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Monday, June 6, 2022

The Camp Appeal of Genre-Blurring ‘Wild Things’ [Sex Crimes]

The last installment of this column explored legendary director Adrian Lyne’s masterclass entry in the erotic thriller canon: Fatal Attraction. The 1987 film, steeped in Conservative culture, is as much a warning to heterosexual men about female sexuality as it is a confirmation of the need to uphold traditional (read: nuclear) family values.

It’s almost surreal to compare the politics of Fatal Attraction to 1998’s Wild Things. The latter film arrives just over a decade later, but John McNaughton’s sordid, sweaty ode to Florida is a world apart. Whereas Lyne’s film is a mature exploration of the sub genre’s thematic concerns, Wild Things is a highly sexualized romp that is more interested in provocation and excess, as evidenced by the narrative’s attempts to capitalize on taboo subjects (Threesomes! Queerness! Male Nudity!)

Wild Things is…convoluted. The plot initially appears to be about a poor guidance counsellor, Mr. Lombardo (Matt Dillon), who is accused of rape by two female students, high society Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) and swamp trash Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell). When Sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and his partner Detective Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) investigate, they discover that the trio are secretly engaged in a polyamorous relationship and the alleged sexual assaults were merely a plot to secure the family fortune from Kelly’s mother, Sandra (Theresa Russell). From there the film regularly (confusedly) recontextualizes everyone’s relationship as Ray becomes embroiled in the sex games, leaving a host of bodies in its wake.

Unlike Fatal Attraction and the infidelity erotic thrillers that dominated the 80s and early-to-mid 90s, in Wild Things, the family unit is completely dysfunctional or entirely absent. The primary familial relationship is the Van Ryans, who openly treat each other with disdain. Eventually it is revealed that Sandra was targeted by Kelly because the girl blames her mother for the suicide of her father. That the film introduces such a trauma-steeped backstory and barely explores it is both a testament to the film’s pulpy priorities, as well as a reflection of the lack of interest in traditional families in the 90s. Case in point: Suzie’s family is basically absent and she lives in a trailer, which is a narrative shorthand to indicate her low-class status. 

Wild Things A blonde woman in a wet white t-shirt

In Wild Things, every character is out for themselves and there are few, if any, genuinely healthy relationships. Instead Wild Things delights in exploring the hypersexualized, amoral activities of its characters for whom money and sex (in that order) are the only currency that matters.

Now some audiences will quibble with the definition of Wild Things as an erotic thriller. It’s true that the film is more frequently classified as part of the neo-noir sub genre: films from the 70s-present that explore the morals and politics of film noir. Film noir is a sub genre that thrived principally in the 40s and early 50s and maintained a focus on hard-boiled detectives, PIs and photographers, as well as slippery, sexy femme fatales and plots so complicated that even chief architect Raymond Chandler could barely keep them organized. 

In that capacity, Wild Things definitely fits the neo-noir bill. Both Kelly and Suzie are femme fatales; Ray is the egotistical cop with the loose morals; and Lombardo is the slimy dupe/patsy. Hell, Wild Things ridiculous plot is so convoluted that it infamously requires the entirety of its credit sequence to unpack its timelines and character motivations. 

This is where the conventions and iconographies of genre blur and fall away. Genre is an artificially-constructed agreement between filmmakers, advertising and audiences, prone to shifting tastes over time and subject to revisionist interpretations. Wild Things is undeniably *also* an erotic thriller because the film’s entire premise is predicated on sexually charged thrills and murders.  

In the wrong hands, this blend could be infuriating and stupid, but screenwriter Stephen Peters clearly understands the pulpy appeal of the material. The same can be said of the actors, especially a delightful Bill Murray, who vamps it up appropriately as a low-rent attorney.

Wild Things A man in a red shirt caresses a blonde girl (L) as a red headed girl (R) holds a bottle of champagne

Semantics of neo-noir vs erotic thriller aside, Wild Things works because it embraces its lurid, sordid material. Compare the film to Palmetto, another 1998 neo-noir starring Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue. That film failed, in part, because it took itself too seriously and offered nothing new; by adhering too closely to the familiar tropes of the sub genre at a time when the erotic thriller was primarily the purview of made-for-TV movies on Hallmark and Lifetime, audiences couldn’t justify the night out to see Palmetto. Nowadays the film is barely spoken of.

Wild Things is also reflective of a specific mid-sized studio production that a) was prevalent in the 90s and b) would never be made today. As I noted with Gena Radcliffe and Bloody writer Jenn Adams on our White Ladies in Crisis podcast episode on the film, the false rape accusations and underage sex would both be jettisoned in the first draft.  

The film wasn’t a major theatrical hit upon release, grossing only $30.1 million in North America on a $20 million production budget. The film’s legacy, however, persists among aficionados of camp, “tasteless” trash and queers. From its infamous lesbian pool catfight/make-out to little Bacon’s cameo as Ray exits the shower to the aforementioned mid-credits sequence, even in 2022, Wild Things remains a truly wild ride. There’s nothing quite like it.


Sex Crimes is a new column that explores the legacy of erotic thrillers, from issues of marital infidelity to inappropriate underage affairs to sexualized crimes. In this subgenre, sex and violence are inexplicably intertwined as the dangers of intercourse take on a whole new meaning. 

The post The Camp Appeal of Genre-Blurring ‘Wild Things’ [Sex Crimes] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3717865/wild-things-camp-appeal-sex-crimes/

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