Pervy or Priceless? Revisiting Wild Things on its 20th anniversary
Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most notorious movie moments of the ‘90s. No, not the white-knuckle D-Day invasion sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Or the Busby Berkeley bowling dream fantasia from The Big Lebowski. Or the stuck-in-a-trunk flirtation between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight. I’m speaking, of course, about the gratuitously tawdry three-way sex scene between Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards from 1998’s twisty erotic thriller Wild Things.
Bear with me.
Before we dive into this guilty pleasure’s naughtier bits, let me try to make the case for why this is one of the most under-appreciated cheap-thrill films of the Clinton era. It all begins with the folks both behind and in front of the camera. Written by Stephen Peters, who at that point was probably best known (if he was known at all) for 1993’s cheapie Dead Center about a black-belt fighter who works for the government, Wild Things was directed by John McNaughton — the Chicago genre specialist responsible for the nihilistically grim Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In other words, this was hardly anyone’s idea of a Hollywood dream team. But it was the sort of big-studio assignment that writers and directors struggling at the margins of the industry fantasize about.
Shot on a budget of $20 million, Wild Things is set in the South Florida resort town of Blue Bay — a posh yachting community just a stone’s throw from the Everglades. The proximity of this idyllic community and the wild, untamed swamps of the Sunshine State are telegraphed by several shots of alligators menacingly popping their heads out of the water, signifying that even in paradise something wicked lurks beneath the surface. Does it ever.
The plot revolves around a pair of rival female high school students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell) and their hunky, slightly dim guidance counselor (Matt Dillon, who else?). Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan is a spoiled rich girl, who, if she were in a Raymond Chandler novel would be described as the kind of girl who enjoys picking the wings off of flies. Her mother, played by Theresa Russell, is a bored and blowsy, vodka-swilling maneater.
On the other side of the tracks, there’s Campbell’s Suzie Toller — a trailer park bad girl with a grunged-out look and the kind of f-you attitude that tells you that she’s been misjudged by her town for so long she’s given in and decided to play the part of the white trash loner that they think she is. Dillon’s “educator of the year,” a sort of lapsed beach-bum stud named Sam Lombardo, crosses paths with both of them at his own peril. Meanwhile, Kevin Bacon and Bill Murray round out this better-than-it-has-any-reason-to-be cast as a police detective and an ambulance-chasing lawyer in a neck brace respectively.
Wild Things has the kind of sultry sense of place that you can feel like a drop of sweat on the back of your neck. It’s kissing-cousins to another humid, racy Florida neo-noir, Body Heat. And while it may not be the masterful work of art that that film is, it matches it twist for twist. Wild Things never stops pulling the rug out from under you. Richards has a crush on Dillon and hates Campbell. Dillon has a weakness for pretty young things and seems doomed from the get-go. And Campbell, well, she just seems to hate everyone. But the trio’s lives are about to intersect through that great equalizer: sin.
Dillon is quickly painted as a made-to-order patsy after the two girls accuse the popular teacher of rape. He’s clearly being set up, but with Murray as his borderline incompetent lawyer, he seems unlikely to be able to prove his innocence. A flurry of whiplash twists reveal that, far from being sexual predator and helpless victims, the three are actually in cahoots to scam Richards’ loaded mother out of an $8.5 million settlement. The three later meet at a seedy motel room to celebrate their successful scheme.
And it’s there, at 54 minutes into this lean-and-mean film, that Wild Things goes from being merely a scalpel-sharp slice of suspense into something far more sleazy – deliciously sleazy. Plans for the trio’s future are discussed. Champagne is popped. Smoldering looks are exchanged. Composer George S. Clinton fires up the silk-sheets sax on the soundtrack. And off comes Richards’ top. Dillon, the lunchmeat in this ludicrous, Skinemax-pitched sandwich, takes turns making out with both of his teenage accomplices. Then Richards and Campbell lean and start kissing each other as Dillon watches with the slack-jawed expression of a Powerball winner. From there, Richards goes on to bare it all as Campbell pours Champagne on her, before peeling off her own tank top and joining the action.
