Sex Crimes

Wild Things (1998)

Exec-produced by a “streaky” Kevin Bacon, directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory), and described as “Scream meets Body Heat” by its breakout star, Denise Richards, Wild Things is a film I somewhat sheepishly, but repeatedly return to. It helped define a specific era of late-nineties cinema, along with other genre gems, Scream and American Pie, in the sense that it was subversive, exploitative, adult, and something the previous generation wouldn’t necessarily flock to.

Wild Things felt like it was crafted especially for my 17-year-old college crowd. There’s sweltering sexuality from the outset – the growly Mandalay Pictures logo, paired with George S. Clinton’s sleazy saxophone score, immediately conjures memories of sliding in the verboten VHS. Scenes such as the “I Want What I Want” wet t-shirt car wash and its immediate soggy aftermath, the revealing motel threesome, and the artwork-adorning lesbian pool kiss, all exude an unmistakable ’90s steaminess.

In spite of Matt Dillon’s gurning, it’s all less laughable than most depictions of “coitus” in erotic thriller peers like Fatal Attraction (mad scrambling sink hydration), Color of Night (Bruce’s underwater Willis and bath time toy tank body off-roading), Body of Evidence (Madge’s hot dripping candle wax), Showgirls (splashy pool thrashing), and 9½ Weeks (iconic fridge-raiding and awkward alleyway waterfall fumblings), and to up the adolescent interest, featured starlets from popular television programmes of the day, in various states of undress, cursing, and acting in a manner we were not used to seeing on their weekly episodic shows. These actors were suddenly let loose; unleashed into the wild to fend for themselves without the protection of network telly censors. R-rated horrors, comedies, and thrillers, boasted an edginess, and a tantalising sense that anything could unfold.

“Guidance counselors get to find out all kinds of interesting things.”

Sam Lombardo, Wild Things

In terms of blatant beauty, Denise Richards stands out from the crowd – she has magnetism, and the camera clearly loves her. Check out the wide shot of the Blue Bay Buccaneers’ cheerleaders, for example. The eye trains on her. There may as well be an iris in. It’s all about Denise. Unfortunately, following Wild Things, Starship Troopers, and perhaps her career apex as Brosnan Bond girl, Dr Christmas Jones, in The World Is Not Enough, Richards retreated into Playboy centrefold, E! reality TV territory, and regrettably got mixed up with bi-winning warlock, Charlie Sheen.

In 1994’s television drama series, Party of Five, Neve Campbell played the sensitive, and highly intelligent orphan, Julia Salinger. The hype around her and co-star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, who appeared as Bailey’s beau, Sarah, is perfectly illustrated in an objectifying but shamefully spot-on scene from Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, in which Josh Hartnett rips off gullible high schoolers by flogging them supposed nude tapes of the pair. I was the perfect age to fall for each of them a little – Neve in The Craft and the first two Scream films, and J.Love in the teen slasher, I Know What You Did Last Summer and its ludicrously titled, but firm guilty pleasure, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Wild Things was released the same year as Scream 2, and 1998’s MTV Movie Awards neatly illustrated Campbell’s burgeoning stardom.

Actors’ jumps from angsty, but relatively safe and comfortable TV to risqué features, seemed to be the transitional trend. You’d often hear muted mutterings like, “Dawson gets to say ‘fuck’ in Varsity Blues!” or “Buffy snogs that girl from Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane in Cruel Intentions!”

Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek, and My So-Called Life spawned the careers of many promising young performers. It seemed to happen much more back then, with Campbell, Love Hewitt, and Scott Wolf graduating from Party of Five to features such as Scream (alongside Friends’ Courteney Cox, who made Wes Craven’s horror buzz a bit louder), Scream 2, Wild Things, and the first two I Know What You Did Last Summer movies – Wolf most notably appearing in Doug Liman’s Go, alongside Dawson’s Creek’s “good girl gone bad,” Katie Holmes. Capeside’s other inhabitants, namely Dawson Leery himself, James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, and Michelle Williams, each popped up in small screen-subverting roles in Varsity Blues, Urban Legend, Cruel Intentions (alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s bedroom wall pin-up, Sarah Michelle Gellar – who also appeared in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2), and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later.

Throughout the nineties, even Saved by the Bell’s Zack and Jessie, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Elisabeth Berkley, were appearing in “grown-up” films like the underrated (and unfairly overshadowed by its ’98 doppelgänger, Dead Man’s Curve) Dead Man on Campus, and Showgirls. Beverly Hills, 90210’s Shannen Doherty made Kevin Smith’s Mallrats with Campbell’s Party of Five squeeze, Jeremy London, and My So-Called Life helped usher in the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto (an actor I felt was so promising in Girl, Interrupted and Requiem for a Dream, that I used to refer to him as “the best actor of his generation” – something I later regretted and retracted).

“So, where’s your hose, Mr Lombardo?”

Kelly Van Ryan, Wild Things

To take Wild Things too seriously is a discredit to the film’s well-balanced daftness, and would also rob you of the sheer fun of it. After all, a movie featuring a fake-collared, funny-boned, scene-stealing Bill Murray, and a preposterous raccoon witness (faraway the funniest wild animal cutaway in a film chock-full of them), “acting” somewhere between intrigued and startled, before the scene abruptly fades to black, is hardly the motion picture to pick apart in terms of it tackling hot topics. Wild Things neither desires, nor deserves, to be appointed as spokesperson. However, the film does resonate awkwardly upon rewatch, partially due to its prescient rape themes, dealt with much more carefully in hard-hitting documentaries, The Hunting Ground, Audrie & Daisy, and 2001’s Raw Deal: A Question of Consent.

To me, the self-awareness, the winks, nods, and tongue-in-cheekness of it all, just nudges Wild Things onto the acceptable side of the line, and shouldn’t, as they say, “trigger” too much. The high-wire is certainly tiptoed in terms of serious issues being wrung through the mangle by filmmakers in search of nothing but a sensationalist, sizzling box office hit, but they don’t dramatically teeter, especially when comparing the movie to arguably the genre’s biggest blockbuster, Basic Instinct, which has its own, more graphic and troublesome date rape subplot. Having said that, the hyper-sexualisation of high school girls plays as questionable at best, but alarmingly wasn’t out of place back in ’98, with Britney Spears parading provocatively in school uniform 24/7 on MTV in her racy music video for “…Baby One More Time.” Although Neve and Denise were 23 and 26 years old respectively in Wild Things, it does bring into question how much the filmmakers and complicit studio would have been willing to ask and “show” if the actors’ ages mirrored those of their characters.

Ideally, Wild Things should be segregated as a silly-smart, exploitative, but not mean-spirited movie; deeply affecting social commentary, this is not, and to invoke it too much is the shortest route to crippling the film of its lurid, but fiendishly entertaining qualities.

“So how much is $8.5 million, divided by 3?”

Suzie Toller, Wild Things

So if you’re thinking of venturing back to the South Miami swamps and Coconut Grove humidity, to get a bit hot under the collar, there are two cuts of Wild Things currently available. The unrated version is worth favouring over the truncated theatrical, as it features 6½ minutes of extra footage. It’s a bit saucier, there’s more Bill Murray, dirtier alternative lines, and an interesting third act bonus story nugget.

Anyone interested in going one step beyond Wild Things might enjoy my month-long, 30 Days Hath Sextember season of sordid films, showing the peaks and troughs of the once ubiquitous erotic thriller genre.

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