Paul Verhoeven’s notorious Vegas stripper melodrama Showgirls might be a horror movie in disguise
Decades after 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and decades prior to 2016’s The Neon Demon, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven‘s Showgirls, the over-the-top tale of ill-gotten fame, busted dreams and the skeezy, grimy underbelly of Las Vegas, dragged its garish arse across screens across the world. That the heavily-hyped project (a reunion between Verhoeven and his Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas) fell flat on its busted back, much like Gina Gershon’s Cristal does in the film, just made its myth all the more potent. And though Showgirls has been universally reviled and is now rather forcibly embraced as a cult film, the misleadingly-marketed movie is really yet another in a long line of Hollywood horror films masquerading as something else entirely.
Showgirls casts Saved by the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi, a scrappy young dancer who hitchhikes her way to Vegas with her heart full of hope and her head full of dreams. Those dreams are damaged almost right off the bat, when a cute young Elvis clone steals her suitcase and leaves her stranded in a casino parking lot. There she meets Molly (Gina Ravera), a friendly young seamstress working backstage at a big topless revue on the strip. For whatever reason, Molly takes Nomi under her wing and gives her a place to stay while she finds her footing. Nomi spends her nights peeling at a low-grade nudie bar, but after Molly takes her to work one night, she is dazzled by the lithe Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), a superstar dancer who is the centerpiece of a garish show that makes Staying Alive‘s “Satan’s Alley” number look restrained. Once Nomi locks her eyes on this prize, there’s no stopping her. Though she has admirers like the plucky blue-collar dancer James (Glenn Plummer) warning her not to crawl to deep into the belly of the beast, she refuses to listen and soon, she’s in way over her head in a parasitic world where flesh is a commodity and femininity is distorted to fit the bleakest sort of fantasy.
Showgirls may have been made in 1995, but its soul is in the 1950s. The writing is arch, the tone of the film is pitched to 11, the drama is bubbling and boiling over. Really, it’s as if Douglas Sirk directed Suspiria. It’s a cautionary tale masquerading as manic insanity and I don’t think audiences understood what they were getting. Showgirls isn’t an erotic thriller. In fact, it’s not erotic at all, this despite the endless female (and male) nudity, spurting fluids and berserk sex (watching Berkley give lap dances and screw men in swimming pools is the stuff of legend). But the sleaze here is upsetting. Ugly. Forced. Empty. Showgirls is as tawdry and lurid as it is reputed to be, but and that’s what gives it its feral soul; its grime is essential to the story.
But really what Verhoeven and Eszterhas are doing here is painting a sperm and blood-stained black velvet painting of a festering sore of a world; an empty, black hole that sucks in delusional, naive, men and women, turning them into meat-puppet mulch and excreting them back out, robbing them of their souls and leaving them to stagger around the blinking, flashing, electric-sex-soaked landscape as something less than human. In the case of Nomi, she’s already damaged when we meet her. But she’s crawled out of some sort of muck — which we find out about explicitly in the icky climax — and she’s obviously convinced that life can’t get any worse. She’s seen the ugly. She knows the hideous. But she has no idea just how sickening a land this evil Oz really is.
I’m not sure what or who is more vile in Showgirls. Is the monster Gershon’s Cristal, a slinking star on the decline who sexually manipulates big time hustler/producer Zack (played with gross boyishness by Kyle MacLachlan) to get what she wants, toying with Nomi in order to suck her dry and destroy her? Or is it Zack himself, who womanizes, decimates and then keeps the she-demon husks he helps make around as busted trophies to amuse him? Is the leering choreographer who jerks his desperate dancers around emotionally and degrades them physically? Is it the malevolent Andrew Carver (William Shockley) who uses his fame, privilege and greasy charm to assault his admirers within inches of their lives? Is it Nomi, who really is such a narcissistic woman that we feel little pity for her pain during her claw to the top? Is it sex? The city itself? Or is it simply that poisonous side that pulses in all of us, the one that is desperate to be loved and admired and remembered; that ego that tricks us into thinking we’re more than we are?
This is not a bad movie, despite the dipshits at those Golden Raspberry awards telling you otherwise and the cabal of sniggering cinema hipsters who laugh at like they’re at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. No, Showgirls is really a very, very good exploitation picture about the very nature of exploitation and its dehumanizing effects.
It may not be an outright horror movie, but it’s certainly a film of many horrors…