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The Test of Time: Wild Things (1998)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY JOHN MCNAUGHTON

STARRING DENISE RICHARDS, NEVE CAMPBELL, MATT DILLON, KEVIN BACON, BILL MURRAY

Here’s sort of a serious query, do you think WILD THINGS could be made today? Better yet, would it? It’s a worthy question given the current cultural climate of heightened awareness, ramped-up resistance and the collective intolerance of the Time’s Up/Me Too movement. After all, as breezily entertaining and sultrily seductive as WILD THINGS is, it does sort of make light of statutory date-rape and sexual assault, turning such weighted topics into conniving plot points and twisted confidence games. But, the short answer? F*ck Yes! Yes, WILD THINGS would still get made today, mainly because the movie turns 20 years old this month and it hasn’t lost a scintilla of its popularity. Hell, it was on Starz just last night. No, I’d argue the movie has never been more relevant, precisely for the aforementioned zeitgeist and the justified outrage it’s produced.

The script by Stephen Peters and its pitch perfect direction by John McNaughton are deliciously duplicitous, cleverly knotty, swelteringly sexy and playfully humorous. The casting couldn’t be more perfect, the stylish neo-noir tropes and seedy sexploitation are refreshingly labyrinthine, and in the end, it all amounts to an unquantifiable amount of fun. I f*cking love this movie, have since I was 15 years old. And though I’ve betrayed my hand quite openly, the key questions still loom on this 20th anniversary gala. Has WILD THINGS withstood The Test of Time? If so, could or would it still be made today? Let’s roll around with this sexy beast below!

THE STORY: It’s a convoluted one. Set in the swampy south Floridian town of Blue Bay, a perfect place for its plot - hot, sweaty, tropical, erotic – Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a sexy ass high school teacher that most female students pine after. This includes the even sexier Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), head cheerleader at Blue Bay High, as well as Suzy Toller (Neve Campbell), a downtrodden Goth chick. These gals couldn’t be more different. Or could they? When Kelly’s lusty advances on Sam are rebuffed, she cries rape. This enrages the entire town, including Kelly’s mom (and Sam’s ex) Sandra (Theresa Russell), her boyfriend lawyer Tom Baxter (Robert Wagner), his daughter (and Sam’s girlfriend) Barbara, et al. Soon after, Suzie claims Lombardo raped her as well, a crudely incriminating line linking Sam to both. Thing is, is Sam really a rapist or is he being framed?!

Cue Detectives Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the former a cocky hard-ass (in more ways than one), the other utterly convinced the girls are bullshitting about Sam raping them. Ah hell, you know the rest, a steamy threesome and a Sapphic poolside sex-scene highlight a rollercoaster of deceitful double-crossings, money-bilking blackmail, sick set-ups, back-stabbings, and ultimately, undue death. Not to spoil the rest, but yeah, the sexy smart girl gets away with a briefcase full of cash and heads off into the sunset. Oh, and there’s also hilarious low-rent attorney Bill Murray rolling around with a fake neck-brace!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Having revisited the film yet again just the other day, the number one thing that still holds strongest about WILD THINGS is its overall entertainment value. This movie sings, soars and breezes by at an enormously watchable clip. Moreover, the flick has not a single dull moment, and because of its nature of unpredictability, keeps us fully engaged and on edge throughout (especially the first time seeing it). The palatable, digestible ease with which this movie is consumed cannot be overstated. It’s a delectable delight, despite how dark, seedy and sordid the subject matter gets at times. To our minds, this unassailable level of entertainment can be attributed to three main spices: the style, the sexiness and the screenplay!

The heightened style with which director John McNaughton imbues WILD THINGS is too damn cool to have diminished over the past two decades. From the opening shots gliding across the swampy Florida everglades, to that aptly ambient bending score, the mood is instantly established through McNaughton’s slick, glossy style. Credit must be given to DP Jeffrey Kimball, who not only cut his teeth under the great Tony Scott (TOP GUN, BEVERLY HILLS COP II), he also shot two of my all time favorite flicks in TRUE ROMANCE and JACOB’S LADDER. McNaughton was beyond wise to hire Kimball to elicit such a sweaty, steamy, BODY HEAT like atmosphere so germane to the Florida set story. Additionally, one of the coolest parts of WILD THING that still sticks out is the post-credit, quasi-deleted scenes McNaughton stitches in to fill in the gaps. Let it be known that this was always by design, not some slapdash last minute attempt to clue in the audience. The story was always meant to unfold this way, with all of the so called plot holes filled in to square away the plot particulars. The shot where Suzy wrenches her own tooth out on the beach still makes me f*cking squirm!

