When you type ‘Basic Instinct’ into Google Images, the exact same picture fills the results.
A beautiful blonde woman reclining into a chair, a knowing smile stretched across her lips. A pristine white polo neck; white brick walls; a soft hue of blue light. Why this repeated image, you ask?
Well, well, well.
In Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is a police detective in San Francisco who is called upon when a retired rockstar called Boz (sadly not Bez) is stabbed to death with an ice pick during sex. Everyone immediately suspects his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), is the culprit: she is far too hot and young for him, conniving, unruffled, and has literally just written a book in which the main character murders someone with an ice pick. Case closed. She, however, claims she has been framed: why would she murder someone in precisely the manner she just wrote about? Wouldn’t that be ridiculous?
Nick, of course, doesn’t really buy this. But he also can’t help but fall for Catherine’s seductive cat-and-mouse game, and he soon begins an affair with her whilst simultaneously investigating her shady past. Basic Instinct’s strongest suit is its sheer nailbiting tension: is someone about to die? Why on earth is he alone with her? What’s that shiny thing under the bed? Who are we meant to trust? You find yourself holding your breath throughout which is no mean feat, and audiences loved it too: it was the third highest grossing film that year, firmly establishing the erotic thriller genre as popular, lucrative, and—importantly—shameless.
The characterization of the main characters is also handled well by Verhoeven, who is unarguably skilled at atmosphere-building, irrespective of your opinions on his films. We learn that Nick used to be an alcoholic and cocaine addict, and that he’s forced to undertake counselling sessions after he shot and killed two tourists, though the case was found to be accidental. Every past flicker of pain, every effort, every piece of temptation and self-loathing, is etched deep in Michael Douglas’ jowled face. His attraction to Catherine—her danger, her I-know-you’re-bad-for-me allure—makes him both loathe and want her. He breaks his sobriety after his first moment alone with her; he then has sex with his on-off girlfriend and counsellor, the doe-eyed Dr Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), which is consensual, but more rough than she would have liked. “You’ve never been like that before,” she says afterwards. “You weren’t making love.” Soon Nick and Catherine are even garbed in the same colours; dove-greys, beiges, whites, muted blues. The game becomes more dangerous, more confusing; Nick begins to spiral out of control.
Basic Instinct is also just… funny. There’s a scene where Michael Douglas goes clubbing in a knitted V-neck sweater whilst Sharon Stone’s girlfriend angrily does aerobics moves in the background. This takes place in a former rock star’s club, yet it’s all deep house, acid raving and weird clergical decor. It’s also a lot of fun: this is, after all, a murder mystery. You hoot, screech, scoff and guffaw. Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay vacillates between the no-holds-barred direct to the frankly insane (“she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!”).
As with most erotic thrillers, Basic Instinct is indebted to both film noir and Alfred Hitchcock. The stabbing scene from Psycho is crudely copied. There’s one scene at the beginning that is an identical copy of one from 1944’s Double Indemnity, in which another untrustworthy blonde (Barbara Stanwyck in a fantastically bad wig) with shady motives seduces our everyman protagonist. Hitchock, of course, had his own predilection for blondes: Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren. It’s the beachy shade of Catherine Tramell’s hair, and her piercing eyes, that contributes to her character’s fearsome allure. And yet Sharon Stone is just irresistibly early nineties: icy hair, dark brows, stained lips, gold chain.
However, Basic Instinct, as is the case with 99% of erotic thrillers, has been criticized—a lot. The character of Catherine does absolutely nothing to fix that weird ‘murderous bisexual’ trope that writers love to throw around. During filming in San Francisco, LGBT groups protested during filming and tried to disrupt takes with lasers and whistles. In a 2011 retrospective look, however, Gay Times wrote that “Sharon Stone’s ice-cold temptress proved that not only were lesbians smarter than straight men, they could drive faster and fuck harder. For some reason, gay rights groups thought this was homophobic, and protested the film’s release. Curious.” Real-life murderer Luka Magnotta (yes, from Don’t F**ck With Cats) used a ‘Kurt Tramell’ alias when, inspired by Basic Instinct, he filmed himself stabbing a man to death with an ice pick and put it on the internet. Some of the sex from our ‘hero’, Nick, is needlessly violent. Oh yeah, and that one scene, the one that crops up on Google Images: maybe we should discuss that.
Very early on in the film, Catherine is being interrogated by the police. A handful of policemen sit in a row, ogling at her bare legs. She sits in front of them, bathed in white light like she’s on stage, playing up for an ogling crowd. At one point, she uncrosses her legs, and you clearly see her vulva (in a cruder copy of a moment from Double Indemnity). Fourteen years later, Sharon Stone claimed this scene was filmed without her knowledge and included without her consent. This is problematic, for the same reason why it was problematic for Marlon Brando to—without consent—humiliate Maria Schneider during Last Tango in Paris with That Butter Scene. Stone says that director Paul Verhoeven asked her to remove her white underwear during filming as they reflected light on the camera lens, assuring her that only a shadow could be seen (a claim that Verhoeven strongly denies). Erotic thrillers only truly work when everyone is in on the joke; if true, why humiliate your lead star, who plays a self-assured woman of genius-level intellect, with such a cheap move?
Some covet Basic Instinct as a feminist masterpiece; others dismiss it as homophobic trash. It’s by no means my favourite erotic thriller, but it truly is the blueprint for the genre, with a wild abandonment of disbelief and lurid plot that doesn’t take its foot off our necks until the credits roll. It was helmed by some of the biggest players in the genre, too. Director Paul Verhoeven also directed Showgirls and, later, Elle; writer Joe Eszterhas penned the script for Basic Instinct but also Jagged Edge, Showgirls, Sliver and Jade; star Michael Douglas was the canonical male actor of the genre, also starring in Fatal Attraction, A Perfect Murder and Disclosure.
Erotic thrillers, at their heart, are about two things: death and sex, or, la petite mort (literally “little death”, and French for ‘orgasm’). Not quite reveling in campy showmanship and not quite a self-serious thriller, Basic Instinct‘s mixed legacy continues to spark debate and recruit legions of fans and adversaries.
Words by Steph Green
Recommended Reading and Listening
Ep #3: Basic Instinct & Lesser Ripoffs, The Suspense is Killing Us Podcast
Ep #2: Basic Instinct, Fatal Attractions Podcast
Is This The Actual Plot of ‘Basic Instinct’?, New Yorker
Hollywood’s Responsibility for Smoking Deaths, The New York Times
’90s erotic thrillers and the satisfaction of watching women burn the world, Vox