'Fatal Instinct' Is Still a Funny Swipe at Erotic Thrillers' Dumb Sexiness

Carl Reiner's 1993 parody still holds up, even when erotic thrillers don't.
October 18, 2017, 3:09pm

In the early 90s, the genre of the erotic thriller—with its glossy surfaces and seductive double-crosses—was king. The same slick provocation that made films like Basic Instinct popular enough that countless imitators lined the video store shelves also became a ripe target for parody. By definition, erotic thrillers are over-the-top and run on a surplus of horniness. Could the tropes of the genre translate to a feature length comedy? The ingeniously titled 1993 film Fatal Instinct (an obvious portmanteau of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct), directed by none other than comedy legend Carl Reiner, sought to answer this question.


Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show and a stalwart of the comedy world since the 50s, may have initially seemed an odd choice for spoofing a genre so intimately connected with the 80s and 90s—but he directed Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the second of his fruitful quartet of Steve Martin–starring films, in 1982. If one can parody film noir, a genre that had an outsize influence on erotic thrillers, you're already halfway toward giving erotic thrillers the parody they deserve.
Every erotic thriller worth its salt has a twisty (and, often, convoluted) plot and a femme fatale.

Fatal Instinct pushes the genre to newly ridiculous levels by making the protagonist, Ned Ravine (Armand Assante), a police officer-slash-lawyer who defends the people he arrests. Sean Young, who elegantly channeled noir style in Blade Runner, is femme fatale Lola Cain, bringing both glamour and goofy physical humor (she parodies Sharon Stone's infamous Basic Instinct leg uncrossing by loudly announcing "I'm not wearing panties!" and inelegantly opening her legs as wide as possible); Ned's dutiful secretary, Laura Lingonberry, is played by none other than a post–Audrey Horne Sherilyn Fenn; the plot, with its seductions, murders, and trials, is largely incidental. Like the contemporary Naked Gun series, Fatal Instinct traffics in a brand of spoof-y humor that values visual and verbal gags over a strong narrative.

Critics dismissed the film upon release; Roger Ebert wrote that "it's a strange thing about the parody genre: Some of these movies work… and some don't. And you can't say why, except that sometimes you laugh, and sometimes you don't." But even as it's unlikely to earn a place in the comedic pantheon among Reiner's earlier works, Fatal Instinct deserves a second look. The film reminds us just how subjective Ebert's assessment of the parody genre is: I laughed many times, recognizing some of the jokes as delightfully dumb and others as surprisingly clever. It seems flippant to say the film simply doesn't work.

In fact, Fatal Instinct achieves most of what it sets out to do, using audience expectations associated with erotic thrillers to tee up laughs. It's inevitable that the bunny-boiling scene from Fatal Attraction will be parodied, but when the moment turns out to be Lola boiling a pot of spaghetti, it's oddly satisfying. There's also a strain of meta-humor running throughout the film; in one scene, the camera lens "shatters" as it knocks into a surface during an elaborate tracking shot, and later, the dramatic score gets turned on and off on a CD player.

Of course, dumb jokes figure heavily here, too: In a courtroom scene, a mention of a press room leads to people pressing clothes, and a mention of court recess leads to—you guessed it—jurors going outside for a grade-school-style recess. One's mileage may vary with this type of humor, and some may say there's a limit on the effectiveness of silly, literalizing jokes. While it's true that not every joke lands, enough of them do to make the film worth watching.

In his review, Ebert chided the cast for being too good for the material, an odd complaint if there ever was one—if they weren't good enough, wouldn't that just merit further criticism? Assante doesn't give the most compelling performance, which ironically places him in the erotic thriller tradition of leading men overshadowed by seductive women. Young, on the other hand, is delightful, whether she's stepping on toilet paper as she seductively sashays, getting mustard spritzed on her blouse (while holding a phallic hotdog), or riding a roller coaster with a skunk (don't ask).

In the 24 years since the release of Fatal Instinct, the erotic thriller has largely receded from its position of cultural prominence. The film couldn't be made today, and for that reason, and the fact that there's a scene featuring Fenn in a novelty beer can hat (again, don't ask), it deserves more attention. "Erotic thriller parody" is a glorious phrase that can't be used to define any other film.

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