BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
A violent police detective investigates a brutal murder that might involve a manipulative and seductive novelist.
Whatever happened to the erotic thriller? Once a staple of 1980s and 1990s cinema, the genre arguably reached its peak with Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. It was the perfect marriage between director and material, as the Dutch filmmaker’s foreign sensibilities had already transformed US sci-fi action with RoboCop (1987) and added welcome bite to Total Recall (1990). Basic Instinct may have been a major studio release with Hollywood royalty Michael Douglas given top billing, but Verhoeven’s involvement ensured it competed with its direct-to-video rivals by mixing high production values and star-power with boundary-pushing sex and nudity for a mainstream release.
Joe Eszterhas wrote Basic Instinct in only a few weeks, then Carolco Pictures bought it for an incredible $3M. Paul Verhoeven was immediately interested in directing it, but he wanted to add a lesbian sex scene described by Eszterhas as “exploitative”, so Verhoeven asked for rewrites to be carried out by Gary Goldman (Big Trouble in Little China), whom he’d just worked with on Total Recall. However, he soon admitted his changes weren’t improvements and agreed to shoot Eszterhas’s original screenplay.
Michael Douglas was attracted to the project and suggested Kim Basinger (Batman) to play femme fatale Catherine Tramell, but she refused the offer. Greta Scaachi, Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner, Ellen Barkin, and Meg Ryan also turned down offers to co-star alongside Douglas, perhaps sensing the role had the potential to backfire and destroy their careers. Interestingly, Ryan eventually did star in a movie that subverted her America’s sweetheart persona and featured a lot of simulated sex and nudity, In the Cut (2003), which despite her excellent performance did indeed derail her career.
Sharon Stone eventually got the part alongside Douglas after a successful screen test. She’d been quietly working in Hollywood throughout the 1980s, and was now in her mid-thirties, so Basic Instinct was almost a last roll of the dice for her. It helped that she’d just finished worked with Verhoeven on Total Recall, who had been impressed by Stone’s ability to quickly switch between a loving wife and coldhearted killer. A similar duality was required for Catherine Tramell, as a beguiling and intelligent woman one can never be quite sure about, so Stone accepted a surprisingly low fee of $500,000 for the chance to make the big splash that had eluded her. Douglas was initially resistant to a relative unknown being cast, as he wanted to be opposite an actress of equal standing so they could share the flak if the project backfired with audiences and critics, but he relented when he saw how good Stone’s audition tape was.
The plot of Basic Instinct is exactly the sort of tawdry pulp trash one wants from an erotic thriller, certainly from this era. San Francisco homicide detective Nick Curran (Douglas) is asked to investigate the murder of retired rock star Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), after he was stabbed to death by an ice pick while having sex with a mystery blonde. The prime suspect is bisexual crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Stone), née Woolf, primarily because she wrote a book that featured the exact same crime. But is she the culprit or is someone trying to frame her? Unfortunately, Nick finds himself sexually drawn to Catherine despite the unprofessional nature of getting romantically involved with someone you’re investigating for murder, and a cat-and-mouse game develops amidst their torrid affair.
The impressive thing about Basic Instinct is that the exact same script could have been turned into a disaster without Verhoeven behind the camera, or without Stone in this key role. Eszterhas wrote something that’s fundamentally ridiculous and silly, but there are enough transgressive moments and so-bad-their-good scenes and dialogue to make it enjoyable. Douglas wanted to make a movie to shake up the status quo because Hollywood was very conservative at the time, perhaps inspired by the success of Fatal Attraction (1987) and wanting to push the sexual component further. I’d argue Fatal Attraction is a better movie than this, but Basic Instinct manages to capture the inherent trashiness that many skinflicks have. It looks slick and glossy because it cost $49M to make, but Verhoeven’s attitude to the sexual moments, plus Stone’s star-making performance as a black widow spider in human form, elevate it well above the quality of the script being shot.
