Basic Instinct


‘…a rare example of a blockbuster that’s not aimed at family audiences, but made by a provocateur hoping to shake up attitudes to sex…’

Do we need a restoration of Basic Instinct? Absolutely. A quick history lesson is in order. Back in 1992, a widescreen tv was a novelty. The likes of Stanley Kubrick shot in Academy radio (ie square) because he imagined that the future viewers of his film would generally see it on video or tv. Yet few films were issued in widescreen format outside of Laserdisc, and the result was films like Basic Instinct which looked amazing in the cinema, yet awful when panned and scanned for tv, often missing out half the picture. And when a film pushed the envelope in terms of sex, violence and swearing, as Paul Verhoeven liked to do, then you had one shot of seeing the film as intended, and that was in the cinema.

It’s 2021, and a restored version of Basic Instinct hits shops and mail order, giving you the chance to enjoy this adult thriller as nature intended. And before you get all offended about gender and feminist issues, there’s a full commentary track praising the film by no less august an authority that Camille Paglia to set your mind at rest. With a fresh 52 minute documentary Basic Instinct: Sex, Death & Stone with new interviews with Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, plus a directors commentary, and a featurette on Jerry Goldsmith’s hypnotic score, this is the full package of material that Basic Instinct deserves. The film caused a sensation back in the day, but also was a massive public blockbuster in the old style, a rare example of a blockbuster that’s not aimed at family audiences, but made by a provocateur hoping to shake up attitudes to sex.

Working from a script by Joe Eszterhas, Verhoeven was just the man for the job. He’d pushed the envelope with massive Hollywood hits like Robocop and Total Recall, but also has a track record of sexually progressive Dutch movies in the 70’s including Turkish Delight. With Jan de Bont on cinematography duties in sunny San Francisco, Verhoeven was able to make the kind of sexually explicit thriller that Alfred Hitchcock had publically mulled in the late 70’s, but seemed afraid to make; the phrase Hitchockian is bandied around a lot, but this if one of the few films that deserve the label. Sharon Stone is a hypnotic presence as author Catherine Tramell, whose books seem to mirror real life murders; has she written them as an alibi? Bull-headed cop Nick “Shooter’ Curran (Michael Douglas) suspects her of a brutal murder of a night-club boss, but when the cops pull in the author, she’s several moves ahead of them and humiliates Curran in the interrogation room. A torrid romance follows, but Tramell’s strategies awaken something primal and dangerous in Nick, who starts to emulate her provocative behaviour with violent results…

Basic Instinct is a beautiful film to look at; this new version highlights the way that rain-on-windows and swimming pool reflections are ingeniously used to create emotions on the faces of the two central characters. But it’s also a nasty film, with gruesome killings, rough sex, and a feeling that everyone in the film has something to hide. That sense of suspicion hit a raw nerve in 1992, and still works today; it’s a similar notion to that mined in Verhoeven’s Elle in 2016. It’s a real shame that adult cinema is increasingly rare, but Basic Instinct turns sexual archetypes on their heads; Nick Curran’s posse of macho dudes are ripped to pieces, some of them literally, by Tramell’s smarts, and the result is something of a battle of the sexes, with the winner only confirmed in the final shot, one that elicited gasps when I saw this at the cinema. Perhaps a hard film to love, Basic Instinct is peak Douglas, Stone and Verhoeven, and for these reasons alone, is a must see film in the history of thrillers. As the sequel proved, it’s not easy to get this kind of story right, and Basic Instinct has all the answers hidden in plain sight.


Amazon Prime Link and 4K trailer below. Thanks to Studio Canal for access.


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    • That score is just amazing. And I like that this film has no interest in representation issues, in fact, it’s about exploding them…

  1. Paul Verhoeven movies are definitely one of a kind. Believe it or not, I watched RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers way younger than I should’ve. Luckily my parents made me wait for the more sexually charged movies like Basic Instinct or Showgirls. Although my mom did tell me a horrifying story about idiotic parents who took their kids to see Basic Instinct, because they didn’t have a babysitter.

    • Obviously didn’t do you any harm! That’s a great trilogy of sci-fi action movies,and suitable for any age IMHO. Showgirls is a misfire, but Basic Instinct hits its target, and is absolutely not for kids of any age…

      • Exactly. RoboCop I luckly saw after Murphy became the titular cyborg. It’s just the sequel that they warned me against watching. Total Recall I saw in its entirety, so I was never really bothered by it. Arnie made everything fun to watch when I was younger. I’m completely desensitized to Starship Troopers, but it’s still a tough watch in places.

  2. I like the way you phrased it as one of the few films deserving the adjective, “Hitchcockian.” And I agree. It can be seen as a remake of “Vertigo.” With it’s own style and flavor. And certainly leaving less to the imagination. Usually a negative thing. Here it WORKS. Haha

    • They lean into the Hitchcock thing and come out with a film that doubles down on the dark sexual undercurrents of his later work. Nothing like this gets made these days.

  3. A classic. Nice review! I’ve heard this called, one of the last erotic thrillers. Not even last GREAT erotic thrillers. It’s a genre that pretty much altogether disappeared.

  4. You make some interesting points here. Certainly we can pick out elements of the narrative that remind us of Hitchcock, but I think that ‘showing what Hitchcock wanted to but couldn’t’ had already been done several times by Brian de Palma in the 1980s. Basic Instinct did attract larger audiences though. I think that it’s worth remembering that Joe Eszterhas was for a time the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. I followed him from his days as a gonzo journalist on Rolling Stone. The film is I think very much a joint project with Verhoeven. Some of your correspondents don’t ‘get’ Verhoeven judging by their comments. He’s always made popular and usually intelligent genre pictures whether in Dutch or English. The American ones don’t always work but Starship Troopers is a brilliant satire. I think I might take a look at the Blu-ray, I haven’t seen Basic Instinct since its cinema release.

    • I think I remember Spoto interviewing Hitchcock for the Sunday Times circa 79, and Hitchcock describing a film he’s like to make with the new permissiveness. The way he described it would still be seen as obscene today. I interviewed Verhoeven for a BAFTA event and was delighted to do so; his credentials as an envelope-pushing film-maker are not in doubt. Like you, I’d not seen this since 92, and found it had weathered well, even if it doesn’t have the edge of Starship Troopers, which I adore. There are comic and satirical elements in Basic Instinct which I think are worth unpicking, and the context of Verhoeven’s Dutch work ie The Fourth Man certainly help.

  5. Ah, I had no idea Verhoeven made ART in the Dutch-lands before all his cornball American action films. I will admit to having really enjoyed his films, but I never saw this one. All I recall is the tremendous amount of BS Stone leveled when the world was giving her shit about exposure in the famous interrogation sequence, in which she said she had no idea the camera was leveled THERE. :p But I cannot look at Mikey Douglas without some Black Rain residue. 😉

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