"Wild Things"

Michelle Goldberg reviews 'Wild Things', directed by John McNaughton and starring Neve Campbell, Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published March 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

With "Scream" and "Scream 2," Neve Campbell became the queen of smart trash flicks: a perfectly postmodern horror heroine who balances teenage earnestness, hip distance and coy cleavage shots. But those films, sly and hugely entertaining as they were, have nothing on "Wild Things." In this exhilaratingly campy, intricately constructed comic film noir, all the things that seemed to simmer under Campbell's nervous smile in "Scream" burst to the surface. With shaggy, cherry-red hair, eggplant-colored lipstick and tattoos snaking down her knuckles, Campbell is outrageously good as basket case Suzie Toller. And happily for drive-in audiences everywhere, the rest of this audacious film is as successful as she is. There are as many betrayals, surprises and reversals in this gaudy, libidinous romp as in "The Grifters," "Bound" and "L.A. Confidential" combined.

"Wild Things" opens with a funky, creepy score and a shot of Blue Bay, Fla., a lush boating town that's home to both wealthy country clubbers and swamp-dwelling trailer trash. Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is a guidance counselor at the local high school. When we first see him, he's writing "Sex Crimes" on the chalkboard and introducing two police detectives who give a lecture about rape. Lombardo is lusted after by one his students, the pouty, stunning and spoiled Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards). He's also still wanted by her mother, Sandra (Theresa Russell), with whom he had an affair during his gigolo days. Kelly is blatant in her attempts to seduce Lombardo, finally showing up in his kitchen soaking wet in a white T-shirt and tiny white shorts.

In the next scene, she's stomping off angrily down the street, and once home she claims Lombardo raped her. There's no physical evidence, she says, because he didn't come, claiming, "No little girl could get me off." The police doubt her story and refuse to arrest Lombardo, until they get a call from Suzie. Poor and mangy, Suzie lives in a trailer covered with batik sheets, beads and punk-rock posters. She, too, claims Lombardo raped her, and her story is the same as Kelly's. Lombardo is promptly arrested and held without bail. After losing his job, he's broke. The only lawyer he can afford is a clown played by Bill Murray who works out of a storefront and wears wrinkled baby-blue suits and an insurance-scam neck brace. Kelly's mother takes her daughter's rape as a personal slight, screaming, "My daughter does NOT get raped in Blue Bay. That son of a bitch must be crazy if he thinks he can do that to me!"

The trial is over in the first third of the film, and then the story really begins. It's fantastically serpentine but always comprehensible. Just as the twists and turns threaten to become ridiculous, a new development seems to explain everything, only to itself be turned upside down a few moments later. The plot builds to such an outrageous pitch that it constantly seems about to collapse, and throughout the last half hour, the audience is waiting for the clichis to kick in, for the whole byzantine tale to be reduced to a mano a mano brawl between Lombardo and the cop trailing him, played by Kevin Bacon. Thankfully, it never does. The climax doesn't come until the film's last few minutes. The denouement, which explains the whole elaborate scheme and fills in what would otherwise be plot holes, is interspersed with the credits.

One reason "Wild Things" works so well is that director John McNaughton sustains a darkly comic tone throughout the film without letting it degenerate into farce. Like "Scream," it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it also never makes the mistake of letting slapstick undermine its suspense. Well, almost never -- there are a few lame jokes, Murray's neck brace being one of them. Another is the huge bald convict in Lombardo's jail cell. "So you're the new chicken licker," he growls. Mostly, though, McNaughton sustains an air of lurid high melodrama.

He also drenches "Wild Things" with sex as moist and steamy as the town's surrounding marshes. The camera lingers on high-school girls' crotches, thighs and tanned midriffs. People fuck in pools or under rivulets of spilled liquor, in twos and threes. It's utterly gratuitous and utterly entertaining. At first it seems overly macho the way the camera molests these taut Lolitas, especially in the service of a plot that involves an innocent man accused of rape by vengeful girls and a spiteful older woman. But "Wild Things" is far too smart to be called sexist, and all the skin on display heightens the sultry, festering atmosphere. Sure it's an exploitation movie, but this twisted Technicolor orgy is also a thriller in the original sense of that word.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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