It’s funny that Douglas wanted an A-lister to potentially share the blame for starring in a rotten movie, only to end up being overshadowed by an actress everyone had overlooked for years. But he does have a peculiar knack for starring opposite good actresses who either produce some of their best work alongside him, or are apparently allowed to surpass whatever he’s doing for the benefit of the film. Douglas is playing a fairly generic detective here, although his murky past as a cocaine-addled maverick who got into shootouts adds some colour. But it’s clearly Stone who dominates in every scene she’s in, as the kind of man-eating beauty every red-blooded guy is drawn to and yet fearful of getting too close to. And that’s only heightened here by virtue of the fact Nick knows Catherine is toying with him, and could easily be luring him inside her next trap.
The mystery aspect of Basic Instinct has always felt a little odd to me, as there’s almost no attempt to even suggest Catherine isn’t the killer until deep into the third act. But maybe that’s part of the misdirect because it seems so obvious she did it every step of the way, and so much of the movie is about Nick trying to find evidence to prove it while finding himself getting too close to the flame. However, if the film were made today, I think one area for improvement would be introducing some alternate theories and other suspects a little earlier on, as the murder-mystery aspect isn’t so compelling.
The writer and director are clearly more interested in the weird dynamic between the hunter and hunted, embellished with unusually graphic sex scenes—including the now-infamous leg-crossing moment when Stone’s vulva is seen on camera (a fact the actress now says she wasn’t aware of and held a grudge against Verhoeven for many years after). One of the most notorious freeze-frame moments for teenagers in the 1990s recording off late-night TV, it’s certainly a memorable way for an actress to become an icon. And yet, Stone’s belated breakthrough to the big time was something of a poisoned chalice, as she was instantly pigeon-holed as a calculating bitch without inhibitions. Sliver (1993) and The Specialist (1994) both required a level of nudity most mainstream actresses wouldn’t have agreed to, and by the time Stone tried to shake free of salacious roles in Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Martin Scorsese’s excellent Casino (1995) audiences just weren’t having it.
Still, for all its flaws and unexpected repercussions, Basic Instinct remains a memorable and important part of erotic thriller history. It certainly pushed Hollywood into making more daring movies for adults who’d grown beyond a sex scene requiring the camera to drift to a moonlit window and fade to the morning after, and inspired a ridiculous amount of spoofs and imitators. Eszterhas and Verhoeven re-teamed for the considerably weaker and less fondly remembered Showgirls (1995), although even that box office disaster has come under some reevaluation in recent years. But this is probably where the Hollywood erotic thriller was at its most culturally pervasive, and 30 years later the genre wouldn’t have a chance of opening in a multiplex.
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USA • FRANCE | 1992 | 128 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
StudioCanal usher Basic Instinct to 4K Ultra HD, marking the second Paul Verhoeven movie they’ve given a deluxe limited edition treatment to following Total Recall. The movie was shot on 35mm film using Panavision cameras, so this 4K scan of the original camera negatives provides a welcome bump in fine details and HDR, all supervised by Verhoeven himself.
The restoration team actually had to search for some additional scenes to scan in 4K, as the negatives they had were only from the edited US version, but the clean-up process has been worth the 100 hours of manual labour required to remove the stains, scratches, dust, and instability. The result is a pleasingly accurate version of what filmgoers would have seen back in 1992, and an improvement over the previous Blu-ray release. The accompanying Blu-ray discs (as part of the 3-disc set) contain a version of this new transfer squashed down to 1080p, and to my eye it looks a little punchier in some ways, as the HDR on the 4K disc results in a dimmer picture with more shadow details.
There’s no Dolby Atmos soundtrack, sadly, although this isn’t a particularly notable movie in terms of surround sound effects. The existing DTS Master Audio 5.1 mix does have a positive effect during a few scenes, like the party Nick attends in his awful sweatshirt to gyrate with Catherine on the dance floor. Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score also sounds fantastic. Also, kudos to StudioCanal for taking the time to create animated menus (a rarity these days), with the screen broken apart like a sheet of glass from the impact of an ice pick. It really sets the mood.
director: Paul Verhoeven.
writer: Joe Eszterhas.
starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn & Wayne Knight.