Looking back at Wild Things

The cast simmered in the 1998 thriller, Wild Things. James looks back at a film full of unexpected twists...

Ah, the 90s sex thriller. I wonder if Paul Verhoeven knew exactly what he was about to unleash upon the world when in 1991 he instructed Sharon Stone to uncross her legs and Michael Douglas to wear a green jumper to a disco?

Basic Instinct kicked started a movie trend that would run for most of the remaining decade with varying results. The Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, cops and rompers caper was decent enough, but in its wake followed a trail of films of varying quality. Disclosure and Sliver proved that lightning wouldn’t strike twice for Basic Instinct’s two main stars, while Showgirls did the same for their director, who upgraded his directorial instruction for Elizabeth Berkeley during her sex scenes to “act like you’re being attacked by a shark”. Meanwhile, Body Of Evidence clarified that pouring hot wax on Willem Dafoe wasn’t in the least bit sexy, even if it was Madonna doing the pouring.

By the time we entered the new millennium, the appetite for mainstream erotica seemed to be on the wane, with fewer offerings reaching the cinema at least. The dismal reception for the ill-advised Basic Instinct 2 seemed proof of this, and the genre was largely finding itself a staple of the direct-to-DVD market. Towards the end of its lifespan, though, it did see a film that still holds up rather well almost 15 years later – John McNaughton’s Wild Things.

Set in the fictional Florida town of Blue Bay, this is the story of an extortion plan gone wrong when a school guidance counsellor and two teenage girls stage a mock rape case to swindle millions out of one the girls’ mothers. After a celebratory ménage a trios, things start to unravel, as a corrupt police man starts poking his nose into the case and a few deaths are involved.

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The film has a wonderfully trashy feel, right from the opening titles. There’s a sleazy mood to the shots of the Florida everglades. You can almost hear the intense and heavy Floridian heat singing amongst the saxophone-laden, George S Clinton soundtrack. The film’s title appears on screen as an alligator pokes his head out of the swamp. Already we know that we aren’t about to see a film with the most whiter than white characters.

The film introduces its four principle players in the first scene. Via a tracking shot we follow the back of Matt Dillon’s guidance counsellor and educator of the year, Sam Lombardo, through to a school auditorium. Various girls mutter things like “Did you see his eyes?” leaving no doubt that Lombardo is the hotty of the faculty.

Denise Richards was 26 when she played 18-year-old Kelly Van Ryan, and hadn’t quite reached the age where she couldn’t pull off a teenage role anymore. She positions herself front and centre for Mr Lombardo in the assembled throng.

Kevin Bacon was an inspired piece of casting for Detective Ray Duquette. There are few better actors who can put on a face that says “Yes, I am a slime ball” without even trying than Kevin Bacon. Here to give a lecture on sex crimes, Duquette is rudely cut off by Neve Campbell’s trailer park reject Suzie Toller, telling the audience that “this prick can kiss my ass”. It’s a clever scene, as in such a short space of screen time, it tells us who everyone is and establishes their relationships… or at least the relationships they would have us believe at this point.

The casting of Wild Things was extremely smart. Although it’d be fair to say that everyone involved’s stock has plummeted in the intervening years, in the mid 90s, all were considered on the up or already there. Matt Dillon starred in the mega hit There’s Something About Mary the same year, and had been an established and reliable actor for some time. With a history of playing bad boys for whom butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth, he was ideal for Sam Lombardo.

The Lombardo character was a very cool customer. For Dillon it was important to strike the right balance. Lombardo had to remain ice-like, even when all around him was going to hell. Educator of the year he may be, but deep down Sam Lombardo was a rung below the elite on the Blue Bay social ladder. And he knew it. It’s little wonder that it was so easy for him to give in to temptation in the form of Kelly Van Ryan.

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Denise Richards was coming off a turn in Starship Troopers at the time of Wild Things, and had just been handed the duty of Bond girl in The World Is Not Enough. She was a star in ascendance, and her portrayal of the spoilt rich kid Kelly Van Ryan was in perfect contrast to Neve Campbell’s Suzie.

The casting combination of Richards and Campbell was extremely well done. Both were considered attractive but in quite different ways. Richards had the whole FHM model thing going on, while Campbell was a more vulnerable sort, an image helped by her lead role in the Scream films. Because the actresses were almost opposites, it played well into the unexpected reveal that they are partners, and lovers, in the whole seedy business the film chronicles.

