Sometimes it’s hard to come by notoriety, even when you’re trying for it, but director John McNaughton managed it twice in twelve years. First was the grimy true story with a twist that was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a picture that was so controversial due to not only its subject matter but also its realistically-conceived scenes of violence that it didn’t receive an actual release until four years after it was made. And then there was Wild Things.
Released in 1998, Wild Things made an immediate splash due to its salacious marketing which focused on its two female stars – Neve Campbell, who hit stardom with Scream a few years earlier, and Denise Richards, who the previous year had starred in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. The film’s poster had the pair looking sultry with their heads barely out of the water, which not only appealed to the lad mag culture but also came directly from a sequence where the pair share a kiss in a pool, which made an even bigger splash. In a time when LGBTQ media was left mainly to indie films and television with flirtations in flicks like Showgirls, this was a big thing and probably helped it become a hit, even with it being supremely male gazey.
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Wild Things takes place in a rich town in the Florida Everglades, where one family owns most of it and the school kids are all white privilege douchebags. Sam (Matt Dillon) is a guidance counsellor who has come into this opulent world instead of being born into it and his life is quickly unravelled when two of his students, Suzie and Kelly (Campbell and Richards) accuse him of raping them. With two detectives (Kevin Bacon and Daphne Rubin-Vega) investigating him, Sam is determined to clear his name and ends up with small-time attorney Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), who is very much from the opposite end of the rich part of town.
McNaughton’s film is kind of a trash-noir, and cleverly sets the classic film noir framework inside this hell of high school privilege where money pays for everything, and if not money, sex. The great Roger Ebert described it as “lurid trash” and I’m inclined to agree, this is sleaze for sleaze’s sake, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wild Things twists and turns like a rollercoaster to the point where you don’t know when the next one is going to come; I recalled every one even though I haven’t seen it in decades, but I remember just how much fun it was seeing it for the first time. When it felt truly unpredictable.
The film is pretty impeccably cast. Dillon’s naive, slightly stupid performance anchors the film well, with Campbell and Richards brilliantly acting as the femme fatale foils, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich spoiled princess respectively. Bacon certainly knows what he’s in and comes out of it well, including his own famous brief nude scene, and Rubin-Vega is great as the calmer one of the two, if still knowingly inquisitive. But the MVP is Bill Murray; the film has a jet black sense of humour running through it but he’s able to just let it out and is all the more hilarious for it.
The film is handsomely filmed by Jeffery L. Kimball, who shot several pictures with Tony Scott, including Top Gun. George S. Clinton’s haunting and swampy score picks away along with it, and McNaughton regularly cuts to these gorgeous shots of the watery Everglades where we see alligators surfacing from the murky deep. It’s not subtle – everyone is a predator who shouldn’t be trusted – but it’s entertaining, and just adds to the already super-heightened trash soup.
Of course, the film also needs to be examined with MeToo in mind. The use of rape as a weapon is distasteful, especially as the film does not itself seem to believe the women, and it way it conflates sex with power is disturbing. It posits Theresa Russell (playing Richards’ mother) as a slut who believes her body can get her everything her money can’t, and this is super problematic, particularly as it’s floating the idea that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Then there are the notorious scenes with Campbell and Richards, including a threesome, which feel like they’ve been ripped from a cheap ’90s Shannon Whirry flick. That said, it’s great to look back at when you could have a mainstream film with this much fucking.
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Arrow Video‘s new special edition of Wild Things boasts a new 4K scan from the original camera negative in both standard Blu-ray and UHD flavours; we were sent the Blu-ray and it looks fantastic, with Kimball’s lurid colour palette shining, and robust stereo and surround tracks. The disc contains both the original theatrical edition and the unrated version, with the latter the optimum experience as it includes some non-sexy moments restored to the film. The package is also filled with extras, including a new audio commentary by McNaughton and producer Stephen A. Jones, and new interviews with McNaughton and Denise Richards, along with an archival commentary, outtakes, and more.
Wild Things is a fun and supremely sleazy film that shoots along at a pace that makes you catch your breath when the twists and turns hit. A lot has happened in the twenty-four years since its release, and there are problems with the film that may dissuade some from checking it out. But if you do, Arrow’s Limited Edition set is the way to do it.