Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
As two gay men, we have opted to use the moniker “Horror Queers” for this series of articles. It is a word that has a complicated history due to its derogatory use by bullies and hateful people, but has increasingly been adopted as a term of empowerment and a unifying term that recognizes the many complex identities that make up the LGBTIQQ community. Queer has become commonplace in academia, politics and pop culture over the past three decades. We understand and recognize that the term is still very hurtful for some people, but we believe that the more people that proudly reclaim it, the more the wounds and stigma surrounding the term are reduced. Using the word “queer” is intensely personal, but it is a decision that we are committed to. Please don’t be an asshole when using it and we’ll get along fine.
***SPOILERS for Sliver follow.***
Synopsis for Sliver: Book editor and recent divorcee Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into exclusive New York City apartment building “Sliver”, whose secretive tenants include video game designer Zeke (William Baldwin), novelist Jack (Tom Berenger), and fashion model Vida (Polly Walker). Carly soon becomes embroiled in an intimate and dangerous investigation into the mysterious death of Naomi Singer (Allison Mackie), the former resident of her apartment who looked just like her and recently plummeted off of the balcony to her death.
Queer Aspect: Billy Baldwin has a rockin’ bod and the sex scenes rival the campiness of Showgirls.
I was relatively young when screenwriter Joe Eszterhas briefly took Hollywood by storm with a flurry of cliché, sordid erotic thrillers. I remember that Basic Instinct was a huge hit in 1992, but I didn’t know that it was notoriously protested by lesbians and bisexuals in the same way that Cruising was. I vaguely recall adult fans of NYPD Blue commenting on David Caruso’s ill-advised decision to leave the series to do dreck like 1995’s Jade and of course there was no escaping the controversy around Showgirls’ X rating.
Absent from my knowledge of Eszterhas’ filmography: 1993’s Sliver. I didn’t discover this one until many years later when I began making my way through all of the 80s/90s sleazy sex thrillers when I was doing research for a course I was prepping. The cover art, featuring the building and a still of one of the film’s many torrid sex scenes, was provocative and narratively unhelpful all at once. The cast was surprisingly stacked with 90s stars (Stone, Baldwin) and character actors I liked (Martin Landau! CCH Pounder!), but the title itself was a complete unknown. Why had I never heard of Sliver?
I remember being disappointed the first time I watched this, but found I remembered virtually nothing going into the rewatch for this column. I selected it for my “off cycle” pick because I vaguely remembered how…memorable…Baldwin’s body is, and I knew that Eszterhas never met an erotic thriller trope he couldn’t turn into pure sleaze, so I figured we would have plenty to talk about.
Whoo boy…what a mess! This turned out to be a much more appropriate pick than I had anticipated because the camp value of this film is HIGH. What is going on with Stone’s acting choices? WTF is up with the pacing, which lilts all over the place? And we haven’t even gotten to the hilariously terrible sex scenes (mmmm column sex) and the botched double ending that doesn’t reflect the film’s troubled production and battles with the MPAA so much as a defeated decision to lay down and die without attempting to provide any kind of satisfying closure.
What’s most interesting to me is the pedigree of both the original source material and the story. I’ve seen all of the adaptations of Ira Levin’s work and in hindsight, it seems to be notoriously tricky. Do it right and you get Rosemary’s Baby and the original Stepford Wives. Do it badly and you get the Stepford Wives remake and this. That is a steep pass/fail ratio.
I’ve convinced that the idea of a woman who falls prey to the seductive powers of voyeurism is a solid concept for a film. Partnering it with an erotic thriller, which is all about watching, being watched and the implications of both sides, is particularly topical for the early 90s when the balance of power is shifting from older technologies to more modern ones (represented in the film by Carly’s old-timey telescope and Zeke’s state of the art 007 villain lair). The use of the seductive, exclusive high rise building as a societal microcosm is a longstanding genre metaphor; throwing diverse people into small enclosed cubes that are stacked according to wealth and status is a recipe for conflict, particularly when one individual has the ability to play god.
It should work, but the execution and those restrictive censorship battles clearly took their toll. What did you think, Trace? Tell your initial impressions: what – if anything – works for you? And where do you think the film goes wrong?
Take your time. I’ll just be over here stroking my volcano centerpiece, watching all of the POC that the film only bothers to show on video screens.
WHOA, Joe. Let’s not put down that remake of The Stepford Wives just yet. Is it a mess? Absolutely. But is it hilariously entertaining? Most definitely. I would watch that movie a thousand times over the “film” that is Sliver because, hoo boy, this film is a turkey. There aren’t even that many sex scenes! There are two or three at most. I can handle a bad film being bad; what I can’t handle is a boring film, and Sliver is the latter. Imagine what this film would have been if Roman Polanski had directed it, like Ira Levin wanted?
