WILD THINGS is the ultimate Sharon-Stone-meets-Brian-DePalma ’90s erotic thriller on swamp gas. It’s legitimately sleazy and provocative, but also clever and funny and audacious. It has a really game cast with grown ups played by men who are former young hotshots aging into respected veterans, and teens played by young women who were on a roll at the time but never got their proper due. And it’s usually grim and serious director John McNaughton (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, NORMAL LIFE) taking a rare dive into slick, multiplex-worthy entertainment.
I’ve never been to Florida, and when I finally go there, let’s face it, I’ll probly just go to Disney World. So my impression of the place comes from Charles Willeford novels, Miami Vice, and the storied misadventures of Florida Man. From that perspective, WILD THINGS seems like a perfect mythical charting of the frontier that would soon bring us the election of George W. Bush. For the opening credits, helicopter shots survey the land from the swamps to the ritzy coastal town of Blue Bay, a collection of estates, country clubs and future Mar-a-Lago members where people wear white and tropical prints and the school counselor and his girlfriend both drive Benzes.
Said counselor is Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon, CRASH), seemingly a corny upstanding guy who teaches a sailing class but also goes out on an airboat to feed alligators and drives flirtatious female students to his house to wash his Jeep for a school fundraiser. Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards, VALENTINE) is the daughter of a “jet set real estate heiress” he used to date who perkily talks him into it. He brings a boy student too as a blocker and seems to be on the up-and-up, but Kelly follows him into the house and we don’t know what happened until she later tells her mom (Theresa Russell, STRAIGHT TIME) that Mr. Lombardo raped her.
I love that Russell gives the petty, self-centered Sandra Van Ryan a little bit of human vulnerability when she seems to sincerely try to comfort Kelly but hesitates to touch her, and sweetly asks if she wants a valium. She gets the movie’s most darkly hilarious joke when it’s clear that her real objection to the alleged assault of her daughter is that it came after the perpetrator rejected her advances. She gets two classic lines of heartless rich person self involvement: “My daughter does NOT get raped in Blue Bay!” and “That sonofabitch must be insane to think he can do this to me!”
The school, I gotta say, does not handle the allegations with an appropriate level of seriousness. Sam acts like he’s in big trouble when he hears that Sandra is making angry phone calls “pushing for suspension.” But when similar accusations are made by another student he does not pass go, he goes directly to jail in one edit.
The second accuser is Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), a girl with tattoos, Doc Martens and an itchy middle finger who’s been in juvy for drugs, hates the police for shooting her friend and whose family runs an EATEN ALIVE-esque hotel by the swamp with a gator wrestling show. So, the opposite of Kelly.
There are a few other major players. You’ve got the investigating officer Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon, Guiding Light) and his partner Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega). She’s the only one who’s suspicious of the rape allegations – it’s nice to not see the men doing that, even though she’s correct. Also you’ve got Lombardo’s two-bit stripmall defense lawyer Ken Bowden (Bill Murray, GARFIELD [also in McNaughton’s MAD DOG AND GLORY]). He adds what you must assume are Murray additions such as telling Sam “stand up” and “you can sit down” after the bailiff says “please rise” and “you may be seated.”
You all should’ve seen WILD THINGS by now, because if not it’s very much a plot twist movie and I’m about to SPOIL the first one. Suzie quickly breaks down in court and admits that she made the whole thing up to get revenge on Mr. Lombardo and Kelly put her up to it. And though I am a writer for life, words cannot express the anarchic joy I get from Kelly’s courtroom outburst (yelling “you skanky BITCH!” and throwing a glass of water at Suzie’s head). If this shit happened on Court TV they’d have to add a Court TV 2 and 3.
