Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Color of Night
As we’ve discussed previously, the film industry is pretty susceptible to waves and trends. Many of the movies profiled here exist because of Star Wars and its box office power. Others come into being because rival studios want to be the first to get a volcano film to market. Nowadays, the push-pull of trends has lapsed into a fairly steady stream of franchise pictures built on the spines of graphic novels and the fandoms of old. But in the 1990s, before Hollywood was confident it could make a movie based on Guardians of the Galaxy, trends shifted fast and one of the most surprising was the arrival of the mainstream erotic thriller.
They’d been around for some time, of course. They’re sort of a titillating cousin to serious films about infidelity and/or political intrigue that were also once popular. But with the box office success of Basic Instinct — a film which is also a successful pastiche of the detective genre — studios felt the time was right to bring a lot more skin into their films aimed at a mature audience.
Wait, that makes it sound like porn. How about their adult audience? No, that’s worse. Their, um … “non-family” audience.
Like the rush to make Sci-Fi films in the early 80s, drawers were dropped and plots from 40s noir flicks were purloined while studios tried to figure out just how much flesh they could show before the MPAA’s ratings board would tut-tut at them and declare a scene too racy. One such studio was Hollywood Pictures. Though a division of Disney, their mandate was to make movies aimed at the “non-family” viewers who were uninterested in the comedies of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label or the animated product of the main Disney brand. They were not terribly successful in this endeavor as a popular saying at the time said, in reference to the Hollywood Pictures vanity card, “If it’s the sphinx, it stinks.” Despite their failure to produce a highly successful project for Disney CEO Michael Eisner, their rush to join the erotic thriller train offers us one of the cheesiest and most entertaining bad movies you’ll ever watch: Color of Night.
Bruce Willis stars as Dr. Bill Capa, a disillusioned New York psychologist who can no longer see the color red after one of his patients jumps out the window of his 49th floor office. Taking a break from his Manhattan life, he visits his college roommate and fellow shrink Dr. Bob Moore (Scott Bakula) in sunny Los Angeles. Bob’s life seems charmed: he and his wife finally split up, he’s seeing a much younger woman and his book, Way to Go, is a bestseller. But he also runs a particularly difficult therapy group as part of his practice. In a seeming unorthodox approach, each member of the group has wildly different problems. There’s Clark (Brad Dourif), a compulsive counter and neat-freak; Buck (Lance Henriksen), an ex-cop with anger issues; Ritchie [actor’s name redacted], a young man with gender identity issues and a severe stutter; Sondra (Lesley Ann Warren), a nymphomaniac with klepto tendencies; and Casey (Kevin J. O’Connor), a neurotic artist.
With a collection of appealing leads like Willis and Bakula — to say nothing of the stellar supporting cast — you would think everything is set for a highly entertaining film about everybody sleeping with Sondra. But no! Bob is murdered in his office and Beverly Hills Police Detective Lt. Martinez (Ruben Blades) suggests to Capa that he break the news to the group; believing one of them to be the killer. They convince him to take Bob’s place as their therapist.
Oh, also, Capa meets Rose (Jane March), a young woman who is allergic to clothing and wants little else than to engage in sex with Capa.
And if all the perfunctory set-up seems rather pedestrian … well, that’s not the charm. Instead, Color of Night‘s greatest appeal as a cheesy flick is the way it screws up the erotic thriller, to say nothing of the thriller in general, and takes all of this exposition into strange, wonderful, and laughable directions. Visually, there are a prodigious number of showy compositions and camera tricks like split diopter shots, crash zooms and racking focus. For reasons that are never quite clear, Capa narrates his thoughts every time Rose comes for a visit. Martinez frisks a random passerby when Capa tells him he’s taking over the group. Someone leaves a snake in Bob’s mailbox, leaving Capa freaked out when he tries to get the mail. Oh, also, Capa just sort of assumes Bob’s life by taking over his practice and moving into his house after his friend and colleague is brutally murdered. You’d think there would be some sort of will or something, but the movie has other priorities.
You might be surprised to learn that sex scenes are not one of them. Besides the infamous pool sex moment in which you see more of Willis than you might want — which the Ratings Board deemed too much and the producers removed from the theatrical version — and a follow-up quickie a few minutes later, the movie is sort of light on the sex. Also, what sex is there is not terribly erotic as director Richard Rush stages the scenes — and almost every subsequent shot of March naked — in a way that leaves you puzzled as to how you are supposed to be turned on. The movie tries to peke the the viewer’s curiosity with the suggestion of BDSM and a lesbian tryst, but seems to only grasp these concepts as a thing it heard their friend talk about once. The sex acts depicted do not appear as authentic and the relationship between Willis and March might as well be CGI.
When not hanging out poolside with Rose (or sexing her up inside the pool), Capa does some investigating as the erotic thriller is meant to be, y’know, a thriller. To this end, he also finds his way into car chases that are as bizarre and misguided as the sex scenes. One, in which the killer positions a car to fall of the edge of a parking garage and onto Capa, might be the worst car stunt of the 1990s. Also, there is the incredibly limp twist that will be immediately apparent in the first group therapy scene.
Nonetheless, Color of Night manages to be entertaining in spite of everything it gets wrong. Also, its self-serious tone makes it funnier than a lot of comedies. And that’s really the key. If Color of Night were self-aware, it would lose a lot of its appeal. At the same time, I’d be willing to accept that the supporting cast knew exactly what movie they were in while Willis and March drowned because they thought they were making a contender for Basic Instinct status. Certainly O’Connor, Henriksen and Warren are capable of very dry satire. But Color of Night gives the viewer the impression that everyone thought they were making a legitimate upscale erotic thriller; which makes the cheese factor all the more satisfying.
Color of Night is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and for keepsake purchase on DVD.