Are we supposed to care about these characters? One of the reviews I dug up referred to Carly as a cipher, and that description couldn’t be more spot on. I never knew what Carly wanted or how she was feeling. This worked for Stone in Basic Instinct because the role of Catherine Trammell called for it, but Carly is the protagonist of this film. She is meant to be the audience surrogate. Why should I care that Tom Berenger broke into her apartment and is waiting for her to come home when she doesn’t even care? Stone looks utterly bored throughout all of her scenes except the aforementioned column sex scene which, well, that is a scene. Reading that Entertainment Weekly article you linked to, it makes sense. Stone didn’t want to do Sliver because it was too similar to Basic Instinct. If only her jealousy (or is it pride?) hadn’t gotten the better of her.
Joe, you are right in that the concept of a woman giving in to the voyeurism is interesting though. The problem in Sliver, however, is that they wait until 80 minutes into the film to really address it, and by that point there are only 25 minutes left in the movie! So by the time the script really starts to delve deep into the effect that voyeurism can have on a person, the movie just….ends. The same goes for the murder mystery aspect. There isn’t enough focus given to that subplot to make it interesting (though the opening scene is pretty solid, even if it calls to mind Maggie’s death in Child’s Play). The resolution is so anticlimactic! I know it has to do with the reshot ending, but Berenger’s character is arrested before it is even confirmed that he is the villain so there isn’t even a big final showdown between Stone and Berenger! He just gets arrested and later we see him murdering Naomi on Zeke’s surveillance footage.
Now, I don’t walk into an erotic thriller for tastefulness, but Sliver comes off as particularly tacky in some areas, the tackiest of which is the child abuse storyline that has no resolution. Why even include it as a subplot if you’re not going to give it the proper attention? I’m assuming this was included because it was a part of the novel’s narrative, but…why? Is it to show how Carly’s morality is wavering as she begins to accept her voyeuristic tendencies? Okay, fine, but the movie essentially ends with Carly turning against them and still doesn’t say anything about this girl whose stepfather is raping her! It left an awful taste in my mouth.
What did work for me is the fact that Sliver is an equal opportunist when it comes nudity. Yes, Sharon Stone gets the brunt of it (I can’t recall if we see her vagina but her tits and ass are all over the place), but Baldwin’s booty gets a fair amount of screen time and we even get a penis shot in one of his video feeds (I was watching the R-rated version too)! Full-frontal male nudity wasn’t a new thing in the ‘90s, but it wasn’t exactly commonplace, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that in Sliver. Those sex scenes though, yeesh. That column sex scene almost puts Showgirls’ pool sex scene to shame.
Also working in the film’s favor are the moments when it leans into the campy aspects you mention. Just look at practically anything that Colleen Camp (whom readers may recognize as Yvette from Clue) says (“Isn’t Pearl Jam some sort of Oriental sex thing?” or “I’m getting a plastic yeast infection!”) and Sliver is frequently (unintentionally?) laugh-out-loud funny. The dinner scene, in which the elderly couple watches Zeke ask Carly to remove her panties in a crowded restaurant, is also highly amusing. If only Sliver had had more scenes like that! Also, Zeke’s Bond villain lair is one for the books. The fact that the film’s original ending featured Zeke and Carly’s airplane diving into an active volcano seems appropriate. That’s where his second evil lair is!
Joe, do you think Sliver is intentionally campy? Do you agree we needed more of Colleen Camp’s character? Did you cringe at the line “Do you have any body parts that hurt?”? And does everyone really have a telescope, as Carly suggests?
Do I think Sliver is intentionally campy? Oh hell no. I think that this film has clusterfuck written all over it. It was clearly a victim of cuts and edits that made it into a fairly nonsensical erotic thriller, but even if you account for that, there’s still so much in Sliver that doesn’t work that I’m certain this was a mess from the very beginning (though a Polanski version would have made for a much more interesting mess, to be sure).
As you rightfully pointed out, there are quite a few bright sections hidden amidst the lows. The dinner sequence when Carly plays along with Zeke is arguably both sexy and silly – the reactions of the older restaurant patrons are either intended to mirror the audience’s or underline how juvenile Carly and Zeke’s antics are. That’s a delicate line to tread, but considering how new their romance is, it works. And it’s intentionally funny, which is something that Sliver doesn’t often accomplish.
Watching the film through 2018 eyes is very different than what I imagine a 90s screening would have been like. I don’t know that Carly’s reaction to the little girl’s molestation would have ever played well (using a child’s trauma as a stopover on your protagonist’s character arc isn’t appropriate in ANY decade), but Carly’s reactions to Berenger’s continual sexual harassment and home invasions were confounding! Her casual response to finding a strange man in her dark apartment is insane, particularly when juxtaposed with her flip-out after he scares her in the park. I don’t know if this speaks more to how Stone is playing the character (somnambulist mode activate!) or how Eszterhas writes her, but it defies explanation.
