Dissecting Paul Verhoeven!

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

"The sooner we admit our capacity for evil the less apt we are to destroy each other." – PAUL VERHOEVEN!

Although the crazy Flying Dutchman has never directed an outright horror flick, Paul Verhoeven has everyone's undivided respect around here at AITH. He certainly has our fandom. After cutting his teeth and sharpening his eye with cool, off-beat and interesting indie films in his native Netherlands – creating a style we'd come to know and love in movies like DIARY OF A HOOKER, TURKISH DELIGHT, SPETTERS, SOLDIER OF ORANGE, etc. – Verhoeven finally made his Hollywood debut with the rollicking Rutger Hauer swashbuckler FLESH+BLOOD in 1985. And really, our man hasn't looked back since.

Two years later he gave us the splendid action-parable of urban decay, ROBOCOP, which then gave way to the manic Martian romp, TOTAL RECALL. Two years later ole Paulie was convincing Sharon Stone to flash the beaver in BASIC INSTINCT. We're still thankful!

A couple more bloated sci-fi spectacles followed, to polarizing reception, via STARSHIP TROOPERS and HOLLOW MAN. Verhoeven then went damn near silent, making only two movies in the next 12 years. So what the hell happened? Has Verhoeven lost his touch? Have the opportunities waned? Has he lost the passion for telling stories? Or are the kinds of stories he's passionate about difficult to find funding? All this and more as we Dissect the venerable 40 year career of Mr. Paul Verhoeven!



Take your pick. Since both are so superlative, one could easily, based on preference, color either ROBOCOP or TOTAL RECALL as Verhoeven's crowning achievement. After all, both were critically and commercially popular and successful enough to warrant 21st century remakes, with the former even inspiring a pair of sequels in the 90s. And personally speaking, depending on the day, I could pick either one to watch…not just as a PV best, but as one of my all time favorite examples of otherworldly sci-fi insanity. Let's dive into both a bit!

Can you believe ROBOCOP turns 30 next July? Crazy, no? Sturdily standing the test of time, ROBOCOP was not only trenchantly prescient back in 1987, it's scarily accurate today. Look no further than city of Detroit, which today resembles the dystopic urban wasteland even more than was hyperbolically depicted in the film 30 years ago. Things have worsened, not bettered. Now take a look at current police culture around the country. Remember what happened in Dallas a couple months ago? Recall how the assailant was dispatched? DPD deployed a goddamn robot – a ROBOCOP – to wheel and "neutralize" the bastard by blowing his ass up. If that kind of tactical equipment wasn't at least partially inspired by Verhoeven's flick, it can't be too far off.

But enough of the broad-sweeping societal context, just as a straight up piece of ultra-violent action-entertainment, ROBOCOP hasn't lost a morsel of its power. Even the so-called outmoded VFX still maintain their integrity when contextualized within the super-specific, highly imaginative world Verhoeven created. There's a direct linkage to the smoldering decay of Detroit and the scrappy metallic FX featured within it, which creates a convincing epoch…a certain time and place that feels lived in. And like the best of Verhoeven, there's a multileveled commentary working directly beneath the visceral surface story. We enjoy the action shootouts, the intense fighting and uber-violent mayhem just as any other well made action flick, but we can also enjoy – even if on a subconscious level – the larger statement made about corporate greed, urban plight, cyber-security, police brutality, robotic technology and the like. Verhoeven is able to weave a tapestry of thoughts and ideas into a movie without being preachy, and still do so in a way that retains its enthrallment.


Same goes for TOTAL RECALL. Word is Harrison Ford was originally slated to star in the film, potentially making it his second Philip K. Dick adaptation behind BLADE RUNNER. But when he dropped out and was replaced by Arnie the Schwarz, Verhoeven brilliantly reconceived the script with a far more humorous bent, so to tailor the part to Arnold's strengths. And it's precisely this comedic "fish out of water" template that makes the movie so damn entertaining to this day. In fact, as one of this largest gripes about both the ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL redos, Verhoeven lamented the utter lack of humor in both flicks. We couldn't agree more, as the death knell for almost any movie is taking itself too seriously. Thankfully, that has never once been an issue for any of Verhoeven's movies. He understands the importance of levity as counterpoint to austerity, and throughout his career, wisely slaloms in and out of various tones while still managing to craft a cogent and entertaining story.

Honestly though, it's the wholly unique vision and unparalleled realization of that vision that makes Verhoeven such a world-class filmmaker. Think of how weird, wild and otherworldly those Martian-set bar scenes and colorful patrons are in TOTAL RECALL…the three-titted sexpot, the deformed-face dwarf, the creepy automated taxi-cab later on, the overall profligate production design and wonderfully rendered set-pieces throughout, etc. It's one thing to originate on Dick's celebrated pages, but it's another thing entirely to take those pages, translate them to the big screen in a way that feels both fresh and one of a kind as well as a faithful retention of Dick's authorial voice. A deft balancing act indeed. How this dude is able to so aptly visualize his movies, often without writing the script himself (only 6 writing credits to 28 directorial), is a truly a testament to Paul's artistry.


In what still reigns supreme as the last bastion of its-so-bad-it's-my-favorite-guilty-pleasure lunacy – the campy, kitschy, tasteless and totally risible SHOWGIRLS has actually ascended from being Paul's worst film to now, however intentional, an undoubted cult-classic. So instead, and this actually jives better with a horror crowd, we lament the subpar horror yarn HOLLOW MAN as Paul's most underwhelming film to date. Hey, he's not alone, we also labeled this among the great Kevin Bacon's worst genre outings as well. No one is immune for our Dissection scalpel!

