One of the most infamous films of my youth turns 25 today and there is good reason this erotic thriller has stayed in the conversation for a quarter of a century. While many 90s films are celebrated for their advancements in cinema (Saving Private Ryan, GoodFellas, The Shawshank Redemption), one that should be celebrated in the same vein is the sexy, neo-noir classic Wild Things. The film starring Neve Campbell, Matt Dillon, and Denise Richards was released in 1998 and was clearly ahead of its time with its Florida Noir (Out of Time, Spring Breakers, Serenity, Magic Mike).
Wild Things is set in a South Florida resort town, Blue Bay. The film shows a luxurious community right outside the marshes of the Everglades. To set the mood, the film highlights the serene, posh town with shots juxtaposed with alligators ominously popping their heads out of the swamps, indicating something vicious brewing beneath the surface. The plot of Wild Things follows two rival high school students; Kelly (Richards) is an entitled, rich girl and on the opposite spectrum we have Suzie (Campbell), who is a grunge girl living in a trailer park. Kelly is the typical 90s popular girl character while Suzie has clearly been bullied about being ‘white trash’ for so long, she leans into the part to entertain her town folk. Their guidance counselor Sam (Dillon) has a sweet, educator-of-the-year persona, but what comes next for him is anything but sweet. Kelly has a crush on Sam, who has a weakness for young girls, and he seems doomed before anything is set into place.
Kelly accuses Sam of raping her, and soon after the allegations are being investigated, Suzie makes the same accusations. Sam immediately hires attorney Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray), who is almost completely incompetent, to defend him. At the heated trial, Suzie cracks under pressure during cross-examination and admits that she and Kelly fabricated the false accusations to get revenge on Sam. For Suzie, she says it was for his failure to bail her out of jail on a drug charge. For Kelly, it was for his affair with her mother, heiress Sandra Van Ryan (Theresa Russell). Sam and his lawyer negotiate an $8.5 million settlement for defamation, which Sandra pays out using money from a trust Kelly would receive only upon Sandra’s death. After the settlement is paid out, it is revealed that Sam and the two girls were in cahoots. They were all accomplices who used the trial to extort money from Sandra.
Part of what makes Wild Things so memorable is that it feels it’s constantly upping the ante as the film goes on and no matter how wild the plot and twists become, it’s always in the realm of possibilities in the world of Wild Things. As if the trio being in on a scam together wasn’t enough, a detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) suspects the three were working a scam. Against the wishes of the district attorney’s office (as they consider the case closed), he continues looking into Sam. He tells Kelly and Suzie that Sam has already transferred the money to an offshore account. Suzie panics and goes to Kelly, who comforts her, and she tells her they’re in it together. However, Kelly calls Sam and tells him they may have to get rid of Suzie, which feels like what Kelly always wanted. In a now infamous scene, Suzie attacks Kelly in a pool and their fight turns from vicious to steamy as they engage in a kiss and more as Sam watches. However, they have more than one onlooker as Ray also watches their steamy moment, unbeknownst to them. A few nights later, at the beach, Sam beats Suzie to death while Kelly waits nearby. The two then drive to the swamp outside the idyllic town, where Sam disposes of the plastic-wrapped body of Suzie.
Wild Things cannot end there with the twists as it somehow keeps upping the ante. Ray and his partner investigate Suzie’s disappearance. Her blood (and teeth) is found at the beach, while her car is found abandoned at a bus terminal, making it seem staged to most. The District Attorney’s office again asserts that Ray should drop the case, but he asks his partner to watch Sam. Sam shows the partner his files from the school on Kelly, which suggest she is extremely troubled and could become violent. At the same time, Ray goes to the Van Ryans’ house to confront the visibly upset Kelly, but then we hear gunfire. Sandra rushes over as Ray stumbles out of the house; he has a gunshot wound to the shoulder, while Sandra finds her daughter dead from two shots to the chest. Ray tells the story that Kelly fired first, and that he was forced to kill her in self-defense. No charges are filed against him, but he is dismissed from the force for disobeying orders.
The film continues to supply twists as we’re still not done yet. It is revealed that Sam is in cahoots with Ray. In the original screenplay, the two are actually lovers, but that did not make it to the final cut of the film. Sam is displeased Ray killed Kelly instead of just framing her for Suzie’s murder, but he agrees that they now have fewer loose ends to tie up. The two men go sailing on Sam’s boat, where Sam attempts to kill Ray. When Ray fights back, he is shot and killed with a speargun by… Suzie, who staged her murder with Sam! Suzie reveals she was driven to kill Ray to avenge the murder of her best friend, Davey, whom Ray wrongly shot to death and framed as a self-defense. Sam aversely accepts a drink from Suzie, who assures him she would not double-cross him, as they are the final two… However, upon drinking it, he realizes she has poisoned it, before Suzie knocks him overboard and sails into the sunset.
Wild Things should not work given the number of twists and the ‘Florida trash’ aesthetic we’ve seen played out time and time again; however, the film lands every ‘WTF’ moment it throws at its audience. While the film does play for shock value, it absolutely feels earned in every moment as it is so unexpected with each turn. Wild Things was wild for 1998 and, honestly, still feels just as wild in 2023. The debate on sex scenes in movies comes up with each highly publicized film that has some sort of sex scene, but the scene in Wild Things is something else. What keeps Wild Things feel from feeling cheap or just an attempt to shock its audiences is just how crafty its storyline feels with its surprises.
If the film came out today, it honestly most likely would be a Sam Levinson-produced miniseries on HBO Max, not released in theaters. However, in 1998, Wild Things ended up making $56 million at the box office, almost triple its budget. 25 years later, it feels Wild Things still has an effect on filmmakers with trying to walk the line between camp and trash. The film still feels fresh, innovative, and – most importantly – fun. Open a bottle of champagne and rewatch the wild film now to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
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