WILD THINGS (1998)
A detective uncovers a conspiracy behind a case involving a high school guidance counsellor when accusations of rape are made against him by two female students.
They certainly don’t make movies like this now; or at least not for the mainstream with star names. Hollywood’s become even more prudish over depictions of sex as the culture’s changed and people have become more aware of how salaciously women have been portrayed on film. And perhaps audiences are simply less comfortable sitting in the dark with strangers to watch highly sexualised thrillers, or the eroticism of them can’t hold a candle to whatever’s on the internet? But there’s something to be said for trashy films like Wild Things, featuring a topless Denise Richards (Starship Troopers) and Kevin Bacon’s (Tremors) penis. I miss seeing celebrities as sexual beings on camera.
I didn’t see Wild Things back in 1998, despite being a hormonal teenager who hadn’t overlooked the sex appeal of Neve Campbell after Scream (1996). The film hits differently decades later, although even in the late-1990s many people must have been convinced it was a quasi-pastiche of erotic thrillers. The story concerns Florida high school guidance counsellor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon), who’s accused of rape by wealthy teenager Kelly Van Ryan (Richards) and outcast Suzie Toller (Campbell), so hires low-rent lawyer Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray) to defend him in court as the allegations threaten to destroy his life and career.
The table’s set for a courtroom drama about an ordinary guy trying to clear his good name with an underdog lawyer, in a small rural community where the Van Ryan family have too much power and influence. And there’s enough of a grey area about Sam being a great guy capable of keeping his trousers on when two beautiful students hit on him. However, Wild Things takes an unexpected twist when the rape case gets settled early, making us wonder what on earth the real story is going to be about… and when that reveal duly arrives, the screenplay by Stephen Peters keeps taking unusual turns— even into the end credits! Bacon described the script as “the trashiest thing he had ever read…. but every few pages, there was another surprise”, and was so enamoured he came aboard as an executive producer as well as playing detective Ray Duquette.
The tawdry tone of Wild Things is weirdly enjoyable, perhaps because it’s in stark contrast to the quality of talent assembled here—including Bill Murray, who started his long-running Wes Anderson relationship with Rushmore (1998) the same year but wasn’t yet sort of actor expected to appear in a movie like this. It also looks wonderful thanks to the luscious cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball, who worked on Top Gun (1986) and True Romance (1993), which elevates the material and makes Wild Things appear more artful than it warranted. It was also directed by John McNaughton, coming off Mad Dogs and Glory (1993) and Normal Life (1996), but who was still mostly known for making the controversial horror film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). There’s also a memorable theme in the music score by George S. Clinton that perfectly sells the humid, sweaty tone of events.
The film’s enduring reputation is as a ‘skin flick’, with the sexier scenes relying on the fact Denise Richards was willing to show her breasts more than Matt Dillon was his own naked body. Neve Campbell wanted to break away from her TV persona on Party of Five (opting for a clenched Fairuza Balk-style performance as Suzie) but had a no-nudity clause in her contract, so it’s weird seeing her mostly clothed in the sex scenes. She and Richards apparently drank a pitcher of margaritas before a scene requiring them to kiss and initiate a threesome with Dillon. To his credit, Bacon allowed McNaughton to use a shot in a shower scene that briefly revealed his manhood, despite also having a no-nudity clause.
There’s certainly much to enjoy about Wild Things and its perception as an “erotic thriller” has clouded what’s more of a ludicrously labyrinthine crime thriller. However, after one excellent twist that upends all expectations, everything that comes after isn’t as plausible or as clever. It was almost reaching the height of parody by the end, as everyone has a different motivation than what seemed to be the case. And I don’t think later developments make total sense, or had become so unintentionally hilarious that I stopped treating Wild Things with any degree of seriousness. But if you’re in the mood for an unpredictable thriller that just happens to have an approach to screen nudity that isn’t the norm these days (despite occasional efforts like Deep Water to revive it), Wild Things is the sort of lesser-known ’90s curio more people should seek out.
USA | 1998 | 108 MINUTES (THEATRICAL) • 115 MINUTES (UNRATED) | 2.40:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Arrow Video has produced both a 4K Blu-ray and 1080p Blu-ray of Wild Things in Limited Edition packages, but only the latter was provided for review. The previous Blu-ray release was way back in 2007 when the HD format was in its infancy, so I’m sure this 2022 version is a stark improvement. The detailing and warmth of the image are pleasing to the eye, with nicely resolved film grain. I could detect no difference between the Theatrical and Unrated versions either. The 4K restoration was undertaken by Sony Picture Entertainment, sourced from the original 35mm, with director John McNaughton approving the colour grading.
There’s sadly no Dolby Atmos or DTS:X upgrade to the sound, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is nevertheless immersive and does a fine job with George S. Clinton’s music in particular. Dialogue is clear and there’s a welcome use of the rear channels for outdoor sequences and an early scene set inside a school hall.
director: John McNaughton.
writer: Stephen Peters.
starring: Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Theresa Russell, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Robert Wagner & Bill Murray.