A $3 million script, magazine cover stories up the wazoo, gay protests that must have had the publicity department doing handsprings, and $117 million at the box office — but after watching Basic Instinct in a theater and seeing it again, on video, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve all been had. Take away the gloss of director Paul Verhoeven’s slick visuals — which is precisely what the home-video format does — and you’re left with stilted dialogue, humorless performances, and a literally unbelievable mystery plot that collapses in confusion and calls it ambiguity.
Oh, yes, there’s also a heap of sex. But for all the noise about Basic Instinct breaking taboos, there’s nothing here that unrated, direct-to-video erotic thrillers haven’t been foisting on us for some time now. Essentially, all Verhoeven does is revamp a tawdry tape genre for movie-house consumption, with big stars and Dolby Stereo. As a matter of fact, in a neat example of video one-upmanship, three new tapes are hitting the shelves with copycat names and packaging, the better to ensnare not-so-bright renters: Savage Instinct, Fatal Instinct, and Animal Instincts. The first two even imitate the icepick-”I” in the Basic Instinct logo.
You can forget about Savage Instinct right off. The box art featuring an ax-wielding babe should hip you to the fact that we’re in the land of Troma Films, the low-grade ”studio” responsible for this Lady Terminator-Meets-Deliverance cheese. Unfortunately, Troma still hasn’t figured out that making bad movies on purpose doesn’t make them any better. Fatal Instinct, which boasts a plot about a cop (Thelma & Louise‘s Michael Madsen) who falls into bed with a murder suspect named Catherine (Laura Johnson), seems to be much closer to Basic Instinct. Only in outline, though: Like Savage, Fatal trips badly over such fundamentals as story logic and pacing, and the actors mouth their rancid comic-book dialogue with the passion of a dial-a-date.
Both of these movies make Basic Instinct seem like high cinema. But if Joe Eszterhas’ script for Basic offers better comic-book dialogue, it’s still comic-book dialogue, steeped in clunky, hubba-hubba tuff talk: ”He got off before he got offed,” ”I wasn’t dating him, I was f—ing him” — make your own laundry list of crimes against good screenwriting. Eszterhas has better movies to his credit (Jagged Edge, for one), so Basic Instinct can only be taken as a cynical buckmaker, with its sex-and-death opener designed solely to make jaded studio heads sit up in their mud baths. But everything else about the script is so lazy. Detective Nick Curran has the standard borderline baggage: dead wife, bad rep, drinking problem (Michael Douglas’ one-note glare doesn’t help). His urban-cowboy partner (George Dzundza) practically has ”lunchmeat” tattooed on his forehead. And the ostensibly daring subject matter — apparently, there’s a sorority of blond, bisexual psychopaths out there headed by a sleek uberwoman (Sharon Stone, in the movie’s one unpredictable performance) — is simply nutball.
All director Verhoeven brings to the party is a snappy visual nastiness and a conviction that he’s taking us on a subversive tour of the Dark Side. To which I say: Phooey. Basic falls right into the trap of thinking that ”more explicit” equals ”sexier,” and its hokey, unhip view of modern depravity (not another Sodom-and-Gomorrah nightclub scene) is there simply to provide thrills for the Holiday Inn-lounge crowd.
But here’s where the third imitation Instinct makes an interesting comparison. Animal Instincts may be as low-rent as the other knockoffs, and stars Maxwell Caulfield and Shannon Whirry are pretty hapless, but the movie doesn’t dress its sleaze in MTV pretensions and is actually more compellingly weird for it. Patterned after a real case in which a Florida cop and his wife were said to have videotaped her call-girl dalliances, Animal loads on the soft-core sex to drowsy extreme, especially in the unrated version. But its portrait of a stale marriage enlivened when hubby starts watching his wife have sex on television ripples out from the VCR to address our own video voyeurism. And that’s more daring than anything in Basic Instinct.
Of course, if Hollywood really wanted to give us subversive sex, it would show us a middle-aged, overweight couple having an off night in the sack. But who’d pay money to see that? That’s the point — and the problem. Basic Instinct: D+ Savage Instinct: F Fatal Instinct: F Animal Instincts: C+