“They were acting! They were all acting!”

I remember seeing the cover of this in the video rental place as a kid, 9 or 10, and it always excited the part of my adolescent brain that was just getting curious about sex but was mostly frightened by the unknown of it. This cover, with the leering eyes, the implication of soaking wet bodies, the aggressively posed men at the bottom of the image – all of this tapped into that alluring fear of whatever pre-pubescent version of sexuality I possessed.

In the ensuing years, I saw the cover of Wild Things again and again, usually next to Species or Poison Ivy or any number of other soft-core erotic thrillers that produced a million DTV sequels sold entirely on the promise of being socially-acceptable porn. I’ve since seen Species and Poison Ivy (or one of its sequels, I don’t really remember), and I admit to watching them almost purely for the promise of T & A. Being 15 and afraid of the internet creates strange cinematic urges.

Still, even with my search for almost porn I could get past my parents, I never returned to Wild Things. Even when I got older, the cover, the premise, it all brought back that fear that used to mingle with the desire.

Only recently, as I’ve delved deep into the realm of sleaze and exploitation, did I find the courage the watch it. Scott Tobias’s AV Club article on the film gave me the kick I needed.

And I’m glad I didn’t take the plunge when I was 15, because Wild Things is a cynical and bitter film that shows an absolute contempt for humanity – it just uses sex and sleaze as its vessel of hate.

Wild Things sees humans as greedy, self-servings bastards, each and every one of them is putting on a performance – no state of mind is permanent, no moral system is instinctual. We’re all actors, and we’re all ephemeral.

But on top of all that cynicism is a darkly hilarious neo-noir filled with sex and violence.

Matt Dillon plays a school counselor that all the girls love. After he presumable spurns Denise Richards’ student, she accuses him of raping her and takes him to trial with the help of another student’s (Neve Campbell) similar accusations. Dillon hires Bill Murray’s scene-stealing sketchy lawyer with a fake broken neck to defend him from the accusations. In the courtroom, it’s revealed that the accusations were false, fabricated by both girls as revenge. But, while Dillon and Murray celebrate, a detective played by Kevin Bacon starts getting suspicious.

And he’s right to be. Wild Things is a ridiculous film played hysterically, and it has at least 6 twists. Betrayals, reveals, threesomes, murders, sex murders, bribes – all of it, all the time. It keeps pulling tricks out of its sleeve for its entire runtime. However, despite how crazy and trashy this all is, it’s not dumb. It’s impeccably plotted, working like clockwork to deliver pay-off after pay-off, cloaking its intelligence in dumb, trashy sleaze. No matter how gratuitous or exploitative the sex and nudity may seem, it’s all building to its larger point: the fact that there is an audience for exploitation is just proof that humanity will take anything it can get to feel a sense of satisfaction.

You can watch Wild Things purely for the T & A, you can use a few choice clips to fuel a lazy afternoon if you wanted to. But if, after that session, a little part in the back of your mind feels darker … if there’s a shadow hanging over your psyche that day … it’s because writer Stephen Peters and director John McNaughton snuck their angry, broken hearts into your head.

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