Paul Verhoeven was flying high in Hollywood after the back-to-back success of Robocop and Total Recall, and Joe Eszterhas was getting ridiculous sums of money for his screenplays. Eszterhas sold his script for Basic Instinct for over 3 million dollars, which was unheard of for a spec script—but this was the late ’80s/early ’90s, where the notion of the high-concept spec script became Hollywood’s hottest property was in full flow, and writers like Shane Black and Eszterhas were getting huge sums for sometimes very little work…. Eszterhas got 1.5 million for a two-page outline of Jade. Verhoeven was also looking for something edgy and sexy after working in big-budget sci-fi, and hoped to find something more in tune with elements of his Dutch work, mainly The Fourth Man.
Since Basic Instinct‘s release, much has been made between the similarities between The Fourth Man and this film. There have even been claims that Basic Instinct is essentially a “remake.” There are marked similarities, such as a bisexual crime novelist, although in The Fourth Man it’s the man who is bisexual, plus a femme fatale. In a sense Ezterhas merged both characters into one to create Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell, but stylistically the two films are worlds apart: The Fourth Man is a European art film with thriller elements but drenched in Catholic guilt, whilst Basic Instinct is a very knowingly trashy erotic thriller made at the height of the genre.
For better or worse, Verhoeven is a provocateur, and Basic Instinct is no exception with its still pretty racy sex scenes. The film came under fire for its depiction of Catherine as a vampish bisexual possible killer by various LGBTQ+ groups who protested at the San Francisco shooting locations throughout the production. I think the protests were an extension of the backlash against The Silence of the Lambs, with its transgender serial killer Buffalo Bill—and whilst there were few positive LGBTQ+ characters at the time in films, neither film was exactly made to condemn LGBTQ+ people. Both Jonathan Demme and Verhoeven were fairly progressive. Whilst Verhoeven’s Spetters may have had some strange views of homosexuality, it is also critical of toxic masculinity, and The Fourth Man‘s main character’s bisexuality is seen as a force of positivity against the femme fatale’s heterosexuality. Verhoeven remains one of our most subversive directors, and that might explain why his intent is often misunderstood. Demme followed up The Silence of the Lambs with Philadelphia, which always feels like he just wanted to prove his wasn’t some homophobe after the controversy for Lambs and made for some fairly lousy Oscar-bait in the process (as well as marking the decline of his feature films after a extraordinary run.) Verhoeven’s follow-up to Basic Instinct was the high-camp Showgirls which mainly found it’s cult audience in the LGBTQ+ community.
In recent months, Sharon Stone has given a interview that spoke out against this new restoration of Basic Instinct and called it the “XXX” cut, but it’s simply a remaster of the unrated director’s cut, which has been available since the days of VHS. It has very minor trims for sex and violence that were restored—it’s the “European Cut” cut, anyway. Stone has said many conflicting things about the infamous scene where she exposes her privates in the interrogation room, but that’s not different from the R-rated cut. At some points she has said she was lied to or tricked into taking her underwear off for the scene (although the character famously doesn’t wear any). Clearly something happened that probably wouldn’t fly today, but she was at the same time very happy to be interviewed for the documentary on the release and talks pretty warmly of Verhoeven. It is worth noting when she was interviewed and made the comments about the “XXX” cut she was hawking her recent memoir, maybe she was drumming up controversy to sell the book.
That said, Basic Instinct is the high watermark of the erotic thriller. It also introduced lesbianism into the then relatively new genre, which would become a hallmark of the genre, from tasteful films like the Wachowskis’ Bound to the sleaziest direct-to-video trash. The film is also beautifully photographed by Jan de Bont, who shot most of Verhoeven’s Dutch films as well as Die Hard. The new Blu-Ray really brings out noirish lighting and composition that at times would make Brian De Palma blush. It was Verhoeven and de Bont’s last collaboration before de Bont went out to Hollywood himself to direct blockbusters like Speed.
Michael Douglas is a great actor, but his homicide detective is the least interesting part of the film. Sharon Stone’s ice queen from hell is what makes the film soar above the insanely trashy script from Eszterhas, who knocked it out in under two weeks. It also marks the transition of Verhoeven to mainly focusing on female protagonists and their complexities. Is Paul Verhoeven the great male feminist filmmaker, or is he just a massive misogynist? You can make a compelling case for either point of view, but only time will tell—his next film is a thriller about lesbians nuns in the 17th century!
The disc’s only new extra is a 52-minute documentary, which includes a interviews with all the main players. The rest of the extras include commentary tracks from Verhoeven and de Bont, but also from the notorious “feminist” academic Camille Paglia; an old featurette and a compilation of cast and crew interviews. A new trailer, screen tests and storyboard comparisons round the extras off.