The Erotic Thriller 'Wild Things' Deserves a Better Reputation Than 'Guilty Pleasure'

Wild Things 1998 erotic thriller cast
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Wild Things is often regarded as a sleazy guilty pleasure. Wild Thingsshould be regarded as a dizzyingly constructed maze of a film -- and one of the last great erotic thrillers.

By the late '90s, the genre, with its femme fatales and stylized settings, was receding from its cultural dominance as studios chased the coveted young-person demographic, and mores around on-screen sexual provocation began to change, with pornography and political correctness becoming simultaneously more mainstream. The "adult" subject matter of the erotic thriller means few of them involve teenage characters, aside from a handful of notable exceptions like Poison Ivy and Cruel Intentions. But director John McNaughton pushed Wild Things, released 20 years ago this month, into ever more lurid and ultimately rewarding directions.

Wild Things plays a dangerous game: Not only does the film center on two high-school girls, the bratty Kelly (Denise Richards) and the poor goth Suzie (Neve Campbell), but it sets them up in a complex storyline involving false rape allegations against their guidance counselor, Sam (Matt Dillon). By any definition, the plot of Wild Things is, to use a thinkpiece buzzword, "problematic." But wait! There’s more. And more. And more.

wild things
Columbia Pictures

If Wild Things was just a story of a false rape accusation, it would be written off today as morally dubious junk by the few people who remember it. While it’s not exactly a feminist film, Wild Things ultimately ends up as a tribute to devious, calculating femininity -- a trait which is here presented as a kind of genius, when we learn in the very last minutes that Suzie was the ultimate architect of the entire scheme, and is walking away with millions of dollars, a few dead bodies, and more double-crosses than one can count behind her.

While Wild Things is well-known for its prurience, with Kelly and Suzie engaging in a threesome with Sam, and later a girl-girl tryst in a swimming pool, the scenes that surely wore out countless VHS tapes aren't the reason Naughton's work demands repeat viewings. To watch Wild Things is to lose oneself in a swoony Florida atmosphere, but it also requires intense focus on the details of the plot as deceptions build up to a fever pitch. And then, to top it all off, there’s Bill Murray as a shady lawyer who turns out to be Suzie’s ally. Any erotic thriller that makes Bill Murray crucial to the plot must have a sense of humor about itself.

Erotic thrillers are big on go-for-broke scenes whose memories linger long after seeing the films -- think Sharon Stone’s interrogation in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling in Fatal Attraction -- and Wild Things features several such moments: champagne poured on breasts, Showgirls-style, and a sexy car washing sequence among them.

wild things sex scene
Columbia Pictures

The sexiness in the film is all part of a larger performance, revealed as we discover the many layers of the plot. Everyone in Wild Things is a devious actor -- Suzie most of all. The titillating scenes are just one more way that the characters exert power over one another, and the film seduces the audience into following along. There’s even a clever bit of homage to the erotic thriller genre in the casting: Theresa Russell, who played a murderous femme fatale in Black Widow, is Kelly’s wealthy and salacious mother. Each character here is provocative in his or her own way.

Erotic thrillers tend to borrow heavily from film noir, and like noir, a depraved atmosphere lingers throughout. The score is sultry and swaying, and the Florida palette is sunny in a way that feels oppressive yet postcard-ready. Suzie is essentially a con woman extraordinaire, and anyone will tell you that to create an effective con film, the director must also con the audience.

And so Wild Things cons us, pulling us in with scandal and sex, then peeling back layers of intrigue. It’s crucial to the film’s enduring appeal that a high-school girl seen by her peers as white trash turns out to be a criminal mastermind – without Suzie’s scheming use of her feminine powers Wild Things would be firmly on the guilt side of the guilty pleasure spectrum (or beyond it, where the film's three direct-to-DVD sequels -- including the bluntly titled Wild Things: Foursome --- dwell). Twenty years later, being conned by this sparkling piece of self-aware trash is still a genuine pleasure.

Wild Things is available to rent on all major platforms, and streamable on Starz.

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Abbey Bender is a New York-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Washington Post, Nylon, Playboy, Vice, and other publications.