It could be fair to say that while his fellow cast members’ careers were on the up at the time of Wild Things, Kevin Bacon’s was just starting to come back down the other side of the mountain. After A Few Good Men, Apollo 13 and Sleepers, Wild Things wasn’t as mainstream a film as his recent offerings, but that didn’t stop him from turning in a devilish performance as Duquette. From the very first time we clap eyes on him, we can tell Duquette is a wrong ‘un. It might be because he wears a vest under his shirt in the sweltering Florida heat.

Supporting the four mains in the film is a collection of reliable hands, including Bill Murray. Murray’s turn as Ken Bowden, the only lawyer who will defend Dillon against his rape charges is typical Bill – wild, chaotic and a great deal of fun. Theresa Russell provides enough of a reason to show why Denise Richards is a bit unstable as the deck hand-bedding, vodka-swilling Sandra Van Ryan, while Robert Wagner does a convincing impersonation of a slightly annoyed snake as Tom Baxter, the head of Blue Bay’s elite social scene.

With the sex thriller genre almost on its last legs at the time of Wild Things, there must have been something a bit more to it than a trashy-bump-and-grind, walking-around-in-swimsuits movie to attract such an accomplished cast. The fact is that Wild Things was one of the cleverest, twistiest scripts to come along in a good while. Written by Stephen Peters, Wild Things was the script that just kept on giving. It would be fair to say that this article has given away a couple of spoilers already, so for anyone who’s reading this and hasn’t seen this film, this article will not go on to reveal any of further revelations – but rest assured, they’re crackers.

Anyone reading this who’s watched the movie will know that just when you think you have it all sussed out, Wild Things will pull the rug from under your feet. It does this so many times, in fact, that it is difficult to bring to mind many other films that do it so well, and so unexpectedly. This writer is a sucker for a good twist. There is nothing better than seeing a film with a good turn of fortune – the kind you just have to tell people about so they can go and see it for themselves. Wild Things has at least three or four of those.

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Director John McNaughton pitches the film somewhere between Hitchcock and mild titillation. He’s not afraid of dimming the lighting and showing his cast scantily clad, dripping in either sweat or water. It builds the feeling of sleaze and oddly enough, of deception in the film. The image of Denise Richards dripping water from head to toe on to Matt Dillon’s polished wooden floor after washing his jeep for charity is a notable image of temptation and deception. It’s a perfect image for the themes of Wild Things.

McNaughton makes good use of George S Clinton’s soundtrack for many of the film’s stand out moments. It sounds like a low-tuned guitar whammy accompanied by a lilting but distorted female voice, but it’s one of those soundtrack moments that buries itself in your head. If you were to ever hear it again, you would immediately think of Wild Things.

McNaughton borrows heavily from Hitchcock in his direction, most notably from Psycho. Motels feature prominently, and a chilling moment in which Matt Dillon emerges quickly to camera from a swamp  is very reminiscent of Norman Bates just after dumping Marion Crane’s car. Wild Things was McNaughton’s last high-profile directing job, though he did contribute an episode to anthology TV series Masters Of Horror, and returns in 2013 with feature film The Harvest, starring Michael Shannon.

Now there comes a time in any article on Wild Things when you’re going to have to mention one specific scene. On its release, one of the film’s major selling points was the inclusion of a scene featuring a three way between Dillon, Campbell and Richards. After having his life ruined, but still making off with a big wedge of cash, Dillon is confronted in an eerily green lit motel room by Denise Richards. She pops a champagne cork and gleefully leaps upon him before it’s revealed that Campbell is lurking in the room too. Lips are locked, clothes discarded and champagne poured over bodies in amongst a bit of a grunting.

In all honesty, compared to some of the scenes of bedroom gymnastics in the likes of Basic Instinct, it’s actually rather tame. The scene does serve a purpose too, despite sending teenage fingers heading for the pause button. It’s the reveal of the conspiracy between the three characters we thought hated each other and, in particular, we see the real nature of Matt Dillon’s Lombardo, a man who will abuse his position of authority to get what he desires.

To date, Wild Things has spawned three direct-to-DVD sequels. I use the term sequels in the loosest sense, as they are more remakes than follow ups. Wild Things 2 stars a woman who was in one episode of Friends and features a plot, scenes and even dialogue lifted directly from the original. When people talk about those films which are so bad, they’re actually good, they’re talking about Wild Things 2.

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After a decade and a half, Wild Things remains a very enjoyable and solid thriller. It wears its trashiness on its sleeve, knowing full well that it has the script and talent to raise itself above the standard of other films of its type. There is always going to be a home for films like this, and not just very late at night on Channel 5.

It isn’t the sleaziness, or the threesome that lingers in the memory after watching Wild Things, but the great performances, the haunting score and those clever, I-didn’t-see-that-coming twists.

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