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BBC Culture: How Basic Instinct defined the erotic thriller - and killed it


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Basic Instinct defined the erotic thriller – and killed it
(Image credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

By Nicholas Barber3rd June 2021
With a new restoration being released, Paul Verhoeven's film has kept the world talking for three decades. Its trick was to push a genre to its absurd limits, writes Nicholas Barber.

Almost 30 years ago, a lurid thriller about a serial killer and a police detective was released. The reviews were so-so ("talky, slow-moving, and derivative", said Stephen Hunter in the Baltimore Sun), its star, Michael Douglas, had played similar roles before, and the major talking point was one blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of his co-star's crotch. It may sound tawdry, but Basic Instinct went on to be one of the biggest hits of the decade (just ahead of GoldenEye and Beauty and the Beast), and today it is as well-known as ever – both for positive and negative reasons. A deluxe new 4K restoration is being released, but Sharon Stone has been vocal about how exploited she felt by the infamous shot, and how unhappy she is with the reissue. (She has condemned it as "the director's XXX cut", although Studio Canal informs BBC Culture that the restored film is in fact the one that was released in Europe in 1992, and contains no material that hasn't been on previous editions of the DVD.)

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What its defenders and its detractors can agree on is that Basic Instinct stands apart from all the other erotic thrillers of the 1990s. As newsworthy as Unlawful Entry and Single White Female may once have been, they aren't getting prestigious reissues now, nor are their stars making headlines by writing about what went on behind the scenes. Matthew Turner is a critic, author, and the host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast devoted to the erotic thriller, and he rates Basic Instinct as the best and most important of the 76 films the podcast has covered so far. "It is the sine qua non of the genre," he tells BBC Culture. "Without Basic Instinct, there is no way the erotic thriller would have been as big as it was in the 1990s, and there is no way we would be talking about it now."


Basic Instinct's preposterous plot includes over-the-top backstories for both Sharon Stone's femme fatale and Michael Douglas's cop (Credit: Alamy)

Basic Instinct's preposterous plot includes over-the-top backstories for both Sharon Stone's femme fatale and Michael Douglas's cop (Credit: Alamy)

The first stirrings of the genre could be felt in the 1980s when on-screen sex and violence were getting together in all sorts of steamy new positions. Audiences who wanted a mystery plot to go with their socially acceptable titillation could see Body Double, Sea of Love, Fatal Attraction (co-starring Douglas), and other torrid tales of stalkers, blackmailers and murderers with great hair. Essentially, these were film noir throwbacks that came with the enticing prospect that the actors might take their clothes off. But they weren't yet known as erotic thrillers. It was Basic Instinct that defined and popularised the genre. On the other hand, it could be said that Basic Instinct helped kill the genre, too. It took every aspect of the erotic thriller to such outrageous extremes that there was nowhere left for any film in the same vein to go.

All the scenes in the script with any nudity had a descriptive tag line: 'It is dark. We can't see clearly'. I wanted those scenes to be about shadows and arty camera angles, not about skin – Joe Eszterhas

One of the people responsible was Joe Eszterhas, who had already written a proto-erotic thriller, 1985's Jagged Edge. Eszterhas was a tough-talking, macho ex-journalist who came as close as any screenwriter ever has to being a rock star. His screenplays sold for record-breaking fees, and, as he boasted in his 2004 memoir Hollywood Animal, he "was the only screenwriter in the history of Hollywood who had groupies". It's almost unthinkable today, when the vast majority of blockbusters are based on books, comics and TV shows, but Eszterhas was paid a fortune for the skimpiest of story outlines. One day, he recounts in Hollywood Animal, he "thought it would be fun to do a movie about a man being manipulated by a woman who is brilliant, omnisexual, and evil" – and the screenplay he bashed out in 13 days was bought in 1990 by Carolco, an independent studio, for $4 million. He had originally called it Love Hurts, but before sending it to his agent, he wisely changed the title to something punchier: Basic Instinct.

A creative battle of wills

Then as now, however, the power of Hollywood screenwriters was limited. Eszterhas hoped that Milos Forman would direct the film, but Carolco opted for Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director of RoboCop and Total Recall, in which Stone had a small role as a secret agent. Verhoeven could deliver splashy crowd-pleasing entertainment, but there was something different and subversive about his films: he went to the edges of good taste and beyond, leaving viewers unsure of whether they should be gasping or laughing. "Verhoeven came from Dutch cinema, where graphic nudity and sex scenes were more acceptable. That was what he was used to," says Dr Stevie Simkin, the author of Basic Instinct: Controversies. "He saw one of his Dutch films, The Fourth Man, as a kind of spiritual prequel to Basic Instinct, and there were scenes in that which weren't shocking for continental audiences but would never have been made in America at the time. He was definitely trying to push some boundaries."