Let’s talk sex, ba-by! Good god has there ever been a hotter, steamier, more explicit lot of sexual imbroglios in an R-rated movie than WILD THINGS? Holy hell! Not only did the movie prove a breakout turn for the gorgeous Denise Richards (DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, go see it), I think it damn near single handedly spawned those sick Mr. Skin like celebrity sex websites. Seriously, through its severely seductive sex scenes – the soapy carwash, the hot hotel room ménage a trois, the steamy poolside lesbian lust - the movie dupes you into thinking it’s just another stupid, Skinemax sexploitation soft-core porno. It’s not. It’s cleverly deceptive in that way, seducing you into a stupor before tipping its true hand. It’s almost like STARSHIP TROOPERS in that way – a movie that makes you perceive it as sillier than it really is, only to yank the rug out and leave you dumbstruck and mouth agape. The sheer sex appeal of the movie seduces you into letting your guard down, and by the time you put it back up, it’s too late. And hey, it’s worth noting the film actually dialed back some of the sexualities. Word is in the hotel room scene, when Kelly greets Sam with a champagne bottle under the towel, the prop was to originally be a novelty penis. Yeah, chew on that for a bit!

Another way to quantify how well WILD THINGS has held up is to look at screenwriter Stephen Peters’ resume since. The only two features he’s written since 1998 are WILD THINGS 2 and WILD THINGS 3: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH. This would indicate a popular demand he hadn’t seen in his career before, having written a couple of war pieces (THE PARK IS MINE, THE FOURTH WAR) and genre joint or two (DEAD CENTER, THE WOLVES) before penning the script of his life in WILD THINGS. Here’s the biggest compliment you can give Peters for this particular screenplay: the movie remains eminently repeatable despite knowing the ending. This isn’t always the case with such a plot heavy mystery so dependent on the final twist. These kinds of movies, a la Agatha Christie, often tend to lose a lot of their luster on repeat viewings simply because there is nothing new to surprise you with. The ending is already spoiled. Not so with WILD THINGS. The stylish misdirection and sexy performances along the way – dictated by the deftly woven screenplay – actually keep the movie as entertaining the first time you watch it as the 50th. That’s a hell of a feat!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Aside from some pretty painful late 90s hit songs (Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind, etc.), the only thing I think to gripe about now is the six-minute differentiation between the theatrical cut and unrated version. As in, why were these scenes excised in the first place? The differences are mostly seen in the graphic nature of the sex scenes, but that isn’t all. There’s a hilarious scene between Bill Murray and Robert Wagner at a tiny little Mexican restaurant that could have stayed in the film without hurting the flow of the story too much. There’s also a super sexy post-credit scene between Sam and Kelly that’s missing from the theatrical cut, one that would have surely delighted audiences. And of course, the icky instances of rape and sexual assault alluded to in the movie do leave a bit of a nastier taste in one’s mouth when viewing the film today. I mean, it’s not THE ACCUSED for crying out loud, and pretty much all of the so-called rape was fabricated in the film, but still, it’s a touchier subject now than it probably was in 1998. And while that’s no doubt a good thing, the subject matter can still be a bit disturbing today.

THE VERDICT: 20 years on and WILD THINGS is still just that – a feral collection of searing sex, slick stylings and high level of low-brow entertainment. Not only is the movie just as entertaining today as it was in 1998, it’s smoldering sexuality hasn’t waned a bit, even in the desensitized internet-porn culture that has proliferated since its release. This is a tribute to the waggishly serpentine screenplay by Stephen Peters, the masterful (mis)direction by John McNaughton (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), and of course, the inherently sexy cast of well known and fresh faces alike. Perhaps above all, the movie has a woozily seductive quality that weakens your senses, pulls your guard down, only to rake you through a gauntlet of unforeseen twists and turns en route to a happy ending where the girl gets away with a masterminded crime. Not just any girl either, the sexy, intelligent and independent one. F*ck yeah WILD THINGS would be made today. But without the key principals involved, it likely wouldn’t retain its potency 20 years later!

STREAM WILD THINGS HERE

GET WILD THINGS ON DVD HERE

GET WILD THINGS ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: Robert Downey Jr. was originally cast as Sam Lombardo, but dropped out.
Source: AITH

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