A brutal murder. A brilliant killer. A cop who can’t resist the danger.
Known for its erotic sex scenes, Basic Instinct is also a tautly constructed thriller from a director known for his extreme style, Paul Verhoeven. Artisan’s new limited edition DVD delivers not only the unrated international cut of the film, but also several excellent supplemental features that will deepen your appreciation of this film.
Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is a cop on the edge. The boozing detective shot two San Francisco tourists while undercover, and now he is under the close scrutiny of Internal Affairs and Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the department psychologist and his former lover. His precariously balanced life is thrown off balance by a new case: A former rock and roller, now a club owner, is brutally murdered with an icepick while in the throes of passion. All the signs point to his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Catherine, a murder mystery novelist, has an alibi — she wrote a book that describes the murder to the last detail. Why would she kill her boyfriend in the exact manner described in her novel? Nick’s life goes down the spiral as he investigates Catherine a little too closely…
Basic Instinct is a 1990s updating of the film noir genre, complete with the conventions of the hardboiled detective and femme fatale. It owes a huge debt to Alfred Hitchcock, especially to Vertigo and To Catch a Thief. However, unlike Brian De Palma’s blatant rip-offs of Hitchcock’s visual style without any grasp of the psychological implications, director Paul Verhoeven’s work has the depth and complexity of the Master of Suspense’s best work.
Verhoeven’s directorial career goes back to 1960. He was well known in Europe for movies like Soldier of Orange, Turkish Delight, and The Fourth Man before his American debut with Flesh and Blood, very prescient with its title that would foretell the course of his American films. He would not be recognized widely until Robocop and its follow-up, Total Recall, established his stateside reputation for melding sly satire with excessive violence against a science fiction backdrop, which he would visit again with Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. In between though would come his films that gained the most press coverage: Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
With Verhoeven’s films, it is very easy to look no further than the surface. There you will find lurid trash — amoral displays of horrific, blood-soaked carnage and kinky sex. Viewers find these elements of his films either off-putting or enticing, neither group taking the effort to discover what is hiding behind the curtain. His American sci-fi films, with the notable exception of Hollow Man (an apt title, considering the film’s emptiness), are discerning commentaries on modern society’s unprincipled love of violence, of its over reliance on technology, of humanity’s incessant struggle against nature, both internally and externally. Though it is in a different genre, many of those elements are here in Basic Instinct, with the struggle against nature that is at its heart.
The central figure of Basic Instinct, despite the magnetism of Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammell, is Michael Douglas’s Nick Curran. Nick is a weak human being hiding behind his macho bravado. Catherine systematically attacks Nick at physical and psychological weak points. Nick, we learn, is a recovering alcoholic and drug user. He’s even stopped smoking. Catherine probes him at every point, and he gives in at every step — first starting to drink, then smoking. Finally, he gives in at the most primal level, becoming her sexual partner as another tool in her game. It is not just a battle of wits; it is a war for sexual identity and dominance. He may think that he has control in their tête-à-têtes, but Catherine never is anything but in dominance.
In Basic Instinct, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone give the best performances of their careers. Douglas has played similar roles in the past, the closest being the adulterous husband stalked by the unstable mistress in Fatal Attraction. (How many times do I have to beg for that film to be released on DVD?) He makes this one distinct with his strong-willed machismo that is all too obvious a façade for the weakness of his character. Basic Instinct rocketed Sharon Stone to stardom, or perhaps more appropriately, to notoriety. It is a role so distinctive, so commanding, that she will never be able to live it down. She enhanced her sexpot image with hints about her own bedroom predilections dropped in the media, and sealed it with the steamy follow-up, Sliver. Stone tried to branch out, prove that that wasn’t all there was to her with roles like Last Dance and The Quick and the Dead. She was able to command star salaries for some time, but has never been able to equal Catherine Trammell, except perhaps with her Oscar-nominated role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. It’s a shame, because she is very talented.
This DVD special edition of Basic Instinct is the first time the unrated international cut is available on DVD in the United States. The unrated cut uses more explicit versions of scenes included in the US R rated cut. The murder of Johnny Boz at the beginning of the film, as well as a murder in an elevator later in the film, are both more graphic. The defining sex scene between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone is more explicit, and the near-rape of Jeanne Tripplehorn by Michael Douglas is not toned down.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The print exhibits some source flaws, but they are minor and infrequent. It is a bit grainy, but this adds to the noir atmosphere and the filmlike quality of the DVD. The muted, cold tones are captured perfectly. Flesh tones can appear a bit reddish, but I believe that is because they contrast so strongly with the arctic palette. The only digital artifacts are some edge enhancement and minor pixilezation in backgrounds. It has a rather low average video bitrate — around 5.56MB/sec — which might contribute to the occasionally pixely look. On standard consumer-level equipment you’d likely never notice unless you are looking; those with more high-end systems may be a little miffed.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. With the exception of a boisterous scene in a seamy rave club, the mix is very forward-centric, but it has excellent fidelity and is rather aggressive for a murder mystery.