In 1998 this was pretty torrid stuff. Hell, in 2018, it’s pretty torrid stuff, especially for a big-studio release. It may not exactly rise to the transgressive heights of Last Tango in Paris or Blue is the Warmest Color. But it did represent a logical progression of sorts coming at the tail-end of Hollywood’s love affair with the taboo-pushing erotic thriller genre in the carnal wake of Basic Instinct, Sliver, Disclosure, and Body of Evidence (not to mention dozens upon dozens of bump-and-grind direct-to-video sexploitation flicks). What set Wild Things apart from the usual trench-coat fodder, however, was just how clever its narrative surprises and switchbacks are, including a stinger post-credits sequence that snapped together all of the missing narrative puzzle pieces in this debauched threesome’s serpentine scam.
Wild Things wasn’t the first hard-R romp to dip its toes into the ménage-a-trois waters, but it did seem to open the floodgates: Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Dreamers, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Savages. What gives the scene its shock (and schlock) value is just how out of the blue it seems to come in the film. Wild Things is a movie where the audience is always one or two steps behind the story. So when it finally arrives in that skeezy motel room, it lands with the full force of a WTF sucker punch.
For Dillon, the film (coupled with There’s Something About Mary, which came out the same year) marked a return from box-office Siberia. For Campbell, who had recently starred in Scream (but as the resident good girl), it was a departure from the safe-as-kittens inspirational family dysfunction of Party of Five. The first stage of an image makeover that never quite took off — or even made very far down the runway. And for Richards, who was really only known at the time for playing Lt. Carmen Ibanez in Starship Troopers, it might have defined her a little too much. Within four years she would be Mrs. Charlie Sheen.
As a rule, movies like Wild Things fight an uphill battle with critics would want to seem above titillation. But this was one of those rare films whose underlying smarts couldn’t be denied. EW’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a ‘B’, calling it “a tricky-bordering-on-gimmicky film noir with a glaze of softcore kink.” And in his three-star review, Roger Ebert wrote: “Movies such as this either entertain or offend audiences; there’s no neutral ground. Either you’re a connoisseur of melodramatic comic vulgarity, or you’re not. You know who you are. I don’t want to get any postcards telling me this movie is in bad taste. I’m warning you: It is in bad taste. Bad taste elevated to the level of demented sleaze.” It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 64 percent. It deserves to be higher.
Wild Things would end up making $56 million at the box office — nearly triple its budget. But its shadow extends beyond mere dollars and cents. It’s a film that has cemented its place in sex-in-cinema history, spawning three direct-to-DVD sequels. Granted, they’re all garbage. But still. Three! In 2004, an “Uncut” version of Wild Things was released on DVD. And while that cut restores several excised scenes, few of them add to the pulse-quickening quotient. They’re mostly exposition.
In the two decades since the film was released, the cast has often been peppered with questions about the film (well, one scene mostly). And some interesting tidbits have spilled out: Richards’ lawyer negotiated to the last detail exactly how much nudity would be filmed for the scene. She also reportedly could have asked for a body double, but decided to do the scene herself after going into Campbell’s trailer and downing a pitcher of margaritas with her costar. For her part, Campbell had a no-nudity clause in her contract and exercised it. As for Dillon, well, he just seemed happy that the studio’s first choice for his role, Robert Downey Jr., couldn’t do the film due to insurance issues (this was during Downey Jr.’s spin-out years). Oh, and that ubiquitous Champagne bottle? In the script, the prop was written as a dildo.
Twenty years later, Wild Things remains fun, giddy trash. Is it camp? Sure. Is it pervy? No doubt. Would you want to watch it over Thanksgiving with your parents next to you on the sofa? Absolutely not. But it is fantastically naughty fun. Focus all you want on the infamous three-way scene, but Wild Things is more than just those four minutes. It’s a movie ripe for rediscovery, preferably with a bottle of Champagne in hand.