“Can I play too, or is it just for boys?”
If you had told 17-year-old me that one day there would be a fancy, slipcased 4K release of Wild Things, you would have had a lot of explaining to do – starting with, “What the hell is a 4K?” Back then, I knew Wild Things because I was 17 and it was a semi-notorious erotic thriller, as infamous for showing off Kevin Bacon’s junk as for showcasing the curves of its femmes fatale.
What I didn’t know then was that it was directed by John McNaughton, most famous as the helmer of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. That alone gives Wild Things an unusual pedigree for a late-90s erotic thriller. Throw in some music by George S. Clinton (Mortal Kombat, Austin Powers) and a mid-career turn by Bill Murray (between the peaks of his post-SNL comedy leads and his late career renaissance as an indie darling) and you’ve got this thing, which somehow managed to spawn 3 direct-to-video sequels, even though it is a film that hinges entirely upon a series of twists that make sequels functionally impossible.
Wild Things is a product of its time in so many ways. You can tell that from the fact that Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, and Matt Dillon all get top billing over folks like Murray, even before needle drops on Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and the Smash Mouth cover of “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” It’s also a product of its time in that it centers on not one but two false rape allegations, and how they destroy a seemingly good man’s life.
These are talking points that are frequently thrown about by “men’s rights” people, even though, in real life, false rape allegations are vanishingly rare, and both authorities and the public are more likely to side with the accused than the accuser. And even in 1998, the false rape allegations are merely the first in the picture’s numerous heel-turns, in which things are never what they appear.
Unfortunately, the many twists not only stretch credulity – relying on not merely a convenient exposition grandma but also several mid-credit flashbacks to justify themselves – they also get worse as they go along, with the possible exception of the final pre-credits reveal. In many ways, Wild Things is at its best when it’s at its worst; a soapy melodrama about a hot guidance counselor and high school passions and politics. It’s absurd, even then, but it works. The further into the realm of actual thriller it descends, the less it all comes together.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that, like many an erotic thriller, it’s just not all that steamy. The movie made waves at the time it was released due to a couple of make out scenes between Neve Campbell and Denise Richards, not to mention the aforementioned shot of Kevin Bacon’s wang. And while there’s a fair bit of nudity from Richards – and a little from Theresa Russell, playing her mom – and some salty language, the film itself is surprisingly chaste, the camera panning away and fading to black anytime a scene starts to get hot and heavy.
This time around, I watched the unrated cut, which is also included in the very nice 4K special edition from Arrow Video. It adds six minutes to the film’s runtime, though – in true unrated cut fashion – most of it is stuff that was trimmed for time, rather than content. In fact, the only sex scene that’s actually added is one of the mid-credit ones, which is probably also the most explicit the movie ever gets. One of the lesbian scenes between Campbell and Richards is also expanded somewhat.
The majority of those six extra minutes, though, come in the form of new plot scenes, including a confrontation between Richards and Bacon, and a scene in which Bill Murray’s lawyer character has lunch with Robert Wagner, playing opposing counsel. Not that I remembered enough from my first time watching the movie more than twenty years ago to tell you any of that – I had to look it all up.
In fact, I remembered almost nothing about the film, except for the hoopla surrounding it when it came out, which was considerable. The lesbian kiss scenes and Bacon’s brief full-frontal were, unsurprisingly, at the heart of the buzz, though the film’s twisty, tabloid-friendly plot about student relationships with a trusted teacher tapped into something of the zeitgeist of the moment, too.
Re-watching it now, for the first time in so long that it may as well be the first time period, Wild Things is perhaps most interesting as a portrait of that zeitgeist. All the actors are very of their moment, but everyone is cast pretty well, considering. Bill Murray was born to play sleazy lawyers, Denise Richards is spot-on as a spoiled little rich girl, and Matt Dillon is playing the role that would have gone to Ben Affleck in just a few years. (It almost did go to Robert Downey Jr., but at the time he was considered too great an insurance risk.)
Neve Campbell is the only one who seems out of her element, cast against type as an extremely-90s emo girl from the wrong side of the tracks – and even that is actually a setup for a late-game twist, which suddenly finds her much more at home, and doing most of the heavy lifting for the film’s final reveals.
Unfortunately, even Campbell’s considerable efforts aren’t enough to salvage the film in its last legs. What began as a fun, exploitative high school soap opera mired in class struggles and the humid environs of the Florida Everglades becomes hopelessly entangled in its numerous twists and turns before ultimately petering out unsatisfactorily. Which is a bit of a shame, as the notoriety surrounding Wild Things guarantees that it is remembered in a way that many other erotic thrillers of a bygone age can never hope for…