Surely you remember the next plot twist, since it’s the most famous part of the movie. Sam goes to a motel where it turns out Kelly is waiting for him because they were conspiring together and then it turns out Suzie is there too because they were all conspiring together and then there is a threesome with some toplessness. For years I have remembered a quote from Kevin Bacon in Entertainment Weekly movie preview issue, and when I had to move a few months ago I discovered that I had actually clipped it:
And that describes WILD THINGS to a T. It’s tempting to say that a movie about this subject matter wouldn’t fly today, but even back then it churned my stomach and then won me over. False rape accusations are a loaded subject because in the real world they’re rare, but the spectre of them is used to silence true rape accusations. Thankfully, this movie doesn’t promote their myth. The false rape accusations here are themselves false, cooked up and performed by the falsely accused as a moneymaking scheme.
I, and I imagine probly you as well, have always enjoyed the shameless abandon with which the screenplay (by Stephen Peters, who wrote the novel that THE PARK IS MINE was based on, and the novel and screenplay of John Frankenheimer’s THE FOURTH WAR) piles on more and more twists like this. On this 20th anniversary viewing I thought it would be a good idea to count them all. So here HUGE SPOILERS COMIN’ AT YA are what I see as the major reveals and betrayals:
1. Sam & Kelly are conspiring together (about 56 minutes in)
2. Suzie also (57 minutes)
3. Sam does not want Suzie in on it and kills her. Kelly later gets killed by Duquette.
4. Sam and Duquette meet up because they’re actually partners who meant to frame Kelly.
5. But then they try to kill each other.
6. Suzie is actually alive, she faked her death and planned this whole thing so she and Sam could sail off into the sunset together
7. Except she poisons him and steals his boat
8. And Kelly is actually Suzie’s niece? I’ve never really followed that piece that Perez uncovers at the end.
9. During the credits Suzie meets up with Bowden and he was also in on it the whole time
If it kept going on long enough everybody in town including the gators would’ve been in on it. These rollercoaster twists and turns and loopty-loops are a big part of the fun, but it’s also the execution, because pretty much everyone involved is at the top of their game. You could say that there was literally something in the water, because the crew found a dead body while filming a scene with Campbell and Rubin-Vega in the swamp. Campbell says the police held it by a dock so that it wouldn’t float into the shot while they finished filming.
There are so many great little touches. When Kelly and her friend are doing a seductive car wash, two younger neighbor boys watch lasciviously, and they’re still there playing basketball when she later runs away from the house. It’s a nice detail to establish witnesses that can bolster her made up story. But when Sam gets run off the road and assaulted by Sandra Van Ryan’s boyfriend there are reaction shots for an alligator and a raccoon! This event is not part of the scheme and only a couple of animals could vouch for it happening.
Have you ever noticed this foreshadowing? When Sandra hits on Sam he says “Maybe I’m a one woman man now,” when of course he’ll soon be having a threesome with her daughter.
For all the hype about that sex scene, it’s just a few quick moments, less sensuality than the average Shannon Tweed softcore thriller. For me it’s always been more of a put-on. The beauty of it is the brazen-ness, that sort of “how trashy do you think we’re willing to go?” cheekiness that I think SHOWGIRLS tried to pull off, but nobody got the joke. Now that generations have enjoyed limitless free porn on the internet maybe we can get past whether or not people have jerked off to it and remember that it’s a really funny sudden turn in the movie from “this poor innocent man has had his life and reputation ruined by lying teens” to… that. As far as actual onscreen nudity, the only part that still seems unusual in American movies is Bacon showing off his junk when he gets out of the shower, especially since he’s arguably the most respectable cast member at the time, having done JFK, A FEW GOOD MEN, MURDER IN THE FIRST and APOLLO 13 in the preceding several years. He actually intended for the nudity to be out of frame, but was okay with it when they asked if they could use it.
I believe Bacon’s fearlessness with this “trashiest piece of crap I’ve ever read” was the beginning of a new phase in his career where he throws himself wholeheartedly into interesting genre roles including STIR OF ECHOES, HOLLOW MAN, DEATH SENTENCE, SUPER, ELEPHANT WHITE and COP CAR.
