Judge Brett Cullum wants you to meet his ice pick.
Our review of Basic Instinct: Uncut Limited Edition, published October 15th, 2001, is also available.
Nick: What's your new book about?
What would Vertigo be like if it were made today? Probably nowhere near as graphic or disturbing as Basic Instinct, which constantly pays homage to the Hitchcock classic. But then few movies are as offensive as the movie that made Sharon Stone a star. This is a sleazy, amoral, and wholly entertaining film born out of the minds of screenwriter/misogynist extraordinaire Joe Eszterhas (Showgirls) and crotch-obsessed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers). Almost a decade and a half later, no movie has dared come close to this level of nudity and gore, and even the long-awaited sequel is going to have a hell of a time coming close to the level of depravity of the original. Let's face it, Basic Instinct is the ultimate erotic thriller. Hitchcock could only hint at the sexual heat we find here, and Sharon Stone has never found a part more perfectly matched to her than Catherine Tramell. It's no surprise she's looking to reprise the role that made her the most famous femme fatale on the planet.
And is it any surprise that the DVD editions of Basic Instinct are too numerous to easily count? We have rated editions, collector's editions, European cuts, theatrical cuts, clear-cased releases complete with ballpoint icepick pens, and even laser disc and VHS collector's editions out there to be had. So now in the interrogation room is Basic Instinct: Ultimate Edition—Unrated Directors' Cut. Is it worth another look? Check your underwear at the door, and get ready to look up some skirts once again.
Facts of the Case
Michael Douglas (Fatal Attraction) is Nick Curran, a San Francisco homicide detective. He is on the hunt for a killer who's violently offed a famous rock star with an ice pick during an orgasmic moment. The lead suspect is a sexually aggressive mystery writer, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, Casino), who seems able to seduce anyone. She grabs all who come within her radius by the short hairs, and plays cat and mouse until they end up both in love with her and dead. Nick is prime prey. The detective has a violent past, an addictive nature, and a belief he can handle anyone's darkness. He's met his match, and so has the audience.
I love this film, and hold it up as a shining example of how noir never died. Basic Instinct remains one of the most revolutionary movies made, even though it mines themes familiar from the '40s up through Hitchcock's career. Nobody associated with the project ever had success mixing a volatile combination of sex and intrigue like this again. Eszterhas and Verhoeven flailed with the erotically inept Showgirls. Sharon Stone went on to make hideous tripe like Sliver, which was neither erotic nor thrilling. Michael Douglas tried to become man bait for another female predator in Disclosure, but Demi Moore (Striptease) couldn't match the menace of Catherine Tramell. Basic Instinct was truly lightning in a bottle, and could never be caught again. Were it to be made today it would have to politically correct, and the sex would be toned down to the detriment of the picture.
Even before Basic Instinct went into production, it was the subject of extreme protest and near riots. The movie was filmed in San Francisco (to reference Vertigo), but the locale provided a national stage for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation League to take umbrage with Hollywood's homophobia. The gay activists were searching for a platform to take on movies that portrayed them in a negative light. GLADD protesters would disrupt filming to the point where fake call sheets had to be printed to throw off the angry mobs that attempted to thwart the production. Their main complaint was it featured a psychotic bisexual with a lesbian lover who was a killer. The group contended the film was a hateful message that gay sex lead to death, while straight sex meant you got to be the hero. The release of the film saw protests in every major city by politically active homosexuals, who handed out spoiler-ridden flyers revealing the movie's ending in theaters in an attempt to discourage attendance. Feminists also railed against yet another movie like Fatal Attraction, where an unstable woman became a vindictive vampire ruthlessly attacking men. And yet here's the rub: the movie is a true noir piece where nobody comes off as pure or clean. Verhoeven and Eszterhas were not pointing a finger at anybody, but rather fingering the darkness inside everyone. Despite both the Left and the Right opposing the movie for being so committed to reinventing noir as an erotic experience, the movie was one of the top grossers of 1992—with a third the budget of any of its box-office rivals. Controversy and attempts at censorship led to instant box office success, and Hollywood took careful notes.
What always amazes me is why more men aren't offended. Michael Douglas basically admits he got away with murdering civilians, date-rapes a woman he says he cares for, kills a couple of innocent people during the course of the plot, and is stupid enough to fall for a woman whose genitalia are likened to a man-eating venus flytrap (try not to giggle as you realize it could be "penis flytrap"). If any message can be gleaned from Basic Instinct, it's the ridiculous power of women over men. Sharon Stone's character outwits every man in the story, and only the women even vaguely understand her true power. It's not the lesbian or bisexual woman who is clueless, it's the private dick who can't see past the pussy. Catherine Tramell is a diabolical woman of sheer genius, and a modern woman warrior who could be upheld as a post-feminist icon. She's a woman who uses every female weapon available against the male species. The Michael Douglas character is far more offensive for his sheer stupidity if nothing else. He's a Neanderthal who can't see a problem right under his nose. Yet he is the perfect flawed noir male lead in many ways, low IQ included.
