When you think about 90s pop culture, you have to think about Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller, Basic Instinct. That movie dropped like a bomb, dominating the entertainment news cycle for months and inspiring years worth of parodies. Its success didn’t come because Michael Douglas’ cop character investigating a murder made for all that interesting a story, or because Verhoeven orchestrated the thing all that well either. It came almost solely because people were so shocked by the content. There were threesomes, ice pick murders, and, of course, there was that interrogation scene where you could catch the briefest glimpse of Sharon Stone’s vagina if you turned your head sideways and squinted. The 90s were more innocent times—before the near daily release of celebrity sex tapes—so this was intense stuff, and Basic Instinct made a mint off the scandal.
Two years later, a sporadically working director named Richard Rush tried to cash in on the trashy erotic thriller craze by making Color of Night, a murder story that starred Bruce Willis as a troubled psychologist dealing with the killing of his best friend, and a cast of colorful psychiatric patients that served as the suspects. Like Basic Instinct, the film focused on kinks and perversions of all sorts, and seeing as Willis’ character eventually begins to enjoy the company of a free-spirited minx played by Jane March, it had plenty of saucy nudity too. But the trashy erotic thriller craze proved to be short lived, because, despite the fact that Color of Night had a star as big as Willis and tons of twisted content, it only made about $19m domestic compared to Basic Instinct’s $117m. What’s the deal with that?
Color of Night was just as ridiculous and over-the-top as Basic Instinct. Are you telling me that people got tired of boobs and murders?
What do they have in common?
In addition to both being trashy 90s erotic thrillers, these films also starred two of the biggest actors of the era in Douglas and Willis, and two sexy actresses who had yet to become household names in Stone and March. Of course, only Stone was able to become a household name, as Color of Night didn’t hit (maybe they should have put the part where you catch a glimpse of March’s vag in the previews).
Despite the disparity in their popularity though, they both feature brutal stabbing murders, they both have completely absurd (and absurdly awesome) scores, and they both feature scenes where the protagonist gets in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a mysterious sports car that has blacked-out windows. Mysterious sports cars with blacked-out windows were the most terrifying thing that we could think of in the 90s. It was before 9/11.
Why is Basic Instinct overrated?
The most egregious sin that Basic Instinct commits is that the sex in it isn’t even sexy. This is what passed for titillating twenty years ago? What were we thinking? First off, the whole thing just has a layer of generic sleaze over it. If it featured repressed characters who normally weren’t down for getting freaky, and then it built tension around their slow descent into engaging in all the freaky stuff that goes down, then it might have been something. But instead, Douglas and Stone are playing narcissist cartoon characters who you don’t relate to at all, so their erotic exploration packs all the punch of watching a stripper dance to a Mötley Crüe song with a sad look in her eye.
This isn’t even taking into account any of the actual technique used in the sex scenes either. Douglas informs us that he and Stone’s tryst was the “fuck of the century,” but it consists mainly of her getting on top of him, doing the Axel Rose snake dance, and then performing some sort of exaggerated faint when she supposedly climaxes. I’ve peeped in a lot of windows in my days, and I’ve never seen anyone having sex like this. Also, do you remember that ridiculous scene where Douglas meets Stone and her two friends out on the night club dance floor? The whole thing is supposed to be sexy and intense, but Stone’s friends are doing these ridiculous synchronized head bobs that look like the scene where the mom tap dances in Gummo, and Douglas looks like someone’s lame dad perving out in a bar that he aged out of a decade ago. Embarrassing.
Which might have been fun if the movie played all of its sleazy content for laughs, but Basic Instinct keeps its face intensely straight, and plays like a ridiculous relic because of it. Show this movie to a modern teenager and they’d probably fall asleep. Most of the blame for that can be blamed on the performances. The material here is cheesy, so it would have been best delivered with some bombast and a gleeful grin. Douglas gets loud here, but he’s running on rage, not glee, and the effect is that he sucks all of the fun out of the murder and perversion.
Douglas is usually great in everything, but here he’s going way too over the top with his committal to material that’s laughable, and he ends up leaving himself hung out to dry. Why so serious? And why are we supposed to care about the fate of a character who’s a sociopathic douche? Who’s the murderer? Who’s the murdered? Who cares? It’s a good thing dishy dames get publicly undressed with such comical frequency in this thing, or I would have had to stretch out and take a nap right alongside those aforementioned jaded teenagers.
Why is Color of Night underpraised?
Color of Night just works better than Basic Instinct as a trashy erotic thriller, and that’s mostly because it tells a more interesting story while more thoroughly embracing its silliness. You get a whole crew of ridiculous wackos here, all with their own ticks and quirks, and all brought to life by first rate familiar faces of schlock cinema like Lance Henriksen, Rubén Blades, Scott Bakula, and Kevin J. O’Connor. Not only does that lend Color of Night so much more personality than the stone-faced Basic Instinct, but it also lends the story a classic whodunnit mystery element that works so much better than the simplistic, is-she-a-killer-or-isn’t-she plot that film milks beyond the point of it yielding any intrigue.
Along with that personality comes a whole lot of trashy fun too. This is the sort of movie that employs terrible-looking makeup and prosthetics in its twists. Some sort of ridiculous circus music plays during the scene where all of Willis’ crazy patients realize that they’ve been sleeping with the same woman. It’s got a rattlesnake-in-the-mailbox jump scare that’s more effective than any of that other film’s ice pick fake outs. The scene where Bakula gets murdered features the most gratuitous and over-the-top use of breakaway glass I’ve ever seen. The climax takes place on top of an impossibly tall signal tower that’s decorated by gargoyles—in the rain. In comparison, all Basic Instinct has to offer is its unyielding insistence that all of its moral compromise is rocking your world.
I’ll take Color of Night’s insecurity-free dedication to B-movie nonsense any day.
Even the sex here is sexier than what Basic Instinct offers up. Sharon Stone was a hot little number back in the day, for sure, but Jane March was probably a step hotter. And she had the benefit of not having to engage in the spastic psycho-sex that Stone’s character was a part of. The simulated sex in this movie is way closer to the agreeable Red Shoes Diaries end of the simulated sex scale, which puts it thankfully far away from the other end, which can best be represented by the pool scene in Showgirls. There’s just no denying that as far as trashy 90s movies with an erotic bent go, nobody likes Showgirls.
Evening the Odds
If you want to make a good trashy 90s thriller, you have to go further with the sexual content than any of the other projects in the pack, without crossing a line that would turn people off. Midwestern housewives want something that makes them flush and that they can whisper to their friends about, but they don’t want to see anything off-putting. Nowadays the new big thing in movies is full-frontal male nudity. Penises are being shown with such frequency that it’s barely even shocking when they show up anymore, and this ain’t France.
Back in the 90s, seeing a dude’s dong on the screen was almost unheard of, so wangage could be a good barometer of which of these films should have better earned our collective outrage/glee. Close inspection has shown that you can see Douglas’ flopping member briefly in shadow in Basic Instinct, but Color of Night had the balls to show the full-on Willis dong in the pool scene. Where was all the media attention on that when everyone was so obsessed with Stone’s tame crotch shot? We should start a petition demanding that the Willis dong gets the retroactive cultural outrage that it deserves.
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