I want to acknowledge the score by George S. Clinton, who I mainly know of as 1) the other George Clinton and 2) the guy that did the awesome MORTAL KOMBAT score. His mix of exotic, driving percussion, sleazy detective movie horns, laidback surf guitar stings, breathy siren calls, and slowly rising violins is exactly right for the WILD THINGS sexy-film-noir-crawling-out-of-the-bog-with-a-head-wound-after-being-left-for-dead vibe.
More importantly I think it needs to be said that Richards is absolutely great in this. Sure, her performance was overshadowed by men’s excitement over seeing her boobs, but I also think that we men, or maybe even we as a society, tend to look past the actual talents and achievements of someone who looks like that. Sure, you could argue she was stiff as the square girlfriend Carmen in STARSHIP TROOPERS or Dr. Christmas Jones in the Bond movie. But this is one of those perfectly cast, never-matched roles like Alicia Silverstone in CLUELESS. She has to cover not only aggressive sexual creature and faux-naive-teenage-seductress, but convincing-fake-tears on the witness stand and – my favorite – petulant brat. She angrily skeet shoots wearing white plastic sunglasses, slaps Suzie and yells “ARE YOU RETARDED!?,” fights in a swimming pool.
Campbell is a little less natural of a fit, seeming slightly awkward and uncomfortable when she has to say nasty tough girl obscenities to people. But Suzie is the underdog here, the girl who was not born into money who uses her genius to avenge an injustice and screw over a bunch of assholes – the closest thing to a good guy here outside of Perez. And maybe the raccoon. And Campbell brings that quality that worked so well in the SCREAM movies of the girl who’s been wronged and underestimated who finds the inner strength to come out on top.
Twenty years ago, just before the movie came out, I read that Bacon Entertainment Weekly quote and found it laughable. I mean I knew it was McNaughton and Bill Murray had me curious but I really thought I was gonna be laughing at some unintentionally funny schlock. When I saw it and it turned out to be such a delight I was convinced it was going to follow in the path of SCREAM and be that rare movie that picked up momentum from word-of-mouth and became a phenomenon.
No dice. On March 20, 1998 it opened at #4 below TITANIC, PRIMARY COLORS and THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK. It hung around in the top ten for a few weeks but ultimately made around $30 million, less than SMALL SOLDIERS, SPHERE, JACK FROST, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, even an Imax film called MYSTERIES OF EGYPT. But slightly above SPICE WORLD and BULWORTH. But in the long game I do think it’s a winner, generally having a reputation as a good cult movie once you get past the people whose immediate reaction is to talk about boobs. And I guess the studio considered it enough of a name brand to cash in with three DTV sequels that are basically not-as-good remakes, all of which I reviewed on the Ain’t It Cool News at the time: WILD THINGS 2 (2004), WILD THINGS 3: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH (2005) and WILD THINGS: FOURSOME (2010). And as recently as 2013 McNaughton talked about doing a legitimate sequel about their kids.
Also, back then movies didn’t go to video as fast, and they played in theaters longer. And the number of expensive wannabe blockbusters was starting to grow, forcing the window for such releases to expand into April. So WILD THINGS was still playing nearly 2,000 screens when the $80 million LOST IN SPACE movie came along and jumpstarted the summer of ’98 movie season.
What I’m getting at, my friends, is that this is the beginning of an exciting new review series, a retrospective of the summer of 1998. I cannot say that there are going to be alot of great movies covered. There are only a few that I consider as good as or better than WILD THINGS, which is one reason I wanted to start here. It became clear shortly into my research that I had chosen a year with alot more garbage than I had initially planned for. Even so, I find it interesting to look back at these things from the perspective of 20 years later, and I hope you will too. So please join me tomorrow for the space adventures of a guy from Friends, a recent Academy Award winner, the writer of BATMAN AND ROBIN and a color-changing CGI space monkey.