For all the ruckus kicked up about the perceived homophobia and misogynistic view of women, there is no other film that earns the right to graphic sex scenes as much as Basic Instinct. The nudity is crucial to the plot, and all the scenes were carefully orchestrated to illuminate the mystery. Sharon Stone quipped in interviews the scenes were so carefully choreographed she felt she and Douglas were doing a naked horizontal tango. They have a thriller aspect beyond simple erotica or pornography. Above and beyond two people in bed, each love scene is filled with suspense and tension. There's always a sense of danger in each session between the sheets, and it becomes a question if anyone is going to survive this encounter. Even the infamous reveal of Sharon Stone's vagina in the interrogation scene is justified within the movie by the character's motivation to disarm her opponents with her sexual audacity. Stone has created her own urban legend—that she slapped Verhoeven for the shot—but the director says the incident never happened. Certainly other shots in the film were far more revealing, so it's hard to believe at the time the actress would be outraged. She signed on to a production that refused to use body doubles or modesty patches (usual techniques in film to assure stars that their actual nudity will not be seen). Hardly anyone raises the issue that there is full frontal male nudity, and a male porn star was specifically hired to play the first victim to insure he would have no problems with letting the full monty fly. In reality the biggest obstacle Sharon Stone had during the production was the violence. She almost fainted while shooting a scene where she ice picks a man to death and has blood splattered all over her body. The violence seemed to bother her far more than the nudity.
So what made the movie such a rousing success when the team that made it apparently could never replicate the magic, and everyone was protesting it as troublesome trash? You have a cast that is perfection, and rises above the material at every turn. Michael Douglas started on television, playing a detective on the streets of San Francisco, so he was completely in his element. Sharon Stone had been languishing in bit parts and grade "Z" films, and recognized her chance to give it all she had to be noticed as a new type of female lead. Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm) had never acted on film, but had been a notable stage actress determined to make the transition. The trio of leads had old school glamour, and the ability to deliver any line with a reading that made the most banal innuendoes drip with believable malice. The cast rocked it, daring to go further sexually than Hollywood stars had ever gone, but still retaining a mysterious movie star glamour not seen since the days of Bogie and Bacall. Also adding to the feel of "old Hollywood" was Jerry Goldsmith's (Kingdom of Heaven) immaculate score, and Jan de Bont's (Speed) brilliantly sepia-tinted cinematography. Verhoeven never allowed the tension to let up in the entire two hour running time, and the breathless editing was nominated for a much deserved Oscar. The production dripped with style from the set designs down to the costumes. Smart viewers will note Sharon Stone's wardrobe replicates Kim Novak's attire in Vertigo, but with a modern twist. Everyone seemed as fearless as the lead character to get away with murder in a stylish exercise of beautiful excess. It's not a traditionally great movie, but the flourishes are worthy enough on their own merits. Basic Instinct may be a campy classic full of smarmy sleaze, but it achieves classic status nonetheless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Which brings us full circle to the reason why we're here. What about this latest incarnation, titled Basic Instinct: Ultimate Edition—Unrated Director's Cut? In the early days of the DVD format, the film appeared as a non-anamorphic bare bones edition, which looked pretty sketchy when viewed. Artisan released four variations of a collector's edition in 2002, and finally the transfer was improved and we had extras. This version from Lionsgate retains most of the same extras found on the Artisan release. The commentary with director Paul Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont sounds as good as ever, but it's nothing new if you own a previous edition. The documentary "Blonde Poison: The Making of Basic Instinct" is thirty minutes ported from the previous release as well, and even includes the old Artisan logo. Screen tests were found as Easter Eggs on the previous disc, but here they are shown in shorter form and included directly off the menu. "Cleaning Up Basic Instinct" is a comparison of the theatrical versions of the film and the television counterparts. It's silly fun with looped dialogue, drags on a little too long, and also was found on a previous edition. Storyboard comparisons round out the direct ports.
The only new items are a "DVD Introduction with Sharon Stone," which amounts to a whopping five seconds, and a more in-depth interview with the actress about her experience with the role. It's a nice conversation, but Stone doesn't say much that is insightful, other than how shopping for her clothes defined her character. There are quite a few special features found on other editions that are sorely missed on Basic Instinct: Ultimate Edition—Unrated Directors' Cut . Gone is radical feminist Camille Paglia's insightful scene-by-scene commentary on the importance of the film from the Artisan Unrated Special Edition. That rant was one of the most entertaining commentaries ever produced for DVD. Also missing are the insightful archival footage interviews of the cast and crew found on the laser disc and VHS editions, which explained the movie in depth and conclusively wrapped up the mystery once and for all.
