The Special Shelf: Basic Instinct

There was a time when the wrath of the LGBTQIA+ community could make or break a film’s legacy (though sadly not in the way that we expected/hoped for). When we talked about Cruising, it was through the strange legacy of changing times that saw a film initially protested for indulging in queer stereotypes (meaning established stereotypes of queer people, not unusual stereotypes) somehow becoming, not respected, but embraced for its sketchy behavior. With Basic Instinct, the end result is the same, and it only took about five years (whereas Cruising took twenty-five to become respectable).


After a retired rock star gets sex-murdered with an ice pick, a cop on the edge (Michael Douglas) has to walk the fine line between the responsibility of investigative justice and the slip-n-slide of cocaine-fueled sexventures with the primary suspect, an omnivorously bisexual bestselling suspense novelist (Sharon Stone) with a taste for all the sex, all the drugs, and Chicago House (LaTour’s “Blue”) and Belgian rave (Channel X’s “Rave The Rhythm”) equally.

Basic Instinct is one of the cinematic events of 1992, a trashy mystery suffused with sexual menace and a coked-up and vodka-ed down, horny atmosphere. It’s violent, depraved, and ultimately kind of stupid, but also endearing. Lit with a sleek glow (by cinematographer Jan De Bont, the director of Speed and Twister) that suggests the impulse of acquisition somehow became luminescent, Basic Instinct is a tawdry, shameless romp through every cliché in the book, and it is magnificent.

Thankfully, Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, RoboCop, Elle, Black Book) gives great trash. This is like if Alfred Hitchcock could have continued along from the path after he made Frenzy, exorcising his penchant for dangerous blondes and baroque murder.

This film may very well be the most ‘90s artifact ever for those who weren’t there at the time (the DVD and blu-ray releases feature a Camille Paglia commentary track), the last hurrah of the erotic thriller at the American box office before the Internet made every conceivable sex thought imaginable instantaneously accessible with the click of a button.

Basic Instinct also made Stone into a star responsible for the most iconic film still since Marilyn Monroe and a steam grate had a date with destiny. It made every studio greenlight mystery scripts that aimed to push the limits of onscreen sexuality (they didn’t) and blow the country’s mind with mindboggling twists and turns (they didn’t do that either). No matter how hard they tried, nobody could get the right mix of cliché and trash to work with whatever visual style was available at the time.

Joe Eszterhas’ script is a collision between film noir trappings and Penthouse Forum, while Verhoeven’s camera is Hitchcock nimble and he’s getting flawless performances out of most of the leads. Their next collaboration was 1995’s Showgirls, and if you don’t know that epic, you’ve got a project for yourself. Soak in its superior sleaze, and also see Hollywood legend Dorothy Malone in her final film and the peerless Leilani Sarelle (Neon Maniacs) as Roxy, a gratuitous stereotype of an angry lesbian who nonetheless is having heaps of fun at making Michael Douglas feel inadequate.

What’s wild about watching this film now is that Stone’s Catherine Trammell is obviously the heroine, and that Douglas’ Nick Curran is a fascist who embodies everything that’s bad about the patriarchy and the police force. What read in the early ‘90s as yet another homo-cidal sexual other now seems like an empowered queer character disassembling everything that is considered good and wholesome about straight society.

On Blu-ray and DVD, the film is presented in its unrated director’s cut, which is filled with all sorts of gore and naughtiness. I mean, the R-rated version is naughty, but it’s really not the same. Basic Instinct is also streaming (in its R-Rated version) on Showtime and DirecTV.


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