|The nineteen-nineties were a strange time for sex in popular culture. The subject, never mind its depiction, became more mainstream than ever, except that the overarching mood was growing more conservative, pointing towards the next century where it seemed everyone was simultaneously obsessed with and repelled by it, fascinated by what, if anything, sexual was going on in other's heads. But back in 1992 it was clear this alarm was in its nascent form, and while we had been through the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, that conservatism that marked the eighties, for all its excesses, was well and truly on the upswing.
Some would call it less conservatism than hypocrisy, yet there may have been a knock-on effect, pre-internet rendering pornography, amateur and professional, accessible to all even if not everyone admitted looking at it. The fear that the person standing next to you may be entertaining a sexual side, whether you knew them or not, had fed into the slasher flick cliché of "have sex and die", making sex and violence synonymous in movies for adult audiences, so that nineties paranoia, which looks quaint in comparison to twenty-twenties paranoia and beyond, exhibited itself most blatantly in a movie from 1992: Basic Instinct. Its biggest terror was that women could be sexual too.
Basic Instinct was a box office phenomenon. Directed by the boundary-pushing Paul Verhoeven, whose takes on America always came across like vicious satire, and based on a Joe Eszterhas screenplay, it starred an established celebrity who was keen to go further in his material than other stars of his stature - Michael Douglas - and an actress who previously had been a cult property in action movies, Sharon Stone. For better or worse (for her personal life) the role she took as the potential villainess made her a star too, though not one often taken seriously thanks to this film playing up that dreaded sex and violence, no matter that she acted everyone else off the screen in it.
It was controversial before it was released, thanks to the gay community protesting that it featured a lesbian (or bisexual) character as an antagonist, though when the film was finally out, the protests cooled from small crowds spoiling the end of the movie for queueing audiences to later, a strange respect for Stone's man and woman hungry writer Catherine Trammell began to form in certain sections of society. You can kind of see why, and a lot of it was in Stone's performance: she did not condescend to Catherine, nor make her a caricature, she was a strong personality wrapping the hapless men around her little finger as she toyed with the San Francisco Police Department over her culpability (or not) in a murder.
More than one murder, as it turned out, as while the movies that went the extra mile to depict sex largely stuck with that alone, or mixed it with other genres like comedy, Basic Instinct embraced the transgressive nature of horror and made a slasher by stealth, only without a masked maniac doing the stabbing (with an ice pick) and shooting. Was this any more sophisticated than a Friday the 13th sequel because it played up the film noir allusions as efforts like Body Heat and Douglas' own Fatal Attraction had done before? After all, the avalanche of straight to video Basic Instinct copies were as much posing as those as they were the Verhoeven vision, and left the shocker qualities to the dwindling interest the horror genre suffered as the nineties wore on.
Horror would bounce back as countries other than America took an interest and revitalised it, but the erotic thriller would not be so lucky as sex grew to be regarded with a grimmer aspect. You could view Basic Instinct as having fun with what it had, it was devilish fun, but it was present, but no matter how many lifestyle experts told is the subject was supposed to be enjoyable, the headlines were full of people using their libidos for activities that assuredly were not enjoyable, leaving suspicion across the world in their wake. Really the only major hit post-Millennium that followed in Verhoeven's footsteps was Gone Girl, and that was weirdly coy about its sexual angle in favour of the accompanying violence. Even Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels presented problematic relationships not in a sex thriller fashion, but as lifestyle porn - not so much soft porn.
This leaves Basic Instinct in a curious position, so to speak, as it is a relic of the nineties that still seems like stronger stuff than any mainstream movie made for grown-ups would attempt now, Vertigo references and all. It also makes its appearance on 4K Blu-ray well worth a look, especially for its hour-long retrospective documentary included on its two-disc package, both because we hear from the men involved, who are all proud of their work on it, but because of the amount of time given over to Sharon Stone, who understandably has more mixed feelings. It was her breakthrough movie at 32 years of age, which that aforementioned cult audience were happy to see, but it created a false impression of reality which she struggled with personally. Nowadays, thanks in part to critic Camille Paglia, who loves the film, we can recognise the rejection most critics displayed for Basic Instinct should not have applied to Stone; by all means be turned off by arch-provocateur Verhoeven if he is not your thing, but his leading lady absolutely stole the show in a performance that has lasted far better than Douglas's one-note aggression. Indeed, if it was not for the violence, it would be a class act all round. But where would the subversive fun be without it?
[Basic Instinct is released by StudioCanal in a new 4K UHD Blu-ray restoration. It's always a film that look glossy, now it's even more so. These are the extras:
DISC 1 -
Feature documentary with recent interviews
Audio commentary with Camille Paglia
Audio commentary with Paul Verhoeven and Jan de BontBasic Instinct: Sex, Death and Stone
An unending story - Scoring Basic Instinct
Blonde Poison - The making of
Cast & Crew interviews featurette
Storyboard comparisons (Love scene - Car Chase - Elevator murder)Screen tests (Sharon Stone x 4 - Jeanne Tripplehorn x 1 ).]