What makes a cinematic guilty pleasure? Guilt obviously, the feeling that you shouldn’t be enjoying the movie as much as you do, and that you’ve somehow failed to comply with some abstract code of celluloid decency. This makes secrecy another prerequisite as well. Behind closed doors you’re getting your rocks off, but it’s a personal self-indulgence you’d rather not broadcast to the world.
Eddie Hawkins knows all about the stealth needed for guilty pleasures. As the star criminal in the naff but always watchable Hudson Hawk, he’s the world’s greatest cat burglar, a waist-coated wise-cracker stealing priceless Leonardo artefacts with boyish glee, crooning musical numbers along the way and forever sporting his trademark smirk.
The public weren’t amused. Hudson Hawk bombed at the box office and was savaged by the critics for its incoherent jumble of surreal farce, childlike heroics, searing violence and laddish humour. Yet I’ll be forever fond of the Hawk, not least for some truly inspired set-pieces and its playful sense of comic abandon. No one seems to know what they’re doing, but they seem to have a great time doing it, and the whole escapade reminds me of immature schoolboys getting carried away by the silliness of their own pranks.
Another group of ne’er do wells with a flair for improvisation are the rapists, murderers and thieves of Fiorina 161, the prison setting for the much-pilloried Alien 3. Deprived of weaponry, this foul-mouthed fraternity of convicts are forced to make do and mend, resorting to a high-stakes game of chase to trap their fellow bald-headed inmate, a predatory alien which explodes from their pet rottweiler’s stomach.
To many, Alien 3 is a dog of a movie, the moment when the franchise crash-lands like the Sulaco’s escape pod, leaving its cast and crew to fumble around in the dark, slowly getting picked off by the weight of expectation and the story’s ill-conceived premise. Like Ripley impregnated with the Queen, Alien 3 feels doomed from the start. But it’s this self-destructive quality (both film and heroine literally go out in a blaze of glory) that I love most about David Fincher’s debut.
However much he may have loathed making it, I can’t help but admire the twenty-something director’s balls for taking it on. Fincher rose from the purgatory of Alien 3 like a phoenix from the flames, and the experience became a rite de passage that’s helped make him one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors.
As one filmmaker bloomed in the nineties, another one slipped into decline. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is a guilty pleasure if ever there was one, a movie I love for all the wrong reasons. Intended as a provocative black comedy about our overstimulated society, Stone’s satire is guilty of the very thing it condemns, descending into an orgiastic paean to the adrenaline rush of killing people with firearms.
It is an epic misfire, but a sensational watch. Turbocharged by manic, over-the-top performances, pungent dialogue, staggeringly good editing and audacious cinematography , Natural Born Killers is one of the most visually inventive films of the nineties, so true to the MTV-style pyrotechnics that defined much of that decade’s media output. Yet it’s a style which feels so empty now: showy, without finesse and lacking any genuine feeling.
Equally shallow is Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, the finest guilty pleasure movie of them all, where cold-blooded murder fuses with the white heat of orgasm in a ludicrously lurid way. I love this film because its San Francisco setting, blond-brunette dichotomy, overhead staircase shots and theme of sexual obsession remind me so much of Vertigo, my favourite all-time movie, but with sex, violence and pointless car chases tacked on for good measure.
Basic Instinct takes itself very seriously, but in the end it’s as silly and enjoyable as Hudson Hawk. Michael Douglas is brilliant as that classic movie cliché, the-burnt-out-cop-on-the-edge-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-gets-in-over-his-head-and-goes-out-of-control, while Sharon Stone is sublime as the neo-noir femme fatale, the movie’s real alpha male, wielding her sexual charisma and phallic ice pick with cool, masturbatory élan.
|Ice Queen: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992)|
All these movies were released between 1991 and 1994, a time when I went from being 13 to 16. It’s a period when you enjoy many things that aren’t good for you, and relish guilty pleasures of the, ahem… private kind. I still remember the thrill of watching the films illicitly as pirate copies too, a susceptible boy looking in on an adult world that I didn’t have the facial hair to access legitimately.
Back then, these films seemed so very grown-up. Now, they feel like the exact opposite. For all their adult themes, they’re jubilantly adolescent in spirit, sacrificing depth for cheap thrills, favouring style over substance and remaining deeply unsure about what they’re trying to be.
That’s the essence of cinematic guilty pleasures, I suppose: nostalgic treats transporting you back to a confused but carefree time when it felt adventurous and exciting to follow your basic instincts. In public of course, grown-ups will describe adolescents as selfish, stupid and lacking in self-awareness. Secretly though, you can bet they wouldn’t mind relishing that period of their lives all over again.