Episode 30: Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic cover site

Introduced by Devlin

The other day I was watching Chopping Mall on my phone. Again. While I’m an aficionado of shit cinema, I’m not an expert like the Red Letter Media lads or the Good Bad Movie Club. So while I know some of the names of the more prolific and odd schlockmeisters like David DeCoteau (who transitioned from skin flicks, to Full Moon Features horror cheapies like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, to a filmmaking sausage factory that oscillates between shirtless-dude-on-dude-softcore and insane family films like Santa’s Summer House at a rate that only makes sense when you see the absolute lack of production values on display), I wasn’t aware of Chopping Mall director Jim Wynorski’s career beyond his seminal shopping centre ‘droid rager until I read this article by chance while trying to find reference photos to use for this episode’s cover image sketch.

As mentioned within the episode, Basic Instinct kicked off a cottage industry of vaguely titillating, gauzy suburban sex thrillers that flooded video stores across the US in the 90s and gave my generation of British teens a reason to give a shit about the then-fledgling Channel 5 a few years later. In retrospect it makes total sense that Corman-trained filmmakers would turn their hand from boobs ‘n gore quickies to this suddenly lucrative, equally disreputable field, where turning out passable work on ultra-low budgets and on schedule was prized above all else. So it came to pass that one of the first post-Instinct titles, 1993’s Sins of Desire, was directed by Wynorski. There had, of course, been erotic thrillers before Paul Verhoeven set the box office alight with his sweaty, excessive genre apex, like the Michael Douglas-starring Fatal Attraction (although the tone was overall less lascivious and more dramatic) and, earlier in the 80s, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas’s own Jagged Edge, but nothing had quite indulged and amped up the sexiness like the tale of Sharon Stone’s insatiable ice-pick heiress toying with her willing prey.

Within the same year of release, Zalman King’s Playboy-produced anthology series Red Shoe Diaries would see a sad David Duchovny introduce tales of sexy intrigue featuring such unlikely players as Matt LeBlanc, The Mummy’s Arnold Vosloo, Margaret Cho, and Lt. Tasha Yar herself, Denise Crosby to our TV screens. In the years that followed, Michael Douglas would return (sadly his deep-V sweater would not) in the definitely misogynist Disclosure, and the world would learn about the joys of virtual reality filing systems. Bruce showed his Willis (or at least a stunt cock) in Color of Night and nobody cared. Madonna failed to convert her international mega stardom in to movie stardom by dripping wax on to Willem Defoe’s crotch. Eszterhas and Sharon Stone reunited for the very rubbish Sliver with a lesser Baldwin in tow, and Eszterhas and Verhoeven would try and recreate the magic when Jesse from Saved by the Bell thrashed away on top of Kyle McLachlan in the latter-day camp classic and at-the-time critical laughing stock Showgirls. By the time most of these films flopped to a greater or lesser extent, Demi Moore’s infamously huge payday for Striptease had probably called time on this experiment in Hollywood once and for all, a scant 4 years after Basic Instinct’s huge box office haul kicked the whole thing off.

As with so many boom-and-bust cycles in Hollywood, the issue wasn’t entirely audience burnout. The sheer number of titles turned out by the prolific DTV subgenre queens Shannons Tweed and Whirry alone attest to the size of the marketplace, and outside of those two, it seemed that all one needed was a photo feature in Playboy any time in the last 15 years to qualify for your own mini franchise of saucy shenanigans. Sadly, pretty much all of the films ended up being crap. The same as happened when everyone wanted to cash in on American Pie and within a couple of years we end up with Sex Drive and Euro Trip. Exploitation cinema is by nature exploitative, and there’s an argument to be made that to a certain degree, huge swathes of Hollywood cinema is exploitation, given its obsession with chasing trends and trying to pre-empt audience cravings. But I’d certainly say that genres like the teen sex comedy and the erotic thriller would veer closer to exploitation than most, given that their appeal rests at least in part on, well, sex. So the purveyors of these films are probably less inclined to put much emphasis on quality, and will also be more likely to cash in while the getting is good, regardless of the calibre of the scripts. Hollywood threw some big names at their attempts, but while I have respect for, say, Barry Levinson as a filmmaker, he’s probably not a guy I’d think of if I wanted to steam up the screen.

The erotic thriller boom leaves a weird legacy. A lot of terrible films, a reputation which persists to this day of embarrassing seediness, and a never-matched high point in the film we discuss in this episode. Basic Instinct went further than any film that followed dared to, so the imitations that followed couldn’t help but feel extremely pale. But the collapse of the Hollywood genre, and its knock-on effect on the cheerfully cheap knock-offs that so many of us recall from those Friday night Channel 5 slots that would be sniggered about at school on Monday, serves to highlight how little eroticism makes its way on screen now. Sure, it’s often squirm-inducingly awkward or even off-putting when it does, but I’d much rather that weird and messy nonsense make its ill-advised trip through the writer’s brain and on to the script page and the screen than the sterility that occurs when everyone self-censors for fear or ridicule. I love ridicule! It’s the only thing that rescues mediocre or bad cinema from being intolerable. At least when somebody is letting slip their peccadilloes, we can identify with them as human beings with urges. Basic instincts, even. And anyway, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where a Nicolas Roeg film exists which consists of F/X’s Bryan Brown giving an extended massage to Mimi Rogers? That’s the kind of madness that ensues when the film industry gets horny. For that alone, I think we should salute Basic Instinct. For other reasons, please enjoy this episode, where myself, Gali and our good friend Matt try our very best to be adults about things.
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