Wild Things: Why this steamy 1998 film is an underrated noir classic

Beyond the attention-grabbing scenes, Wild Things deserves its place in the film noir canon

Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell and Matt Dillon in publicity portrait for the film 'Wild Things', 1998. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell and Matt Dillon in 1998's Wild Things. (Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

There are four movies in the Wild Things series — celebrating its 25th anniversary this week — although you’d be forgiven for not knowing about number two onwards.

That’s the problem when your original thriller succeeds in its core objectives – and adds boobs into the mix. Straight-to-DVD/cable/whatever it’s called now sequels come a-knocking.

The thing is that Wild Things is good. Very good. Rewatching it for this feature only calcified my belief that for what it is intended to be — a postmodern film noir with the sexiness you can show in 1998 versus 1948 — it’s nearly perfect.

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Film noir has become an academic term: one that only movie critics and ‘people with degrees about movies’ talk about with any verve. That’s primarily because it’s old-fashioned, after all most of the well-known noirs are literally that. Well, noir et blanc.

And when that’s transposed to modern filmmaking it can become very mannered. Occasionally it’s done well – Brick by Rian Johnson, John Dahl’s The Last Seduction – but mostly it’s parodies in glossy TV shows.

Neve Campbell and Denis Richards in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)
Neve Campbell and Denis Richards in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)

Wild Things makes it work from the get-go, from the moment director John McNaughton had the brilliant idea to hire George S Clinton (not the Funkadelic one) to produce a sly, jazzy, sweaty score that introduces the moneyed world of Blue Bay, Florida.

There resides Matt Dillon's Sam Lombardo (great noir name and incidentally the star of another modern success in the genre, A Kiss Before Dying), a high school guidance counsellor who finds his life unravelling when he’s accused of rape by high society student Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) and Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

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The first two are brilliantly cast – Dillon as Sam, a lunkheaded charmer and a pre-fame Richards as the amoral sex kitten with a penchant for see-through swimsuits. When Kelly is sitting in a posh 4x4 after being part of a murder, she whines, “Mom would kill me if she knew I took the Rover.”

Theresa Russell and Denise Richards in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)
Theresa Russell and Denise Richards in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)

Only Campbell is a weak link, a shame because she’s a fine actor given the right material. But here she doesn’t have the flair to play a multi-faceted, unknowable girl who might be a patsy or might be a mastermind.

Filling out the personnel are Kevin Bacon as a cop with too much skin in the game (quite literally) and Bill Murray as a lawyer, who, as is often the case, sometimes seems to be acting in a totally different film. In this instance, it works.

To reveal too much here would be to spoil the plot, as almost every scene is a spoiler and it would be a shame to do so if you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it yet.

But the narrative turns, while sharp, are always earned. And the script and direction are witty enough and smart enough to take you along with them.

Daphne Rubin-Vega and Kevin Bacon in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Kevin Bacon in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)

As with a lot of ‘classic’ cinema, much weighty analysis has been visited upon the movies that endure, ensuring it’s difficult to watch any except through the prism of a Sight & Sound editor. But many of the best film noirs were at their heart a trifle: slight and clever, twisty and turny, with characters you love to hate or hate to love and surprises by the bucketload.

Which is exactly what Wild Things delivers, right down to the final mid-credits scene. The person in said scene is even wearing the kind of headscarf you might expect Marlene Dietrich to wear, albeit in a very different location.

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For people who saw Wild Things on original release, many will remember the nudity and sex on display. Others will have seen the uncut scenes you can find on the internet (apparently). And you might be disappointed when you hear from McNaughton retrospectively that there was originally a queer male subplot, in addition to the more Pornhub-friendly sequences you find within the film currently.

Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)
Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell in Wild Things. (Sony Pictures)

But while it is definitely shot with the male gaze, McNaughton has insisted it’s a political film in other ways (and a read of his interview makes that an understandable take). It also makes you realise how good a director McNaughton can be when he gets the chance. Anyone who has seen Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, another of his filmography seemingly lost to modern audiences, can tell you that.

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Wild Things is simple, it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s sexy and it’s unpredictable. It’s exactly what it sets out to be, but done very well. That’s why it’s worth checking out. And that’s why it deserves to considered a modern noir classic.

If the lurid, baked Florida sheen wasn’t such a fundamental part of the movie’s make-up, I would suggest releasing a black-and-white version too.

Wild Things is available to rent or buy on PVOD.