The visual and audio transfers are indeed improved over the previous Artisan releases. The menus are far easier to navigate, with less cheeky interfaces (gone is the stabbing ice pick every time you make a selection). The clarity of the anamorphic widescreen transfer is improved, with less edge enhancement and less grain, but still some problematic black levels—which must be intentional artistic decisions from the source print. It's a decidedly better looking visual presentation on the whole, but still not enough of an improvement to alone justify a double dip. The sound mix is the same as before, with the Goldsmith score getting the most boost from the five channel treatment. Also included is the basic stereo mix, true to the original release. No DTS track, or anything else to warrant excitement. I'd say if you own the unrated collector's edition from Artisan, you should hold on to that one and skip this release. If you have not bought Basic Instinct, this one's fine, though it is missing the brilliant Camille Paglia commentary. You'll have to be the ultimate judge on which one is more important to you: a slightly better transfer, or more rich special features.
My only gripe with Basic Instinct is with the script, which at times seems downright clunky. Joe Eszterhas received three million dollars for the project, the highest salary for a screenwriter in industry history at that time. Although it is wildly inventive with its characters, some of the plot is extremely Tin Pan Alley, and far too common to thrillers. Without the right cast and director, many of the lines would have fallen flat. Sharon Stone found interesting ways to play every beat, and should be given as much credit as the author for the invention of the character Catherine Tramell. A good example of someone who was not so successful in transcending his groan-worthy lines was George Dzundza (The Butcher's Wife) as Douglas's Southern-fried partner Gus. His part seems one note and stereotypical, with horribly contrived lines. There are lapses in logic and obvious male fantasies peppered throughout. Eszterhas has made a career out of losers getting impossibly hot girls in most of his scripts, as well as character assassinations of almost every female lead. At the time of the GLADD protests Joe wanted to cave in and make the demanded changes to appease the gay community. One such suggestion was to scrap Michael Douglas as the lead, and let Kathleen Turner romance the Sharon Stone instead. Luckily Verhoeven stuck to his guns and kept the film firmly in noir territory by refusing to redeem any of the characters, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.
Many people claim the ending is ambiguous, including the illustrious Mike Jackson, who wrote a wonderful review of the Artisan Collector's Edition of Basic Instinct for this site back in 2002. I don't see how anyone could come to any other conclusion than what the film reveals clearly. All the clues are there. First off, there is no way the woman who kills the first victim can be wearing a wig of any kind. Look closely, and you will indeed see Sharon Stone writhing on the man's body. In the interrogation scene, Catherine exhibits knowledge of the murder through body language and her eyes, which shows how she knows all the details. Watch as she moves her hands in to a tied-up position when they mention the murder, or how her steely resolve falters for a fraction of a second when asked if she murdered her boyfriend. Fans of the freeze frame will tell you when Michael Douglas sees the ending of Tramell's fictional novel Shooter on Tramell's printer, the creative author describes beat for beat what happens in the movie's finale on the page. The evidence the police find that points to Beth (Tripplehorn) is too neat and easy for a bright killer to have left behind. What? She suddenly gets sloppy and leaves a trail of clues? I wouldn't buy that possibility for a nickel. And the parting shot? Why would an innocent woman have an ice pick under her bed? Catherine did it, and she had the power to see how everyone would react at every turn. She is the devil, and we must give her credit and her due. She planned every beat you see in the film months before the story begins. Everything anyone says about her is true, and she is the master of all lies and manipulations in the movie.
Obviously Basic Instinct: Ultimate Edition—Unrated Directors' Cut is merely a marketing tie-in to resurrect interest in the film before the sequel is released at the end of March, 2006. The bad news is Basic Instinct needs no sequel, but the good news is the script was interesting enough to attract David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) as a possible director. So there is something interesting there, at least in an early draft. But as for this DVD, it's just a money grab to get the people who have yet to buy an edition to clamor for one.
I don't dare say Basic Instinct is a classically good film in conventional terms. Yet Verhoeven's fearless direction, Sharon Stone's brave performance, and Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant scoring make it alarmingly close. Critics hated the film when it came out, but audiences loved it. Truth is it's a cheesy noir thriller that is completely entertaining as well as titillating. It's the ultimate guilty pleasure; a thrill machine that provides everything like a neon Swiss clock. It's garish, audacious, offensive, and completely absorbing. It's a film I could watch on a loop endlessly and never grow tired of. It's like a great lap dance from an excellent stripper—you feel guilty as hell and degraded for liking it, but you'll never forget the way she looks or smells.
The guiltiest pleasure ever filmed with one of the greatest female characters ever imagined. Catherine Tramell is guilty as hell, and so am I for loving this movie.
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