What that meant in terms of Basic Instinct was that Verhoeven planned to take everything that was implied in the screenplay and slap it onto the screen. As Eszterhas says in Hollywood Animal: "All the scenes in the script with any nudity had a descriptive tag line: 'It is dark. We can't see clearly'. I wanted those scenes to be about shadows and arty camera angles, not about skin, and certainly not about full-frontal nudity." Verhoeven had other ideas. Indeed, Eszterhas was so appalled by the director's cheerfully matter-of-fact approach to all things carnal that he tried to buy back his script from Carolco, and released a prudish press statement complaining that he had written a "psychological mystery with the love scenes done subtly", whereas "Verhoeven's intention is to make Basic as a sexually explicit thriller".


Director Paul Verhoeven opted for an especially frank take on the material, which distinguished it from other coy, soft-focus neo-noirs (Credit: Alamy)

Director Paul Verhoeven opted for an especially frank take on the material, which distinguished it from other coy, soft-focus neo-noirs (Credit: Alamy)

And if the sex is unrestrained, so is the violence. The scene climaxes, in more ways than one, with the mystery woman skewering the man repeatedly with an ice pick: Verhoeven even includes a gruesome shot of the thin blade going right through the victim's nose. The killer's frenzy recalls the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, but it also recalls the scene in RoboCop in which a malfunctioning ED-209 robot machine-guns a corporate executive to bloody shreds for 15 seconds. And just to reiterate: this all happens in the film's opening scene. Other thriller directors would have hinted at this early stage that you might see something provocative later on. Verhoeven, scoffing at such coquettishness, gives us our money's worth in the very first minutes.

Not long afterwards, the bedroom gymnastics between Stone and Douglas went further still. Between the actors' bravery and Verhoeven's uninhibited Dutch sensibility, Basic Instinct ensured that the sex in every subsequent erotic thriller would seem timid in comparison. He was forced to make one compromise, though. "He was very keen to make the first mainstream Hollywood film with an **** **** in it," says Simkin. He had to be content with rear views of Douglas instead.

Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell is viewed through a paranoid male lens, but there are aspects of her character that were and to an extent still are refreshing – Anna Smith

Still, it wasn't just the sex and violence that the film takes to almost ludicrous heights (or depths). The witty homages to Vertigo and other Hitchcock classics are everywhere, from Jerry Goldsmith's sinuous theme to de Bont's virtuoso camerawork. The houses are magnificent. The costumes (Douglas's green V-neck aside) are spectacular. And the story is so sensational and so convoluted that it teeters on the edge of irony, without ever quite falling off. We aren't told who the killer is in the opening scene, but we are told that the victim was a retired rock star, and that his girlfriend was Stone's character, Catherine Tramell. We then learn that Tramell is an author who featured a rock star killed in an identical way in one of her novels. Douglas's police detective, Nick Curran, investigates, but he can't resist the prime suspect. The distinct possibility that she is a homicidal maniac is part of the allure. (Spoiler alert: she is.)

This plot is already more preposterous than those in, say, Fatal Attraction and Sea of Love. But Basic Instinct is just getting started. Eszterhas drops in a new twist or revelation every five minutes, not only in the ongoing whodunnit but in the characters' back stories, too. It's standard film-noir practice to have a cop with a scandal in his past. In Basic Instinct, the cop in question is an alcoholic who accidentally shot some tourists while he was high on cocaine. Oh, and his wife killed herself. Catherine's CV is just as colourful. Her first husband was a boxer who was beaten to death in the ring, and she had an obsessive relationship with her college buddy – who, as it transpires, also happens to be Nick's police department psychologist, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. And her girlfriend and best friend? No big deal, but they both butchered several members of their own families.

An inspiring anti-heroine?

It is Catherine who embodies the sense that Basic Instinct is the erotic thriller to end them all. Other film-noir seductresses may commit their crimes for money or love or to escape a stifling marriage, but Catherine is single, wealthy, and far more interested in sex than love; she murders people just to see if she can get away with it. As malevolent as she may be, she is also, in certain ways, a weirdly inspiring figure. "She is viewed through a paranoid male lens," says Anna Smith, a film critic and the host of the Girls on Film podcast, "but there are aspects of her character that were and to an extent still are refreshing. She is the central female in a mainstream movie who has a successful career, who is in complete control, smarter than the men around her, sexually liberated and defiantly unmaternal."

