Wild Things at 25: White Trash Hitchcock Still Slaps

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Wild Things at 25: White Trash Hitchcock Still Slaps

You gotta respect the audacity of a film with the first line: “Fuck off!”

It’s just one of many reasons why director John McNaughton’s Wild Things remains such a brazen, clever and unpredictable neo-noir 25 years after its release. It’s the most “Florida Man” of movies, embracing every cliché and trope the 27th state has to offer–from its nouveau riche South Floridians to its white trash gator parks–and then uses them against the audience. Its lean 108 minutes is packed with a neverending smokescreen of sex and lust that lulls the audience into fugue of horniness, then unleashes a dazzling array of twists that pummel our preconceived notions, proving just how canny this thriller really is. 

It’s pretty clear Wild Things doesn’t get the respect of other great “gotcha” mysteries because it wears its horniness on its sleeve and is unapologetic about using a trash-forward approach as its hook. For those who want to poo-poo that manner, it’s all the more easy to brush off, or just forget, how inventive Stephen Peters’ script (with Kem Nunn punch-ups) is. It deftly weaves together the smarts of Hitchcock, the lurid sensibilities of Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls), and even the Greek mythology of Medea and Phaedra. 

One of the best tells about just how good Wild Things is sits right in the casting: The ruse of obvious sex appeal is easily landed with Denise Richards and Matt Dillon, but then the brainier names of Kevin Bacon, Neve Campbell and Bill Murray also appear and the universal response is, “Wait, they’re in this too?” Their taste and résumés immediately infer quality, and that certainly ends up being the case. Everyone rises to the same heightened plane of overblown emotions. Not quite camp, but clearly a wink and a nod beyond the norms.

For those who have found themselves swept up in our current resurgent interest in true crime and mystery series a la Only Murders in the Building, Poker Face and Luther—delighting in dissecting clues and anticipating reveals—Wild Things is a classic that snaps right into our current zeitgeist. Plus, Wild Things figuratively puts out serving up twosomes, threesomes and even an implied homosexual dalliance without pause, something lamented as sorely lacking in the media being served up to us in mainstream film today. 

Back when sex sold, Wild Things was entirely marketed as a carnal-laden noir. And McNaughton pulled out all the stops to reinforce that perception from the jump. With its percussive, sultry score by George S. Clinton (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) to Jeffrey L. Kimball’s sweaty lens of cinematography, Wild Things is unabashed about throwing wet t-shirts, tight pants and pouty lips in our faces. And yet–if you can peel your eyes off the bodies laid out before us—McNaughton is just as serious about laying the narrative pipe. From its opening following camera on Dillon’s popular and well-liked Sam Lombardo, we’re literally ushered into the rowdy senior seminar of Blue Bay High School via his shoulders. In an auditorium crammed with soon-to-be-graduates, we see them get schooled on the topic of sex crimes by the local Detectives Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega). In a compact 10 minutes, McNaughton tells us everything we need to know about what’s coming: Sex, accusations of rape, boating prowess, guns and social classism on full display. He gives us the clues, then brilliantly obscures them by having us make assumptions about the core characters, which become red herrings he needs us to believe in order to sell the third act reveals.

And yes, the equal opportunity, full-frontal nudity peppered throughout Wild Things is a distraction technique for what’s really going on at the heart of the film. Lust aside, this is a purposeful takedown of the casual disdain for Florida’s poor by the powerful, the beautiful and the rich at the hands of Suzy Toller (Campbell), the broke, but brilliant goth “freak” who bides her time to pick off her enemies one by one. It’s certainly not a feminist exploration, but it’s not an accident that the two smartest characters in the movie are Suzy and Detective Perez. They’re keen observers who are ignored because of their gender and placement; Suzy dismissed as trailer park trash and Perez as the woman in the police department whose correct initial theory is talked down. The latter puts the pieces together about Suzy’s long game, while the former has received her spoils from the bottom-feeder lawyer (Murray) no one respected. It’s a comeuppance that is spectacularly satisfying for its success in evading our radars. 

Also, kudos to Wild Things for doing credit tags in such an ingenious way before the MCU made them de rigueur. As Suzy triumphantly sashays into the sunset, with all of her co-conspirator marks tidily disposed of, McNaughton reveals between the credit plates exactly how she managed to use her cohorts’ hormones, greed and hubris against them in a year-long long-game of revenge. It’s such a brilliant technique that it’s rather shocking that other films and series since haven’t cribbed this approach ad nauseam—likely another reason to believe this little gem hasn’t been rewatched enough in the ensuing decades. Do yourself a favor, pop in a double feature of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Wild Things to see the masterful thriller’s very naughty cousin. 

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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