‘Basic Instinct,’ which once caused a fervor, returns to theaters in 4K restoration

Strange San Francisco film gets 30th anniversary rerelease

When the San Francisco-set thriller “Basic Instinct” unfurls onscreen — in a new 4K restoration — this Friday at the newly refurbished Opera Plaza Cinema, it’s unlikely to cause the kind of fervor it created 30 years ago.

Controversy arose early when screenwriter Joe Eszterhas sold his script for an unheard-of $3 million. During filming in The City, protesters began voicing their concerns about the negative portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. And then, just before release, director Paul Verhoeven was forced to cut some 40 seconds of footage to avoid a dreaded NC-17 rating.

The film opened in San Francisco on March 20, 1992, amidst a fresh stream of protestors, many of whom were ready to give away the film’s secret ending to anyone hoping to enter the theater.

It received conflicting reviews, with some critics praising the film’s high style and erotic steaminess, and others charging the film with being excessive, manipulative, callous and even offensive. (A friend of mine nicknamed it “Basically It-stinks.”)

Critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film seemed to have been constructed so that any of the characters could have been the killer, with only one scene needing to be changed, depending on how test audiences liked the characters.

Even so, audiences swarmed to the movie, paying $15 million for tickets in the opening weekend alone — the second-place film, “Wayne’s World,” took in $7 million — and became the fourth highest grossing film of the year with a worldwide total of $352 million.

“Basic Instinct” opened in San Francisco on March 20, 1992 amidst a stream of protestors, many of whom were ready to give away the film’s secret ending to anyone hoping to enter the theater. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

“Basic Instinct” opened in San Francisco on March 20, 1992 amidst a stream of protestors, many of whom were ready to give away the film’s secret ending to anyone hoping to enter the theater. (Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

It was known that stars Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn performed their own sex scenes, without body doubles (although Douglas refused to do full-frontal nudity or to allow his character to be bisexual).

But many viewers were unprepared for the moment in which Stone, interrogated by police, uncrosses and re-crosses her legs.

Stone had an undeniable charisma in the role of the prickly, alluring Catherine Tramell, which had been turned down by at least a dozen Hollywood A-listers. And so, 12 years after her screen debut as “pretty girl on train” in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” she became a huge star overnight.

In 1998, she became San Francisco royalty when she married then-executive editor of the Examiner Phil Bronstein, a glamorous, tumultuous, headline-grabbing relationship that ended in divorce in 2004.

Stone appeared in a belated 2006 sequel, one that Douglas, Verhoeven and Eszterhas wanted nothing to do with. It was laughed off the screen and grossed a paltry $5.9 million at the U.S. box office. The original can only look good by comparison.

How did such an incendiary movie get made during one of the tamest times in Hollywood history? Perhaps its two creators are the source.

Director Verhoeven has never made a safe film in his career. He began with a handful of edgy Dutch-language films in his native Netherlands, before coming to Hollywood to make a sex-and-gore movie called “Flesh + Blood.” His newest film, “Benedetta,” tells the story of a nun who faces punishment for a LGBTQ+ relationship.

Eszterhas, who was born in Hungary, was a kindred spirit. He was a journalist and a hard drinker who tried his hand at screenwriting and found immediate success with his larger-than-life touches.

In a 2006 interview, Eszterhas told me the idea for the film sprung from his time as a reporter. “This cop always ended up in a shooting and I thought he liked it too much,” he said.

He wrote the script — originally entitled “Love Hurts” — in 10 days, saying “I heard these voices in my head and I was literally striving to keep up with the voices.” He describes pounding the script out with two fingers on a manual typewriter, and keeping a dozen other machines on hand because they kept falling apart from the beatings.

The new restoration — struck from the original 35mm negative and supervised by Verhoeven — comes on the eve of the film’s 30th anniversary. Now that things have cooled down a bit, maybe it’s time for another look at this strange film.

IF YOU GO: “Basic Instinct: The 4K Restoration”

Starring Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Written by Joe Eszterhas

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Rated R for strong violence and sensuality, and for drug use and language

Running time 127 minutes

Plays Nov. 26 to Dec. 2 at the Opera Plaza Cinema; Friday is Bay Area premiere

After mob thefts, Black Friday offers glimmers of hope for retailers

Shoppers hunted for deals amidst heightened security

By Sydney Johnson
SF unveils plan to encourage holiday shopping at small businesses

Effort includes trolley to take shoppers into neighborhoods

By Bay City News
California leaders must crack down on brazen ‘flash mob’ retail looting and robbery

Group robbery in Union Square and in other cities requires strategic response

By The Examiner Editorial Board