In his DVD commentary, Verhoeven calls Catherine "the devil" and "Satan". De Bont says that he lights her as a "goddess". Stone won the role only after such bankable names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger had turned it down. But it's impossible to imagine anyone matching the insouciant confidence she brings to the character. An unforgettable blend of Jessica Rabbit and Hannibal Lecter, Catherine is in charge of every situation from the moment she turns her boyfriend into a human colander in the opening scene to the moment she gets off scot free at the end. The interrogation scene in which she uncrosses and crosses her legs, showing the police, and the viewer, that she isn't wearing any underwear, has become notorious. In her recently published memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, Stone repeats her past allegation that she was assured by Verhoeven during filming that "we won't see anything." But she also notes that the revealing shot "was correct for the film and for the character". It's hard to disagree. The shot demonstrates how comfortable Catherine is with her body and the power it has over the overgrown schoolboys ogling her.


Body of Evidence, with Madonna and Willem Dafoe, was one of a number of erotic thrillers that came out in Basic Instinct's wake (Credit: Alamy)

Body of Evidence, with Madonna and Willem Dafoe, was one of a number of erotic thrillers that came out in Basic Instinct's wake (Credit: Alamy)

The sequence can also be read as a mischievous joke about what we are paying for when we watch an erotic thriller. The police lined up in the interrogation room are like cinema patrons, gawping up at their idol, not quite approving of her, but driven to distraction by a glimpse of flesh. And if Verhoeven really was commenting on cinema-goers' balance of prurience and puritanism, then he was proved right. For all the moral panic its release prompted, audiences were spellbound by Catherine, and Basic Instinct rose to sixth place on America's box office chart for 1992, despite its R-rating.

Naturally, this set a trend, as producers saw how much money there was to be made from the genre, and A-list actors realised that they could strip off without harming their careers. In 1993, there was Body of Evidence with Madonna, Willem Dafoe and another imported European director, Uli Edel. In 1994 came Colour of Night with Bruce Willis and Jane Marsh, as well as Disclosure with Douglas and Demi Moore. Two more erotic thrillers were made from Eszterhas screenplays, including Sliver, which starred Stone. In 2006, she was in Basic Instinct 2 without either Verhoeven or Eszterhas. ("I'd rather pretend it didn't exist," says Turner.) And there were many more films which were so eager to emulate Basic Instinct that they used Goldsmith's instantly recognisable theme in their trailers. 

But nothing could compete. Making an erotic thriller after Basic Instinct was like making a space opera just after Star Wars came out. It might do well at the box office, but it could only ever come across as a pale imitation. Unless a film was a deliberate parody – and the leg-crossing has been parodied many times – how could the Hitchcock references be more blatant, or the sex more sultry, or the violence more grisly, or the plotting more byzantine, or the femme fatale more blonde, beautiful and diabolical? Even the most thrusting erotic thriller was bound to seem limp compared to Basic Instinct. And perhaps the film acknowledges that in its final scene. Nick and Catherine are in bed together, yet again, but now, in their post-coital tristesse, they are as tired, bored and sad as the runaway lovers at the end of The Graduate. They've had their fun, their deadly game of cat and mouse, and life will never be as erotic or as thrilling again.

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Remember when Joe Eszterhas was the most in-demand Coolest Mystery Writer ever, after Jagged Edge?

Basic Instinct was the career turning point where he became the Joe Eszterhas our culture remembers for Showgirls...

(And it finally got the parody it deserved in "Hot Shots: Part Deux".)

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Internet porn killed the erotic thriller.  Once it became possible to see hot ladies having sex at the touch of a button, there was no need for titillation at the multiplex and no market for the Sharon Stones of the world to take their clothes off.

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On 6/6/2021 at 5:17 PM, cigarjoe said:

I guess  author  Nicholas Barber never saw Capone (1975),  Susan Blakely and Director Steve Carver beat out Paul Verhoeven and Sharon Stone by 17 years and with a better angle.

Yes, I remember Blakely from the mid-70s.  She was pretty hot and there was a girl I knew in college who resembled her.   Blakely also preferred some risque parts - as I remember she was in the tv drama mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man with Nick Nolte.

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