Wild Things may be the last of its kind. A movie with a wide theatrical release that managed to gain success almost entirely through promotion of its lascivious characters, lurid subject matter and the promise that its actors would be engaging in provocative sex scenes.
The movie hit while the internet was gaining steam and popularity. Sixteen years later, with the net being the way it is, it’s hard to believe that the prospect of actors being naughty could these days make a movie the sort of sensation Wild Things was in ’98.
The screenplay by Stephen Peters could have easily been turned into just another sleazy drive-in exploitation flick or Cinemax late night movie if it had been made earlier or if director John McNaughton hadn’t managed to corral such a high profile cast. The film even has the feel of being a standard B-movie skin flick at times, the lines just happen to be delivered by stars.
The main selling point in the marketing as it neared release was the fact that it would feature a threesome with Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards. And yet, for the first half of the movie, it’s unimaginable that their characters could actually end up in bed together.
Dillon plays Sam Lombardo, a high school guidance counselor who Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan, a wealthy cheerleader, clearly has a crush on, delivering every suggestive line she says to him with an over-the-top sexual swagger. One day, after washing Lombardo’s car with a friend for a fundraiser and getting her clothes soaked, Kelly tells her pal to go on without her and walks into Lombardo’s home… Sometime later, she exits, appearing to be upset.
Kelly tells her mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), who had a fling with Lombardo and still has a thing for him, that he raped her. Police officers Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), put together a case against Lombardo, even finding another student willing to testify that Lombardo raped her; poor, trailer-on-a-crocodile-farm dwelling Suzie Toller, played by Neve Campbell.
Bill Murray was just starting to turn his career around at this time, branching out of straightforward comedies and into more dramatic work, so at this point it was still kind of surprising to see him turn up in this movie as Lombardo’s insurance-scamming lawyer Ken Bowden, even though Murray is there to provide a good amount of comic relief.
Although Kelly and Suzie appeared to be enemies, it comes out during the trial that the girls are scheming together to take Lombardo down. He didn’t really rape either of them, he’s a good guy being slandered by a couple of petty teenage girls.
To make this all go away, Sandra Van Ryan pays Lombardo off.
Once Lombardo is set to receive the $8.5 million pay-off, that’s when the secret angles to the story really start coming to light. The guidance counselor, the cheerleader, and the poor outsider were all this together… The much-hyped threesome happens… And there’s half a movie’s worth of twists and turns still to come from there.
In spite of its low rent pedigree and the lesser versions of it that “could have been” in different hands, Wild Things actually is a good, moody mystery that takes B genre elements and elevates them through the cast and storytelling.
The film constantly keeps the audience guessing as to what characters’ true alliances and motivations are, and what we see happen or are told happened usually isn’t what is actually going on. Everyone is playing everyone, and Peters and McNaughton managed to make it so the story always holds together, the bottom never drops out. The twists are surprising, but they always make sense.
Three unrelated sequels, all of which went direct-to-video like Wild Things itself might have under different circumstances. Like most movies of its type do.
Wild Things was a success that may never be repeated, but if it was the last B-movie sexual thriller to be a hit on the big screen, then the genre had a laudable swan song.