Hello, everyone! Welcome to 90s Corner, a new recurring feature where I watch 90s movies and try to decipher them like an Egyptologist discovering hieroglyphics for the first time. Today’s subject is Wild Things, a 1998 “neo-noir erotic crime thriller” starring Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, and Bill Murray in a puzzling appearance as himself. The movie takes place in Florida, so there’s a lot of sweat, crop tops, and alligators involved. One character has an IQ of 200. Both female leads are bisexual. Needless to say, there’s a lot of nonsense to unpack.
Synopsis: Wealthy student Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) accuses her guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) of raping her in his home after she went to wash his car. Soon, a second student, rebellious teen Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell), makes a second accusation of rape against the teacher. Determined to get to the bottom of the salacious story, Sgt. Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) looks deeper into the relationship between the trio, and uncovers a disturbing conspiracy.
My thoughts: In the 90s, movie studios realized that they could capitalize on the women’s liberation movement by combining soft-core porn and a risible imitation of a 1930s noir screenplay to produce the so-called “erotic thriller.” Since it was now semi-acceptable for women to have agency over their own sexuality (as long as that sexuality was suitably marketed towards male voyeurism), studios could pump out films that revolved around sex and skirt the line between titillation and exploitation. Enter Wild Things, a movie that takes everything that frightened 90s Middle America and makes it sexy: false rape accusations, bisexual teen girls, fraudulent lawsuits, and men getting bamboozled by evil sexy genius women.
Wild Things is like a Russian doll of sexualized shenanigans. First, you have the outer layer of story: the rape accusations against Sam Lombardo. It seems from the outset that Mr. Lombardo is the hero of the movie. He teaches poor students how to sail! He gives kids rides home in his Jeep while playing “Semi-Charmed Life.” His favorite activity is riding his airboat through the Everglades. He emphatically DOES NOT sleep with his students, even though all of his female students seem to be throwing themselves in that very direction. Admittedly, Good Guy Sam Lombardo does some questionable things, like allowing his student Kelly Van Ryan to wash his muddy car at his own home, but who can blame a guy for passively watching while an underaged girl in a white shirt soaps down his Jeep? Hardly a crime! Hasn’t every teacher invited his female students over for some friendly car washing?
The point that the movie is trying to make is that Sam Lombardo is not a creep. It helps that his accusers, the entitled princess Kelly Van Ryan, and the punk-rock basket case Suzie Toller, are portrayed as unsympathetic victims. Kelly is a trust-fund flirt with “come hither” eyes and an explosive temper, while Suzie sticks out her tongue to authority, has dyed hair, and lives in a motel with a resident alligator. Who is the audience supposed to sympathize with? Clean-cut Sam Lombardo with the Teacher of the Year award? Or these two promiscuous teens?
Fittingly, the two girls are exposed as liars-liars-pants-on-fires, and Sam walks away with a gigantic payout from Kelly’s trust fund, now free to pursue his dreams of riding an airboat through the Everglades wearing open-toed shoes. It’s a cautionary tale about a good man almost ruined by two evil teens, saved from destruction by the charming legal expertise of Bill Murray. False rape accusations may only occur in 2% of cases, but that’s not relevant to the fears of the average 90s man. But then, there’s a twist! A new Russian doll emerges. Turns out Mr. I Don’t Sleep With My Students was in fact sleeping with his students!
For some bizarre reason, two teenage girls have nothing better to do with their lives than engage in wild threesomes with a 35-year-old guidance counselor. Both Suzie and Kelly are madly in love with Mr. Lombardo, and together, the trio come up with a brilliant plan to continue their love affair while getting an early taste of Kelly’s trust fund. The only thing wrong with the plan is that these three Einsteins can’t stop calling each other, meeting at pools for smexy trysts (the Director of Photography should be ashamed of himself for some of these shots), and stabbing each other in the back. We get a classic scene of attempted murder turned making out in the pool, which was a mandatory story beat for all 90s erotic thrillers. Meanwhile, sneaky Sgt. Ray Duquette is hot on their trail. The man’s version of detective work may be summed up as threatening his underaged suspects with physical violence and secretly filming them on private property, but that doesn’t exclude him from getting results.
