Basic Instinct 25th anniversary: five films that paved the way for Paul Verhoeven’s psychosexual thriller

It’s now 25 years since the Sharon Stone-Michael Douglas erotic thriller Basic Instinct became an early-1990s movie sensation. Which films set the template for its blend of noir thrills and icy sexuality?

Amy Simmons

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Steeped in the raw sexuality and hyper-realistic violence of Verhoeven’s earlier work, such as Turkish Delight (1973) and The Fourth Man (1983), Basic Instinct (1992) works as well as it does thanks to the unabashed performances of Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas. Now a quarter of a century old, the once titillating frankness of its sexual politics may have dimmed in the ensuing years, but the unbridled glee with which the film handles its – often implausible – erotic plot is still impossible to resist.

Saturated in cool blues and propelled by Verhoeven’s prowling camera, Basic Instinct has the look and feel of a neo-noir and plays out as one long sexual power game. Here, Stone delivers a star-making turn as bisexual, femme fatale murder suspect Catherine Tramell, whose weapon is her body, or rather her ability to control and manipulate the male gaze. This is especially evident in the film’s notorious interrogation scene when, uncrossing her legs, she reveals to the room and the viewer that she is wearing no underwear.

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Conversely, Douglas has rarely bettered his turn as reckless homicide detective Nick Curran. His unfathomable desire for the duplicitous dame soon drives him head-first into a dangerous liaison. However, despite the obvious ethical problems involved, even the warnings of his former lover and psychologist, Dr Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), cannot keep Nick away.

Like most of the films written by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas – such as Jagged Edge (1985) and Betrayed (1988) – Basic Instinct is a skin-deep thriller that draws its suspense from one question: does the central character’s chosen object of lust and/or affection deserve to be trusted?

Combining unmistakable Hitchcockian influences, Verhoeven strips the icy blonde of her subtlety, and Stone steals the film with equal parts elegance and vulgarity to create something simultaneously familiar and boldly unique. Despite (or maybe because of) the film’s obligatory nods to Hitchcock, Basic Instinct is slick and entertaining enough to deliver what it promises: a fast-moving, darkly phobic lust story that glories in the lurid and the bloody.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Director Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck’s iconic depiction of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, she who seduces Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into killing her rich husband for the life insurance payoff, is often hailed as one of the greatest femme fatale roles in film noir history. Like Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, she has a flair for manipulation and exudes sexuality through her ice-blonde hair and conniving, power-driven persona. However, the interesting difference between Trammel and Dietrichson lies in their finales. While Dietrichson is killed, Tramell surpasses the conventional codes of the Hollywood femme fatale and escapes the traditional punishment for her sins. As far as we know, she will continue in her ways.

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

Basic Instinct is essentially a modern-day homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as both films detail the relationship between a psychologically disturbed San Francisco cop (‘Scottie’ Ferguson/Curren) and two contrasting women – the beautiful, mysterious and dangerous blonde woman of his dreams (Madeleine Elster/Tramell) and his pragmatic, maternal and bespectacled ex-girlfriend (Midge Wood/Garner). In Basic Instinct, as in Vertigo, there are overhead shots of winding staircases and a score of swooning strings, while many of Stone’s costumes were based on those modelled by Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s film.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Director Brian De Palma

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Like Verhoeven’s, DePalma’s films are a voyeur’s delight. At once lurid, erotic, chilling and gruesome, Dressed to Kill – about a mysterious blonde who stalks a high-class call girl, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) – took erotica out of the sidelines and into the mainstream. In many ways more perverse than Basic Instinct, Dressed to Kill – itself also indebted to Vertigo – made sexual difference a violent mystery, not only for the investigators involved but even for the serial killer. The elevator murder scene in Basic Instinct, in which a woman wearing a blonde wig and a police raincoat slashes Nick’s partner Gus (George Dzundza) to death, is taken directly from De Palma’s classic.

Jagged Edge (1985)

Director Richard Marquand

Jagged Edge (1985)

Long before Basic Instinct ignited the erotic thriller cycle of the 1990s, Joe Eszterhas wrote the blueprint for its eventual success. In this expertly conceived courtroom thriller, high-profile lawyer Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) falls in love with Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges), a man she is defending on a murder charge. From their ritual opening killings to their climactic re-enactments, both films are whodunits with a suspect list with only one name on it. In Basic Instinct’s case, it’s the unscrupulous crime novelist Tramell who may or not have stabbed to death a rock star with an ice pick during sexual intercourse.

Sea of Love (1989)

Director Harold Becker

Sea of Love (1989)

An accomplished erotic thriller, Sea of Love carves out much of the terrain that Basic Instinct will later explore. Like Al Pacino’s character, detective Frank Keller, who falls for single mother Helen (Ellen Barkin), Basic Instinct’s Nick is a burned-out alcoholic who has difficulty in communicating with women but who nevertheless becomes sexually involved with the prime suspect in the murder case. Forceful, raw and unapologetic, both films repeat the fantasy of the desirable female serial killer and the abject terror that this image inspires, which is elaborately staged through grand spectacles of masculine terror.

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