or how I learnt to love the erotic thriller
USA 1998 106mins rated MA
Directed by John McNaughton
Starring Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Bill Murray
Retroactivity is a cultural inevitability, yet what is picked for the pantheon and what is passed over for the plebeian is a matter which has always confused me. The worthlessness of many now revered films leads to wonder who chooses these renewable genres. Why do John Travolta, Ally Sheedy and Blondie get a second chance when worthier people, groups or movements are ignored. Is it luck or are the pop culture gods more discriminating than they seem? The Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer film cycle have regenerated interest in the horror genre (at least in commercial terms), and a whole new band of kiddies now grow up with the fourth time around flavour of self-conscious slayings committed by a wisecracking killer. The swinging sixties and the repugnant seventies have also enjoyed cinematic vogue recently, as have the genres (campy spy film, disco drama) attached to these decades. For all this beatification there must be a little preterition. Whole genres and styles of filmmaking arrive once and once only, never to be seen again, swallowing whole any actors or filmmakers who dare patrol their murky depths. One such inconstant genre is the erotic thriller.
When dissected, one wonders what makes the erotic thriller such an unappealing dish. The palatable commercial elements are all here (sex, violence, double-crosses, exotic locations), yet they are all to often thrown together with little patience or coherence, and thus wind up straight to video, cheesily packaged with a misleadingly quasi-porno cover, starring James Belushi or Rutger Hauer, destined to be chosen last in a Friday night excavation, 10 films for $10, space filler, shamed. Commercial cinemas have always profited through fragmentation, yet the erotic thriller is still too left-field to have a swing at. Then there are the disdainful critical notices for the films, with the same words pulled out once more, tramping the dirt down on a long-gone grave: lurid, decadent, steamy, dangerous. No-one can really take these types of films seriously, an odd phenomenon considering how much tongue-in-cheek dross currently chokes the multiplex. Above all, the erotic thriller is disreputable, and not just morally. It is cinematically disreputable, an orphan too tame for "adult", too strange for six-pack Seagal's and too everything for discerning "art" audiences. The message is clear, whether it comes from the mouth of mormons or performance artists: we don't want your type around here. Cheap sex needs either an ascending or descending staircase or some strobing neon to announce itself, and action is for the HOYTS crowd, displeased by a plot that at times needs a Venn Diagram. The erotic thriller has every major element crucial to the cinema, yet not enough of any single component to satisfy a paying audience.
Yes, this is going somewhere, and that somewhere is John McNaughton's sublime Wild Things. McNaughton knows America very well, and caught its arctic soullessness ten years ago now in the infamous Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The leap from decapitations to Neve Campbell may seem incongruous to a passer-by, yet a subversive intelligence operates beneath this shiny veneer. For McNaughton, America is a zoo, a place of betrayal and lechery, and he deals with it in any way he sees fit. He keeps on adding more and more, unrelentingly pursuing silliness. The movie operates on a Celinesque philosophy, a writer invoked and once deliberately mentioned in the course of the film: do anything, fuck anything, kill anything to stay alive. Yet Wild Things is far from a misanthropic wail, for as Henry Miller once opined while discussing Celine "the saddest events call forth laughter." Wild Things is American hotch-potch madness, sex and swamps and slaughter, making the quote read "the saddest events call forth hysteria."
I offer no plot details or directorial analysis. My effusive meandering is testament enough. People, get yer knives out and start stabbing. The bodies can be disposed of at the croc infested bayou. Dental records only go so far. Wild Things is ultimately a grand return to trash, a film that, as my father often says, "means as much as you want it to". To view such grand tripe we need to get little hysterical, a little excessively verbose. A fucking mess it is too, a broth with too many cooks, the royal taster flatulent and increasingly diffident. America, America, this is you...
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