Where do you draw the line between self-aware parody and ridiculous melodrama? It’s not always an easy distinction to make and Basic Instinct blurs the line more than most movies, but I favor the idea that Basic Instinct is well aware of just how ridiculous it is and revels in the fact, taking the clichés of detective stories and erotic thrillers and amping them up to 11 for lurid, sleazy fun. And yet, Basic Instinct manages to be more compelling than many of the movies it targets – as ridiculous as it is, the way Paul Verhoeven and company play the film with such reckless abandon makes it strangely easy to get caught up in.

Everything about Basic Instinct is played at the extremes. The cast is headlined by two of the bigger names in Hollywood at the time: Michael Douglas (who has made a career of playing the sleazeball) as Nick Curran, a detective for the San Francisco Police Department, and Sharon Stone, as millionaire pulp writer Catherine Trammell. The plot is full of twists and turns – the film opens with a murder, and Curran investigates, discovering that the girlfriend (or, more accurately, fuck-buddy) of the deceased, the aforementioned Catherine, wrote a novel years ago describing the murder of a similar character, dispatched in the very same way as the victim in Nick’s case. (The plot only becomes more convoluted and ridiculous from that point on, and would take far too long to outline .) The soundtrack of the film is loaded front to back with dramatic strings and sharp musical stings, scored as if by Bernard Herrmann on a coke bender. And that doesn’t even touch on the most notorious (and perhaps appealing) aspect of the film – the sex.

I can scarcely think of a major Hollywood release featuring two stars which contains more graphic frontal nudity and comparitively explicit sex scenes than Basic Instinct – you’d have to go to arthouse releases or independent films (like Last Tango in Paris or In the Realm of the Senses, to name a couple of examples) to find more sexually explicit narratives than the stuff on display here, mostly courtesy of Sharon Stone, who has never been shy about baring her body on camera and flaunts her goods from every imaginable angle here. I can’t think of another star actress who has bared so much so often in a single movie. (Not that I’m complaining…)

Sharon Stone

Stone in her most famous scene in Basic Instinct.

The film plays out in conventional terms – Curran, an alcoholic who has been investigated by Internal Affairs for the accidental shootings of multiple citizens in the line of duty, becomes dangerously entangled with Trammell and begins to become to close to the case to know where his priorities lie. Curran’s coworkers, and his best friend Gus, begin to become concerned with his erratic and reckless behavior, and Curran becomes implicated in some shady plots that arise. This is well-tread territory, but the lengths the script goes are amusing. Written by Joe Eszterhas (also credited with the script for Showgirls and a contributor to Flashdance), his work for Basic Instinct was subject to a bidding war, in which Carolco was the victor (for a tidy $3 million).

In the hands of many directors, this material could have been unintentionally funny camp, but for it to fall into Paul Verhoeven’s hands was a brilliant stroke of luck. This is the sort of material Verhoeven thrives with – exactly the sort of overamped, clichéd script he worked with on Total Recall and Starship Troopers, both of which are biting satire (despite having the subtlety of a sledgehammer) while being totally faithful to the conventions of their genres and working as entertainment on a surface level as well. In this regard, Verhoeven is sort of like a sleazy, modern version of Douglas Sirk, the 60s director who came to prominence as the director of Technicolor melodramas which reveled in the absurdities of their contrived storylines and overdramatic characters while remaining compelling examples of the melodrama they were poking fun at. (That’s not to say that Verhoeven is of the stature or quality of Sirk, of course, and Verhoeven’s films are lacking in the sort of psychosexual subtext that Sirk’s melodramas were known for.)

The hotshot, rogue cop is a staple of this type of material, to the point that the trope is continually poked fun at (one Simpsons episode has Homer watching an episode of a police procedural named McGonigle, in which a police chief is overheard telling the titular character “You’re off the case!” If you’ve heard that one once…). And alcohol is as essential to a movie detective as guns to an action hero. But Curran is more than just a hotshot cop – he’s also an obvious adrenaline junkie. How else do you explain a detective that has been implicated in the accidental shootings of four separate citizens as an undercover narc, or one who could become romantically (or sexually) entangled with a woman suspected in multiple brutal murders and remains throughout much of the film the only plausible suspect for the very case Curran is investigating? And more than most of this type of character, Curran has a reckless abandon for his own safety, not only facing danger as it comes to him but suicidally seeking out dangerous situations. This isn’t particularly deep material, but it does give Curran’s character a psychological edge that make him more interesting than most of his kind.

One of the more obvious contrivances of the film is just how convenient it is that the story could have been resolved with either of two plausible suspects – the only two the film presents, and each equally likely, with no more justification needed than the writer’s own preference. In any other film, this would be cause for complaint, but given the level of parody here, it’s a great way of sending up the inherent flimsiness and stupidity of most scripts of this type. Good parody takes, if not necessarily a love for the material it’s sending up, a deep-seated familiarity with it, and Verhoeven is obviously familiar with enough with pulp clichés to skewer them quite effectively.

Most of all, the film is a goldmine of sleazy, campy humor. How, for example, can you not laugh at Michael Douglas, in a drug-fueled dance club, clad in blue jeans and a v-neck with no undershirt, looking in a bathroom as Sharon Stone and her lesbian girlfriend grind on a toilet seat while their effeminate male friend supplies them coke? Or Douglas driving his car up the steps of a hilly San Francisco street in a car chase? Basic Instinct continually pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness and goes so far over the top at times that you can’t help but laugh. It’s the fact that the movie remains as effective as straight neo-noir melodrama, despite its absurdities and contrivances, that is the real surprise. Maybe it’s the fact that every actor in the movie plays the material with utter conviction, never betraying any indication that they’re in on the joke, that makes it as strong as it is. Douglas is, as always, the perfect sleaze, and Stone (even when she has her clothes on) is the best imaginable fit in the role of the sultry, mysterious Trammell.

Whatever it is, it makes Basic Instinct, as dumb and dirty as it is, a lot of fun to watch. Nobody will mistake the film for high art – or art period, perhaps – but if you’re gonna play it over the top, you may as well go all the way. That’s certainly never been a problem for Verhoeven.