Fade in: A man and a woman in bed. Both nude. A mirrored ceiling. No sound, except for heavy breathing. The woman, a blonde whose hair covers her face but not her centerfold body, straddles the man, who seems a nanosecond from the come of the century. His hands are tied to the headboard with a white silk scarf. Hermés. Class. Cut to the woman’s hand, holding an ice pick. K Mart. Tacky. Close-up: Her hand slams down repeatedly. Blood gushes in orgasmic spurts.
Basic Instinct doesn’t waste time establishing priorities. This is one charged-up erotic thriller — gory, lurid, brutally funny and without a politically correct thought in its unapologetically empty head. Still, director Paul Verhoeven’s cinematic wet dream delivers the goods, especially when Sharon Stone struts on with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Stone, a former model, is a knockout; she even got a rise out of Ah-nold in Verhoeven’s Total Recall. But being the bright spot in too many dull movies (He Said, She Said, Irreconcilable Differences) stalled her career. Though Basic Instinct establishes Stone as a bombshell for the Nineties, it also shows she can nail a laugh or shade an emotion with equal aplomb.
Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a bisexual heiress and mystery novelist. San Francisco cop Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner, Gus Moran (George Dzundza), arrive at Catherine’s swank beach house — Jan De Bont’s camera makes everything look deluxe — to question her about the ice-pick slaying of her graying rock-star lover, Johnny Boz (Bill Cable). It seems Boz’s murder was copycatted from Catherine’s last novel. She insists it’s a setup, but she goes downtown with the cops, stopping only to slip into heels and something short and clingy. She wears no underwear, a detail that doesn’t escape her interrogators, who attend to each uncrossing of Catherine’s legs like overzealous gynecologists.
The interrogation scene is the film’s comic high point. The cops frown when Catherine lights a cigarette. “What are you going to do,” she asks, “charge me with smoking?” When they try to establish whether Catherine liked Boz, she responds tersely, “I liked fucking him.” It’s a cheeky beginning for Stone and the film. Before the plot thickens — congeals is more like it — she and the bristling Douglas make flinty sparring partners. Curran, derisively nicknamed Shooter for accidentally killing two tourists while on duty, is a reformed boozer and cokehead. He drove his wife to suicide and has a shaky relationship with an improbably tarted-up police shrink, Beth Gardner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Catherine knows this because she’s keeping a file on Curran for her next novel. The fact that the prototypes for Catherine’s books wind up dead both frightens and excites Curran. He tries some roughhouse sex with Beth (he rips off her clothes; she sucks his fingers, a la Cape Fear), but nothing will do except Catherine herself. There’s a complication: Catherine’s lesbian lover, Roxy (Leilani Sarelle), is lethally jealous. But what does Curran care? After an all-night marathon with the object of his lust, the weary cop feels born-again. Catherine describes it as merely “a pretty good beginning.” (The sex scene was trimmed by sixty-eight seconds to avoid an NC-17 rating, but enough sizzle remains to indicate that Stone did indeed work without a “crotch patch.”)
Catherine the killer? Or is it Roxy? Or Beth, who had a fling with Catherine when they were at Berkeley? And why is Curran drawn to his own destruction? If this sounds familiar, it’s no wonder. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has a thing for dangerous liaisons. In his Jagged Edge, a lawyer falls in love with a man she’s defending on a murder charge. Basic Instinct is a virtual remake of Edge, from the ritual opening killing to its climactic reenactment. But Eszterhas isn’t alone in cribbing. Verhoeven lifts from his superior 1984 Dutch thriller, The Fourth Man, about a bisexual author hung up on a three-times-widowed femme fatale. Douglas brings along countless allusions to Fatal Attraction. And Stone recently did Scissors, about another blond slasher.
The hodgepodge wouldn’t matter, of course, if Basic Instinct made a lick of sense. It doesn’t, and neither does the ambiguous trick ending, which makes what preceded even more confounding. The insistently purple tone of the dialogue doesn’t help either. Eszterhas got a whopping $3 million for his script, which leaves you computing the monetary value of such lines as “She’s got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain.” But don’t look for logic in Basic Instinct. In that way lies madness. Protests from the gay community about the film’s negative treatment of lesbians are also pointless, since no one in this kinky sex fantasy demonstrates anything resembling recognizable human behavior.
What makes Basic Instinct a guilty pleasure is the shameless and stylish way Verhoeven lets rip with his own basic instinct for disreputably alluring entertainment. The film is for horny pups of all ages who relish the memory of reading stroke books under the covers with a flashlight. Verhoeven has spent $49 million to reproduce that dirty little thrill on the big screen. You can practically hear him giggling behind the camera. His audacity makes you giggle along with him.