I haven’t seen Jade in nearly two decades, but from what I remember of that hot mess, I’m prepared to place the majority of the blame for Sliver on the screenplay. Looking at Eszterhas’ oeuvre, it’s clear that he has a very specific (read: simplistic, offensive) perspective on women, sex and sexuality; not only do his screenplays lack nuance and depth, but the finished result tends to play to society’s fears about sexually forward women. Not unlike the 50s melodramas that allowed women to adopt modern roles before punishing them with misery and death, Eszterhas writes female-centric narratives that chastise women for daring to have sexual impulses.
What saddens me is how director Phillip Noyce suffered for this. Looking back over his filmography, he’s clearly a talented director. I would argue that one of the film’s strengths is how desolate and brutal the high-rise looks. I love Zeke’s pulpy villain lair because it is so ridiculous, but Noyce still manages to create a hazy disorienting vibe when Carly succumbs to the visual pleasures of the building residents’ soap opera lives. Eszterhas contributed a nonsensical script that included a fucking volcano dive; Noyce brought some film noir sexiness and tasteful Baldwin nudity (ohh that scene when he’s sitting spread eagle on the bed with juuuust enough shadow to cover his dirty bits!).
As for performances, I’m not sure that anyone really acquits themselves here. Stone in particular is utterly atrocious; I truly don’t understand her creative decisions and Carly’s complete lack of believable reactions to everything is bizarre. Calling the character a cipher is 100% accurate. Baldwin is better, though the role hardly requires him to do more than look hot and act enigmatic. Berenger is over the top and so obviously a villain from the very first moment he’s introduced that it’s laughable to consider anyone else being the killer.
I didn’t actually care for Colleen Camp, if we’re being honest. That character felt like she was in a completely different movie. If everyone else were cracking one-liners or if this were a parody of erotic thrillers, then it might have worked, but to me she felt out of place. I mostly just wanted more Landau and CCH Pounder, who I loooove, but neither of them really have anything to do other than show up and grab a paycheck.
As for everyone having a telescope…of course! If you live in a high-rise and aren’t spying on your neighbours, you’re doing it wrong. 😉
Joe, whatever movie Camp was in is the movie I wanted to be watching! She sticks out like a sore thumb but, unlike Stone, at least she’s interested in whatever it is that’s happening on screen. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Camp is the campiest thing about the movie (sorry). Sidebar: Thank you so much for making me Google CCH Pounder because I have seen that woman in so many things but never put a name to a face. I thought CCH Pounder was a wrestler. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I don’t know if I fully buy into your theory that Eszterhas’ narratives chastise women who have sexual impulses. After all Catherine Tramell won in Basic Instinct (though the argument with her is that she’s portrayed as a predatory lesbian) and Nomi Malone is an insufferable twat in Showgirls. With Eszterhas’ quartet of erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct, Sliver, Showgirls and Jade), it could be argued that it’s a fear of the female gender, as opposed to female sexuality, if only because he insists upon writing characters that he clearly doesn’t understand. That mindset might feel antiquated, but I was reminded of our harsh reality today when the first publicity still for the next Terminator movie was released. Just read some of the comments on this article: they are vile, disgusting and hateful. All because the first publicity still of this “macho” franchise (which has always been about female empowerment) dares to focus on its three lead female characters. And don’t even get me started on the comments regarding Mackenzie Davis’ appearance. Eszterhas’ scripts aren’t anywhere near as offensive as the Terminator comments, but they do fall in the same ballpark: fear of females.
It’s no surprise that his career took a sharp downturn in the late ‘90s. Other than the one-two punch of box office failure from Showgirls and Jade in the same year (they were released just one month apart from each other!), audiences and critics were simply over his schtick. The man has only written one film post-2000 and it was 12 years ago. He has written five books since 2000 though, so he’s probably doing okay for himself. Noyce (you can’t tell, but I’m giggling right now because I just binged all of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and all I can think of is Andy Samberg saying “noice” instead of “nice”) hasn’t fared nearly as poorly, however. He still directed The Bone Collector, The Saint, The Quiet American and 2016’s Roots mini-series after this.
I do want to address the original ending of the film one more time. Yes, Zeke and Carly dive into a volcano before the film blacks out, but in that ending Zeke is the killer. It’s clear that Berenger was acting as a red herring for the whole film, which is why when he is revealed as the killer in the theatrical cut it feels like an underwhelming afterthought. It’s almost as if the editor was like “Oh right, we have to reveal the killer” in the days leading up to the film’s release. This is just one of those instances where a studio shouldn’t have listened to test audiences. You see, they took issue with Carly turning immoral and choosing to stay with the villain of the film. Even if that ending wouldn’t have saved the film, it’s at least more interesting than the ending we got.
Overall, Sliver is a total miss for me. It’s dull and it’s not sexy. This is a shame for both Stone and Eszterhas, especially coming off the tour de force that is Basic Instinct. What 1993 audiences must have thought walking out of the theater! Think about how disappointed they must have been!
Next time on Horror Queers: we’re venturing to Norway to check out Joachim Trier’s 2017 thriller Thelma. Expect snakes, ballet and telekinesis.
Sliver is available for free on Amazon Prime. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles right here!