At first glance, the extras may not appear to be impressive, but the quality is far above average. The best extras are two commentary tracks, one with director Paul Verhoeven and director of photography Jan de Bont (now a director in his own right, with films like Speed and Twister), and the other with feminist film critic Camille Paglia. Both tracks go much further into the subtext of the film than you will find in most commentaries. Verhoeven and de Bont talk more about the visuals and symbology, while Paglia discusses the meaning of the film. Of the two tracks, I found Paglia’s to be the most enlightening and the most interesting. You would think that a film about a femme fatale would cause a feminist to shrink away in horror, but she claims at the outset that it is one of her favorite films. With the exception of Roger Ebert’s commentary on Dark City, it is the best reading of a film by a critic that I have experienced on DVD. I found it utterly fascinating.
Other extras include a documentary, production notes, a photo gallery, theatrical trailer, storyboards, and comparisons between the unedited film and its television counterpart. The documentary, “Blonde Poison,” runs about 24 minutes. It is a newly produced piece directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (the producer of MGM’s special edition of Silence of the Lambs) that includes new interview footage with the filmmakers as well as principal members of the movie’s attendant scandal. Like the commentaries, it is an enlightening, honest look at the making of the film. The rest of the extras are more Spartan and are not as useful for film buffs. The production notes account for only four screens of sparse text. The picture gallery has but a handful of publicity stills. Storyboards map out three scenes. The trailer is non-anamorphic widescreen and of mediocre quality. The comparisons between the theatrical film and the television version only show the difference in dialogue, not the steamy sex or violence. The dubbing is laughably, pathetically bad to the point that I think the DVD producers might have recorded it themselves.
I have but one issue to raise regarding Basic Instinct, but it involves the ending. I’m giving you fair spoiler warning.
As anyone who has seen Basic Instinct knows, the ending is highly ambiguous. Did Catherine really kill all those people, or did Beth? All the signs point to Beth. The telling cut to her early in the film as a comically hyperbolic psychoanalyst (played by a great character actor, Stephen Tobolowsky) talks about the sociopathic fan who would want to frame Catherine. The implication that she killed her husband over a lesbian love affair. Her Bart Simpson keychain found in the overcoat abandoned by the person who killed Nick’s partner. The gun that killed Lt. Nilsen and collected mementos of Catherine’s life found in Beth’s apartment. With that denouement, we are somewhat at ease, and it seems Nick and Catherine will forge ahead together in life. However, Jerry Goldsmith’s score becomes suddenly frantic as the two make love and we fade to black…only to fade back in and pan under the bed to reveal an icepick. What the hell? Did she get really away with murder, or is it a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin, a last-minute (literally) red herring meant to throw us off? On the one hand, it’s a brilliant way to leave the audience scratching their heads until they are raw and bloody, but on the other hand, it’s a cop-out that frustrates more than it inspires.
Basic Instinct was wildly popular upon its release, and has gone down as one of the best thrillers, erotic or otherwise, that Hollywood produced. Artisan’s new DVD is a great way to experience the film and to discover the depth underneath its shocking surface. The only complaint I have with their DVD presentation is the cheesy packaging, which makes it resemble a block of ice, and even includes a pen shaped like an icepick (that writes in red ink, no less). The DVD sits on a circle of foam; that’s not exactly the best long-term storage of a disc. Despite that small drawback, fans of the film are encouraged to purchase this unrated special edition.
I mentioned Stephen Tobolowsky as a great character actor; you probably last saw him as the enigmatic Sammy Jankis in Memento. Basic Instinct is filled with other great character actors in small roles. Daniel von Bargen plays the corrupt Internal Affairs investigator Lt. Nilsen. You’ll recognize him from O Brother Where Art Thou or his recurring role on Malcolm in the Middle. Mitch Pileggi, AKA Asst. Director Skinner on The X-Files, pops up briefly. Sam Raimi fans will recognize Chelcie Ross, who appeared in that director’s A Simple Plan and The Gift. Classic movie buffs might recognize Dorothy Malone as one of Catherine’s research subject friends. Her career dates back to the 1940s, and she had many torrid roles, including a bit part in The Big Sleep, winning an Oscar for Written on the Wind, and a leading role on the ’60s soap opera Peyton Place. Bill Cable, who plays Johnny Boz for two minutes before being offed with the icepick, has exactly three films to his credit; Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark are the other two. Last but not least, no one will miss Wayne Knight, Newman the mailman of Seinfeld fame, front and center for the infamous interrogation scene.