No, I’m not talking about in your personal life — I mean in movies, the place where a lot of us got our first hints of what being a grownup was like. There’s been plenty of discussion in recent months about why films have become so chaste, which might partly explain the reason that the new film Benedetta has gotten so much attention. From the provocative mind of Showgirls auteur Paul Verhoeven, this anti-Catholic period drama features, as Vulture calls it, “Hot Gay Nuns” and some of the hotter onscreen screwing in a while. It’s a shame that it’s actually notable when a movie is allowed to be sexy. It wasn’t always this way.
I would never claim that Wild Things is a good movie. But it is definitely a trashy, ridiculous, fun movie — which is another way of saying that it’s also a pretty sexy movie. Released in the spring of 1998, and now streaming on Netflix, this noir-ish thriller feels beamed in from a different reality, one where lesbian love stories, kinky threesomes and questionable plot twists were occasionally permitted to coexist in the same motion picture. I didn’t think much of Wild Things at the time, but now that we seem to live in a Hollywood that doesn’t make films like that anymore, I kind of miss it.
Wild Things has a plot, but nobody cares about that. Set in Florida, the movie stars Matt Dillon as Sam, a guidance counselor who has been accused of rape by two of his students: the quintessential trailer-trash Suzie (Neve Campbell) and the stereotypical spoiled rich girl Kelly (Denise Richards). That’s a serious accusation, but it merely sets the stage for the first of Wild Things’ lurid surprises: Turns out, all three of them are in cahoots, wanting to use the trial as a way to get a hefty settlement from Kelly’s wealthy parents. A slimy cop, Ray (Kevin Bacon), is onto them. Things got weirder from there.
“When I first picked up the script, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the trashiest piece of crap I’ve ever read,” Bacon said before the movie came out. “But every few pages, I kept discovering that it wasn’t what it seemed. Every few pages, there was another surprise.”
Bacon’s initial instinct was the right one, but not unlike in a Paul Verhoeven movie, Wild Things’ titillation is both gripping and connected to some larger point about human nature — indeed, this is a very horny film about capitalism run amok. Everyone in the movie is a predator — that’s why there are all those cutaways to alligators — and why its director, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer filmmaker John McNaughton, considered Wild Things his most political film. To his mind, the impoverished Suzie was the movie’s true hero:
“That was the ‘90s, with the concentration of wealth. But the girl from the trailer park takes ‘em all down. You know, I’m from the striving working class. A lot of the kids I grew up with, the parents didn’t care if their kid dropped out of school. But some of us had parents who insisted their children have an education, go to college, escape all that. So that’s where my heart always lies. But in Wild Things there’s virtually no sympathetic character. … She is the only decent human being in the film.”
That’s debatable, just as it’s debatable that anyone actually loves (or “loves”) Wild Things for such highbrow reasons. No, I think people obsess over the movie because of Suzie and Kelly’s hookup scene and the earlier threesome between the film’s principal characters. Wild Things came out a few years after Bound and Showgirls, mainstream films that boasted queer love stories, and whether McNaughton was exploiting a trend or simply honoring his characters’ secret desires, it felt generally risqué for two notable actresses to sign up for such a project. (Campbell had been part of Party of Five and the Scream movies, while Richards was best known for another Verhoeven film, Starship Troopers.) Sex was liberating in Wild Things and also kinda dirty — like we were watching something that we shouldn’t be. All these years later, I remember a buddy joking that the director ought to change his name to John McNaughty.
To be clear, there weren’t many movies like Wild Things even back in the 1990s. The sleazy, noir-ish Palmetto, which starred Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue, opened a month earlier and had a similar sweaty vibe and Florida setting. And, of course, Verhoeven unashamedly made sex central to the plots of his 1990s films, especially in Basic Instinct and Showgirls. But the reviews for Wild Things acknowledged that this kind of steamy sensuality was rare. “It’s like a three-way collision between a softcore sex film, a soap opera and a B-grade noir,” Roger Ebert wrote, which he meant as compliment, later advising, “Movies such as this either entertain or offend audiences; there’s no neutral ground. Either you’re a connoisseur of melodramatic comic vulgarity, or you’re not. You know who you are. I don’t want to get any postcards telling me this movie is in bad taste. I’m warning you: It is in bad taste. Bad taste elevated to the level of demented sleaze.”
Which is an appropriate response for a movie that could also be pretty funny in a tongue-in-cheek way. (Sam’s conniving attorney? None other than Bill Murray.)
Sex hardly evaporated from the big screen after Wild Things, which was a modest hit. Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne made Unfaithful a few years later. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive had incredible sex scenes. But the erotic thriller mostly vanished, now treated like straight-to-VOD junk. A film like Chloe is meant to be knowingly cheesy — pulpy trash dressed up in arthouse pretensions. And, recently, Euphoria and White Lotus star Sydney Sweeney appeared in Amazon’s softcore The Voyeurs, which largely got dismissive reviews. Meanwhile, Wild Things prompted a series of cheap-looking DVD sequels that tried to capitalize on the original’s sexiness. (Tellingly, the fourth installment was named Wild Things: Foursome.)
Were movies like Wild Things ever treated with respect? Probably not, largely because a movie like Wild Things never aspired to respectability. Forget the worthless description “guilty pleasure” — why defensively feel guilty about something you like? — and instead think of it as the kind of movie that sneaks through the crevices of your better judgment, tapping into the lizard brain part of your psyche, that area that enjoys watching good-looking people be bad and do indecent things to one another. You can find sex anywhere on the internet, but there was something great about it being embedded within a movie.
Films tell us how to be in the world, even garbage like Wild Things. It’s not like Hollywood doesn’t still make garbage movies — but they could at least do us the courtesy of making them a little horny at the same time.