Underrated softcore thriller is really an American giallo

It’s easy for contemporary, unschooled audiences to poke fun of the European thrillers of a certain vintage. The beautiful, broadly painted and unapologetically melodramatic Hitchcock and French New Wave informed murder mysteries made by men like Argento, Martino, Lenzi and Lado throughout the 1970’s were as eccentric as they were wildly erotic, with music slopped all over the soundtrack, characters acting like lunatics and “twists” you could generally see slinking around a mile away but didn’t care because the trip to get to them was, well, such a trip in and of itself.

That’s what made them great.

Brian DePalma understood this and much of his post-CARRIE output was as informed by the giallo as it was heavily influenced by Hitch. His 1980 murder mystery DRESSED TO KILL is a masterpiece of stylized, high-gloss perversion, lust and black-gloved, gender-confused bloodshed. As this was 1980, and coming as it did at the closing of one of the most daring decades in cinema, critics and audiences “got” DRESSED TO KILL, applauding its slick visuals and reveling in its ludicrous narrative and hysterical sexuality.

But when COLOR OF NIGHT came out in 1994, the very same folks weren’t as receptive. And the younger generation? Forget about it.

COLOR OF NIGHT spurted out of its studio at the climax of the “erotic thriller” boom that began with Adrian Lyne’s (rabbit) potboiler FATAL ATTRACTION, continued with Paul Verhoeven’s BASIC INSTINCT, was beaten (off) down by INSTINCT’s writer Joe Esterhaz’s also Sharon Stone-starring kink-fest SLIVER and smothered by William Friedkin’s undervalued JADE. SHOWGIRLS doesn’t really count as an erotic thriller but by the time that Verhoeven/Esterhaz collaboration came out cumming, the bloom was off the rose. The novelty of mainstream celeb nudity had wound down.

COLOR OF NIGHT was lost in this tsunami of gauzy smut but it wasn’t really part of it.

Marketed stupidly to fit into that world, the truth is the film is far more akin to DePalma and Hitchcock and those delirious, fluid-soaked 70’s eurotrash shocker than it is to any of its not-quite-beaded-curtain brethren.

Now, 22 years later after its release, the film can (hopefully) be seen and appreciated for the riotous, larger-than-life thriller it is, one laced with blood, eccentricity, swooning sound design, a rogues gallery of amazing character actors, relentless sex and, for the curious, a prime peek at star Bruce Willis’ impressive full-frontal member.

Director Richard (THE STUNT MAN) Rush’s opulent exploitation movie does indeed star Willis, a comic actor-turned-action-hero who left his TV career (in the hit series MOONLIGHTING) behind with his breakout role in 1987’s DIE HARD, its sequel and a glut of solid, successful thrillers that followed. Here, Willis steps away from the shoot ‘em ups to play Dr. Bill Capa, a cocky psychiatrist who has a nervous breakdown when a sexually volatile patient jumps to her bloody death from his office window, right in front of his horrified eyes. Because of this, those very eyes suddenly opt to lock out the color red (a neat gimmick that Rush exploits for the audiences benefit as well, during high-stress scenes).

Emotionally lost and unable to practice, Bill ventures to LA to hang out with his colleague and friend Dr. Bob Moore (LORD OF ILLUSIONS’ Scott Bakula) who convinces the despondent shrink to sit-in with his therapy group, a hilariously neurotic bunch of nail-biters that includes ex-cop Lance Henriksen, sex-starved but kindly nympho Lesley Ann Warren, Bakula’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS co-star Kevin J. O’Connor and the legendary Brad Dourif, here playing a slicked-down germophobe nebbish. Oh, and there’s a weird little transgender boy with a stutter named Richie in the group too, played by…well, if I told you who Richie was played by, it would decimate COLOR OF NIGHT’s big reveal.

Though, to be blunt, if you fail to see that big reveal coming, you sir/madam need to visit my friends at Spectacular Optical and get new goggles.

Anyway, one night Moore, after confessing to Willis that he’s been shagging the hottest woman in the world, is brutally murdered in slow-bloody-mo by, not a black gloved killer, but by a SILVER gloved killer. After this tragedy, Capa reluctantly forms an alliance with a distractingly ethnic police lieutenant (Ruben Blades) and takes over the group sessions, so as to suss out who the murderer might be.

At this point COLOR OF NIGHT takes its sweet time getting to know these colorful kooks, with Capa slyly asking the questions and Rush allowing his remarkable cast to go over the top, devouring all traces of scenery. It’s sublimely entertaining and lively stuff and Billy Ray and Matthew Chapman’s script has fun larding the actors’ mouths with juicy, salacious stories and retorts.

In the midst of all this meandering jawing and disorienting, red-herring-loaded investigation, Capa meets an impossibly hot girl named Rose (Jane March, so brilliant in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s THE LOVER, the role that landed her this gig). They flirt endlessly and believably (in one scene Rose gets Capa wired up on the street then leaves him to deal with a trouser tent-making erection) and eventually have sex.

And boy, do they have sex!

The sex scenes between Willis and March are the stuff of legend with March totally uninhibited (though she later claimed she was somewhat mislead as to how sexual the film would be and how much nudity was required), baring all and Willis’ freewheeling willie swinging around and matching his co-star pump for pump. Many have cited the sex scenes in COLOR OF NIGHT to be among the most excessive and impressive in any mainstream film and I’d be, er, hard-pressed to argue.

In between the Willis/March ugly bumping, the movie’s plotting goes positively berserk, with more murders, more madness, more weirdness and Willis getting wise to all of it.

Then, there’s that twisted climactic reveal. Which again, is telegraphed early on but still amusingly lurid.

When the film was released, producer Andrew Vajna (ANGEL HEART) had re-cut the movie to remove some lesbian antics between Warren and March as well as tons of sidebar character stuff ( a great deal of which involved Henricksen’s character) and other moments deemed too-flabby and odd for wide release. Rush fought his producers to the point where he had a heart attack from the ordeal, the result of which was that Vajna somewhat yielded and let Rush have his full cut released on home video with the producer’s cut reserved for theatrical.

Now, I’ve never seen the theatrical cut so this blathering is based on the version of the movie I know, which is Rush’s wildly excessive cut. And, make no mistake, with its paranoia, overuse of music (a lush, sax-soaked score by Dominic Frontiere), grandiose production design, surreal passages of dialogue and atmosphere and generally overheated aura that steams out of every seem, COLOR OF NIGHT is an American giallo. Inside and out. But unlike many of those fantastic style-trumping-substance pictures, the performances here are a real treat, with March especially – in or out of clothes – a real presence, delivering a complex performance that hides behind the hysterics. Willis is fine too, solid and likable, even when battling mailbox snakes. Yes, you read that right…

The film’s arch affectations earned it many jeers and dismissive reviews and at least three Golden Raspberry awards (God, I hate those). But these many years later, some of those critics are dead, others unemployed, some MIA and lo and behold, COLOR OF NIGHT is still here, waiting to find its audience.

So, what are you waiting for? Find it already.


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