When Suzie Toller goes missing, leaving only two teeth behind, Ray decides that Suzie has definitely been murdered by Sam Lombardo in order to increase his payout. Convinced that Kelly is next, Ray Duquette decides to offer his protection to the teen, without consulting his superior officers, of course. For some incredible reason, Duquette’s plan goes haywire, and Kelly ends up with two bullet holes in her chest. Duquette says self-defense, his boss fires him, and we all gasp in surprise at the sight of a corrupt police officer facing repercussions for his actions. Lest you think that Wild Things is an indictment against police violence, however, we get another shocking twist. The third Russian doll emerges. Ray Duquette was in on the plan this whole time! The problem isn’t the inherent flaws in the police system; the problem is that greedy bastard Ray Duquette.
At this point in the movie, I was befuddled. Why was their plan so intricate? What was the point of involving a police detective whose favorite story to tell at parties is how Sam Lombardo and two teenage girls defrauded the estate of Kelly Van Ryan? It seems to me that all of this could have been accomplished in a much simpler fashion…say…waiting for Kelly to come of age and mature into her trust? But just as my head reels from this new plot twist, we get another plot twist: Ray Duquette killed Kelly Van Ryan on purpose because…reasons! And Sam Lombardo is mad at him for killing Kelly when he was only supposed to frame her for murder (which is so much nicer), so he tries to push him off a boat! But Duquette lives in Florida, so he can swim, and he climbs onboard to kill Sam Lombardo, but not before Suzie (who is now blonde) comes back from the dead and shoots him with a harpoon. I would like to remind everyone that Kevin Bacon, who executive produced this film, called it the “trashiest thing he had ever read.” And he still signed on. I guess that Footloose money wasn’t enough.
After Kevin Bacon dies from harpoon-inflicted injuries, it seems that finally, Suzie and Sam Lombardo can ride off into the sunset with their $8.5 million. Sam Lombardo is suspicious of the drink that Suzie offers him, but she laughs it off, saying that she can’t sail the boat without him. But then he dies…from poison! He ironically foreshadowed his own death. How very 90s of him.
In the twistiest twist of all, it turns out that Suzie is smart. Who saw that coming? Not only did she blackmail Sam into joining her plot to steal Kelly’s money, convince him to enlist Ray Duquette (so that she could get revenge on him for another extrajudicial police murder), and rope Kelly Van Ryan into her own destruction, but she did it all with red streaks in her hair. While I feel no qualms at the deaths of either Sam Lombardo or Ray Duquette, I do think that Kelly Van Ryan’s death was a tragedy. After all, her only crime was to fall prey to the allures of her guidance counselor and his airboat.
After watching this rats-nest of a film, I’m left trying to untangle what exactly it’s trying to say. It may be that Wild Things is saying nothing whatsoever, and the film is an empty vessel meant to contain as many shots of naked women as is legally possible. I think that answer is too simple. As an erotic thriller, Wild Things is a reflection of the ideas that thrilled Middle America most in the 90s: sex, barely legal teenagers, and the loss of innocence. The combination of these three tropes was everywhere, from Britney Spears crooning at age 16 in a schoolgirl’s uniform, to Christina Aguilera dancing raunchily in “Dirrty,” to Aaliyah singing “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” at the age of 15. Wild Things is a high-octane version of these tropes, playing off of America’s enjoyment of seeing underage girls participate enthusiastically in their own exploitation. Even though Neve Campbell and Denise Richards were both adults at the time of filming, it’s clear that the male audience is supposed to see them as teenagers, revel in their sex scenes, and nurture their own private fantasies of inappropriate relationships between adult men and teen girls. Making both characters into violent money-crazed psychopaths helps ease any discomfort and helps the audience see them as culprits rather than victims.
Final consensus: Wild Things is trashy, but it’s also plain dumb. The twists come faster than Denise Richards can take her clothes off, and the end result is a movie that’s diverting enough for folding laundry, but not an experience worth your full attention. If you need a Neve Campbell fix, just watch Scream 1-5 instead. You get snarky teens, murder, and 90s nostalgia, all without having to see a single shot of Matt Dillon in sandals.