So why is HOLLOW MAN so inferior? A bevy of reasons. First is the clashing tones of abject horror and wise-cracking humor that, unlike in the past, seem so maladroitly monitored by Verhoeven. Where he perfectly blended the two in TOTAL RECALL, the tonal shifts in HOLLOW MAN seem so forced and awkwardly handled that you tend to laugh at the horrific parts and cringe at the so called funny moments. Never a good sign. Then we have the poorly scripted story by AIR FORCE ONE and END OF DAYS scribe Andrew Marlowe, which heavily favors VFX over any sort of credible characterization…to the point where we never really care at all what happens to anyone in the film, chiefly the unlikable Hollow Man himself. Simply put, this is beneath Verhoeven's talent and frankly unworthy of his time.



There are many personal touches and recurring techniques to be found across Verhoeven's oeuvre. His long-lasting collaborations with pals Rutger Hauer, writer Gerard Soeteman and DP Joe Vocano is one. His rampant use of Christian and Nazi symbolism is another, with RoboCop as a Christ-like figure perhaps most prominent, the WWII subtext of STARSHIP TROOPERS as well. He also crafts stories in which dueling antagonists square off against one main protagonist – Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker vs. Murphy in ROBOCOP, Cohaagen and Richter in vs. Quaid in TOTAL RECALL, Catherine Trammel and Beth Garner vs. Curran in BASIC INSTINCT, etc. But likely most glaring is the subject matter Paul tends to tackle – dark, dystopic, ultra-violent worlds in which the status quo of the system must be challenged in order to incite change. He reinforces these notions through heavy use of VFX and unique visual style, as well as shows these kinds of stories through the eyes of sexually deviant, deeply depraved and often flawed characters whose odds are stacked high against them. All these facets compute as Verhoeven's greatest trademark – his uniquely personal vision that no one could rightly imitate.



Since he helmed a handful of Dutch flicks prior to making his Hollywood debut in 1985, we have a sneaking suspicion that most of Verhoeven's early work has gone largely undetected by American audiences. We therefore submit his brazenly bizarre and deeply disturbing 1983 horror-mystery THE 4TH MAN as one such example, which is not only criminally unknown, but actually fuses all of Paul's aforementioned trademarks – the searing sexuality, the religious antipathy, the extremely graphic violence, etc.

You see, the movie follows the seedy exploits of Gerard, a tormented, alcoholic, bisexual young man who is haunted by impending visions of death. When he meets a sexy woman one day, he slowly realizes that she has a manipulative ulterior motive to kill him, just as her three previous husbands all died in mysterious circumstances. It's one of those odd must-see movies, completely defiant of all description. Just know, it's a movie that challenges one's notions of onscreen violence, sexuality and personal sovereignty. See THE 4TH MAN if you've not already, it's required viewing for all cinephile and Verhoeven's acolytes alike.

Also worth a look, which we have in full for you directly below, is a really creepy-cool little TV episode Verhoeven directed back in 1986. It was for a series called The Hitchhiker, which was actually the very first original series HBO ever produced and put on air. Verhoeven directed episode 11 of season 3, entitled "Last Scene", which focuses on the production of a cheap horror movie finale. As a result, it's the closest thing to an out-and-out slasher flick as Verhoeven has ever done. Cop a peek, you won't be let down!

Last but not least, because the social commentary was so subtly stitched throughout, so much so that the movie was initially panned upon release, we need mention how cleverly conceived the message of STARSHIP TROOPERS is. Propped up as a big, dumb, loud, cartoonish action B-movie, STARSHIP TROOPERS is actually a brilliant treatise on the blind bellicosity of patriotism, fascism, jingoism, nationalism, xenophobia, government propaganda, and how we turn our soldiers into soulless killing machines who only see the enemy and "the other" as giant incursive insects. It's as much of a statement made on the current state of foreign affairs as it is a satisfying grand-scale action extravaganza. And likely because of this, because of the subtle subversion, Verhoeven has gone on record as claiming STARSHIP TROOPERS as his favorite of his own movies. And frankly, we can't argue with him!


Following a pair of ostensibly misguided non-genre efforts – BLACK BOOK and TRICKED – we're pleased as punch to report Verhoeven is poised to return to the dark realm. Hooking up with the ever radiant Isabelle Hupert, Verhoeven directs the sexy French actress in what appears to be an intensely complicated home-invasion revenge tale. Peep the premise:

Michèle seems indestructible. Head of a successful video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being attacked in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle's life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game-a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.

Not sure what you think, but that sounds like a perfect story to suit what Paul does best: sexually charged characters, hyper-violence, subverted revenge, all of it. Let's hope this is a surefire return to form for PV…not just now, but onward!

ELLE is based on the Pilippe Djian novel, adapted by DAHMER and GACY scribe David Birke. The film is slated to bow in limited release in the U.S. on November 11, 2016. Keep it close for a review!



How can we reiterate it? Rarely if ever has there been a non-horror director that's garnered such Arrow in the Head affection as the great Paul Verhoeven. We love this guy's flicks. We love the wild imagination, the unwavering nerve to realize that imagination onscreen, no matter how uncompromised or difficult it may be to achieve it. His subject matter, his one of a kind visual style, the unflinching violence and electric sexuality featured in all of his films, these things have all married to become the best thing a movie can be: memorable. DIARY OF A HOOKER, TURKISH DELIGHT, SPETTERS, SOLDIER OF ORANGE, KATIE TIPPLE, THE 4TH MAN, FLESH+BLOOD, ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT, STARSHIP TROOPERS – these flicks are nothing if not memorable. Let's hope with his new film, ELLE, Verhoeven has one more leg to add to his lasting legacy. The odds are in his favor!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

5371 Articles Published

Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.