LGBT Movies: “Wild Things” (25th Anniversary)

Many years ago when I was in university, I was talking with a friend about what makes a film “queer.” Was it simply having queer characters and queer subject matter? Was it having something askew and off-kilter that queer viewers can see and theoretically resonate with on a deeper level? I still don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are always in my mind every time I revisit Wild Things. The film, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today, is best remembered for its trashy decadence, but never quite got its due as both an erotic thriller classic and delightfully queer satire of the genre. It’s a masterpiece that makes the words “gratuitous” and indispensable” one and the same.

They’re dying to play with you…

From the very start, Wild Things makes two points abundantly clear: it’s going to go full throttle with the sleaze and it will never take itself serious. Set in the affluent Florida community of Blue Bay, the film throws the viewer into the soapiness from the start. Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon), a well-respected high school guidance counselor, seemingly has it all: good looks, adoration from the students and their parents, and a casual fling with a young socialite. As he leads a school-wide lecture about sex crimes, added by two detectives from the Blue Bay Police Department, Sargent Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and Detective Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), storm clouds appear. Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), the class bad girl who lives out in a trailer in the swamp, stomps off, implying a less than happy history with either Ray or Sam. Meanwhile, Kelly van Ryan (Denise Richards), spoilt rich girl and queen bee of Blue Bay High has her eyes locked on Sam, as does her mother Sandra (Theresa Russell), who had a fling with him back in the day and spends her days enjoying martinis and fucking while wearing high heels. And who says the rich aren’t relatable?

The sudsy shenanigans inevitably include Kelly and one of her girlfriends stopping by Sam’s house on a Saturday morning for a fundraiser car wash, which leads to one of the film’s many delightful OTT soft-core montages. A sopping wet Kelly, armed with a set-through outfit and a stare worthy of an alligator (which there are many in this film), finds her way into Sam’s house…. and runs away later, looking both pissed off and hurt. This is where things started getting serpentine and in the fairness for the unfortunate souls who have never seen Wild Things, I’ll be coy about what happens next. Let’s just say Kelly accuses Sam of raping her, and later Suzie does the same. Detectives Ray and Gloria take a skeptical eye toward the case and as the film boils along, the double/triple/quadruple crosses pile up, as do the steamy hookups and the body count. Even as the end credits roll, the final juicy details are still being doled out. The film takes the classic film noir reversals and turbocharges them into a hilarious soap opera where every bit of calculated shock is served with a joyous wink.

“Do you like steamy movies?”

To love Wild Things is fully embrace its sordidness, it’s cheerful vulgarity, it’s “twisty-for-the-sake-of-twisty” lurid melodrama. It helps that all the individuals involved in this project know exactly what kind of film they are making. Director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) brings a slick gloss to Stephen Peters’ gloriously loony screenplay. The cast is the very definition of game: every performer knows exactly what their characters need to deliver and relish every single sleazy scene as if they were gorging on chocolate. Dillon and Bacon bring the appropriate rot lurking beneath their polished exteriors, while Rubin-Vega’s cool intelligence and ability to keep a straight face gives the audience a moral avatar, should they want one. Russell and a delightful cameo from Bill Murray bring the intended comic relief (Russell has the film’s funniest offensive lines) that deftly blends in with all the other silliness in a way that feels organic.

At its core though, this is Neve Campbell and Denise Richard’s show and they run away it. As Kelly, Richards finds just the right droll note in playing the sneering vamp; she knows her role is ridiculous but finds a gravity that prevents Kelly from becoming an unfunny cartoon. She was already a schlock veteran at this point and knew one of the most important rules is to never act “better” than your material. Campbell has the even tricker task of being the film’s antiheroine and beating heart and does something fascinating with it: she lefts her innate talent at being both clever and likeable shine through instead of trying to ape the classic femme fatale archetype. Campbell said part of what attracted her to the role was wanting to avoid being typecast in the “nice girl” roles, whether it was on Party of Five or being the ever loveable Sidney Prescott in the Scream films. It wasn’t quite the career image relaunch she may have hoped for, but Suzie Toller has a certain vulnerability that makes her easy to root for even as the full depths of her ruthlessness are unspooled. Like Richards, Campbell also keeps a straight face through the whole film, which particularly impressive in scenes like the infamous bisexual threesome between her, Richards, and Dillon, or a swimming slap fight turned lesbian sex scene.

Which brings us the film’s queerness, both in depiction and spirit. On paper, the film is basically a GLAAD nightmare writ large. All the queer characters are duplicitous schemers, the only type of queer sex on display is ultra male-gazey babelicious bisexuality, and none of the character ever label themselves. For its time, is more of the same: queer female sexuality as a cynical marketing hook and jerkoff material for the male viewers. However, like everything else in the film, that’s a far too easy dismissal. Keeping with the film’s cheerful raunchiness, to expect any of the queer characters to be shown in a “tasteful” manner is a fool’s errand. What distinguishes these characters is the fact they are so nonchalant in their sexuality, so clever in their manipulation, and so unfazed by how it gives them strategic advantages over each other. Even before I came out as gay, I always admired the films that had queerness but the characters never felt an urge to label themselves. As I grow older and increasingly disillusioned with labels. I appreciate and admire more and more what Wild Things did regarding its portrait of sexual fluidity. There’s no attempt to pathologize Suzie and Kelly because of their sexuality; they are just two bad girls who want to have fun.

This is not to say the film didn’t miss the mark in one very specific case with this worldview. An earlier script had an explicitly bisexual moment between Sam and Ray, but the film’s financiers found it to be a bridge too far. One can immediately cast side eye at this, particularly given the film’s raison d’etre is to be over-the-top salacious trash. From a narrative perspective, the film still works but there’s a nagging sensation that had the scene been left in, it would have an even more enjoyably perverse twist on how the characters are all figuratively and literally screwing each other over. Alas, it was 1998 and it just wasn’t going to happen. Did a quick shot of Kevin Bacon’s bacon flopping in the shower make up for this? Eh, I’ll call it a draw.

“Sorry bruh, maybe we can have some of your bacon next time.”

Those who know me know how the erotic thriller is probably my favorite genre, full-stop. The way it intermingles with other genres, enquires about our own kinks and proclivities, how it delivers the lizard brain goods while still having the potential be transcendent art, all of this is my cinephile dream. If there’s a queer element, even better. Wild Things delivers and then some. It may not have received the critical acclaim that Fatal Attraction or The Last Seduction gained nor does it have quite the outsized infamy of something like Basic Instinct. Instead, the film was close to the genre’s version of Scream, minus the explicitly meta jokes. It took all of the genre’s lurid excesses and pushed them so far over the top while still delivering a clever thriller. If only more film’s could be this cheerful and fun.

As a queer film, I feel the film never got embraced by the community as much as it should have. Sure, it has its devotees, such as yours truly. 25 years later it probably won’t ever be loved quite like the camp classics such as Mommie Dearest or Showgirls. Perhaps its blend of wit and trash still makes it a film that defies easy categorization.

But the film is much like Suzie and Kelly themselves: underestimate the clever queer ones at your own peril.


Note: there are two versions, the theatrical cut and the unrated version. Unlike most unrated version, this one actually does have more skin on display. It also has a few more moments that flesh out some of the characters and includes a revelation near the end that pushes the film into VC Andrews’ style looniness. In short, I highly recommend the unrated version!

Theatrical Trailer: