Face-Off: Fatal Attraction vs. Basic Instinct

Sex and murder are story elements that go together quite well, as evident from the abundance of entries there are in the erotic thriller sub-genre. There's a new one coming out on April 21st, the Rosario Dawson vs. Katherine Heigl film UNFORGETTABLE, which inspired me to look back at what may be the two most popular erotic thrillers, Adrian Lyne's FATAL ATTRACTION and Paul Verhoeven's BASIC INSTINCT. Both of which happen to star Michael Douglas. They're both iconic in their own ways, but which will come out on top when they go up against each other in a Face-Off?
A lawyer and a family man, Michael Douglas's Dan Gallagher is a rather vanilla character, allowing the viewer to put themselves in his place even if they don't agree with his actions. He's not overtly inappropriate during his first interactions with work associate Alex Forrest, but when the chance to sleep with her comes up, he takes it. He could lose our sympathy at that point, but the intensity of the "fatal attraction" Alex develops for him and his general blandness keep us from disliking him too much. He deserves to suffer some consequences, but not to the degree Alex threatens to make him suffer.
Michael Douglas's character in this film is San Francisco homicide detective Nick Curran, who ranks up there as one of the least likeable protagonists a hit film has ever had. Nick is out to solve the case of a man who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex, and the prime suspect is the man's f*ck buddy, author Catherine Tramell, who wrote a book with the same sort of murder in it. Dripping sleaze and equipped with a violent hair-trigger temper, Nick lets his libido lead him through the investigation - he figures the best way to get to the bottom of things is to start sleeping with Catherine himself.
Glenn Close's Alex Forrest is so astoundingly, frighteningly out of her mind that it even allows us to forgive Dan for his marital transgressions and side with him as she attempts to dismantle his life and possibly kill some people. Exactly why Dan is so drawn to her in the first place, risking his family for the opportunity to spend two days with her, I couldn't really say - the character of Alex is never remotely appealing to me, even when she seems sane. Close sure does play crazy well, though.
Reuniting with her TOTAL RECALL director Verhoeven on this film paid off for Sharon Stone. This was a breakthrough film for the actress, it made her a star, and for good reason. Her looks and performance make Catherine Tramell an intriguing, captivating, alluring character. Nick Curran is a sleazeball, but we can understand why he becomes so intrigued by the murder suspect. Catherine really isn't the most pleasant person, but there does seem to be a tenderness beneath that cold, murder-loving exterior.
Given how insanely gaga Alex goes over Dan, I assume the pair's sex scenes are supposed to come off as being mind-blowingly erotic and passionate, but thirty years later they come off as being more amusing and awkward. Dan and Alex first start having sex against a sink, where she oddly starts slapping tap water on their faces and over a breast before Dan puts his mouth on it. He carries her away to the bed after that, presumably so she won't drown him. A follow-up tryst in an elevator is just clumsy and off-putting. This sex really doesn't seem worth the trouble that follows.
BASIC INSTINCT lives up to the "erotic" half of the erotic thriller description, making Catherine Tramell an object of lust for every character she encounters. And she certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to allowing people to work some of that lust out of their system. There are several sex scenes in the film, a couple of which are made goofy by Verhoeven's attempts to make us think Catherine may be about to sink an icepick into her partner. Stone also gets nude between those scenes, and Catherine isn't the only person Nick has sex with. This movie is all about sex. And death.
After Dan informs Alex that things are over between them, there is a sense of unease hanging over the film as we wonder how far she will take things. What will she do? Who or what will she hurt? Her actions escalate, building from disturbing calls and recordings to property damage, stalking, the killing of Dan's daughter's pet rabbit, the brief abduction of said daughter, and finally completely unleashed violence. The thrills are mostly subdued, but they're effective at keeping you on edge.
Icepick murders. Heated confrontations. Attempted vehicular murder. Multiple car chases, which are shot in an impressive manner and feature some exciting near misses and unconventional driving routes. A desperate race to save a character's life. There is plenty of non-sexual action packed in between the scenes of sex and seduction in this film, so it delivers on the "thriller" side of things just as well as it delivers on the "erotic" part.
Throughout FATAL ATTRACTION, puzzle pieces are being slotted into place that are meant to reveal an ending that has been perfectly set up... and thanks to a re-shot ending, the film throws all the set-up out the window and does something completely different. Sure, it's fun to see Glenn Close wielding a knife and going all psycho slasher in a violent confrontation, but it's clearly not the ending this movie was meant to have. The original ending may not have been as crowd-pleasingly exciting, but it's the ending that made sense for the movie Adrian Lyne was making. The ending it has helped make the movie a hit, but it feels like a flaw in the storytelling.
BASIC INSTINCT is a unique film in that it gives you a satisfying resolution, and yet still leaves a lot of questions in your head. The murder mystery seems to be solved, everything about the answer given makes sense - but at the same time, there are some strange things about the final confrontation with the person Nick has decided must be the killer. If that person was truly the killer, fine. But there is lingering doubt, the viewer still suspects that Catherine Tramell may be the guilty party. Verhoeven teases us with the possibility that she's the killer, mixing odd behavior and a hidden icepick into the last scene - which is also one last sex scene.
Of these two films, FATAL ATTRACTION is the one I enjoy watching more, but this Face-Off is about figuring out which is the better "erotic thriller", and while BASIC INSTINCT is saddled with a horrible lead character, FATAL ATTRACTION is held back by a tacked on ending and, worst of all when you're going for the win in an "erotic thriller" competition, underwhelming sex scenes. FATAL ATTRACTION is a great thriller, but BASIC INSTINCT beats it in the erotic department.

Which of these films do you prefer? What do you think about FATAL ATTRACTION's re-shot ending? Share your thoughts on these films by leaving a comment below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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