’s phenomenal and even better than his great work on Total Recall. His main title theme for Catherine is brilliantly seductive, beautiful and icily cold and therefore a perfect musical representation of the character, his action music is thrilling, and best of all, he actually scores the sex scenes well. Sex scenes are to my mind usually scored badly in movies, and are often better off not having any music at all, but somehow Goldsmith manages to musically convey eroticism and passion really well. During the major Nick/Catherine scene the music ebbs and flows, somehow corresponding with whatever is happening on screen, and even seems to get into Nick’s mind when Catherine ties him up and the music becomes discordant and sinister, aurally illustrating his fear. All in all, Basic instinct may still be trash, but its trash made with great skill and care and occasionally demonstrates a fearlessness that we need more of in Hollywood. As for Basic Instinct 2, all I will say is that it’s possibly one of the worst sequels ever made and I doubt I’ll ever bother reviewing it, as it’s not even bad in a fun way!