Shrivel Me Timber; Erotic Thrillers Vol. 1: Traces of Red

By Adam Lippe

vlcsnap-2979187If the idea of seeing Jim Belushi as a sex symbol isn’t appealing to you, then I don’t know what to say. Clearly Traces of Red is too good for you.

As I detailed in the [Motor]Cycles of the Film Industry article, Hollywood does things in cycles. When the 1980’s teen sexploitation market dried up and went direct to video, it took Basic Instinct’s success to be the driving force in creating a teasing sexual variation for those too timid to watch actual pornography. The legitimacy that had evaded 9 ½ Weeks and Wild Orchid because those films never really pretended to be anything other than sex-first enterprises, was now tied up perfectly by America’s pleasure-must-be-punished moralism by Basic Instinct’s killer fornicator. But by the time Sharon Stone followed Instinct* up with Sliver, interest was beginning to wane because of such movies as Body of Evidence and eventually sputtering out by the release of Never Talk To Strangers in 1995, and permanently going straight to video. This also dried up the market for those video only stars like Shannon Whirry, Deborah Shelton, and Shannon Tweed, because their slightly more explicit, but still soft-core films were now the norm, as opposed to the exception.

vlcsnap-2978961While those films in the erotic thriller DTV realm served their purpose as straight forward exploitation, with just a hint of plot to intercut with copious nude scenes, what is most interesting is Hollywood’s attempt to gain footing in the genre before completely giving up on the trend (sexploitation would materialize in the late 90’s as period piece bodice-rippers such as Dangerous Beauty, Wings of the Dove, and The Affair of the Necklace). The awkward examples of Hollywood trying to manufacture naughtiness and taboo envelope pushing resulted in films like Lizzie Borden’s Love Crimes and Andy Wolk’s Traces of Red.

vlcsnap-2981128As a precursor to the similarly convoluted and complex swamp and sex thriller Wild Things, with the right amount of time spent in a sensory deprivation tank, Traces of Red could be seen as a risky and challenging thriller. Or maybe you just like the notion of film noir, Jim Belushi style. Or every so often, you like taking a venture down the aisles of Red Herrings ‘R’ Us. Personally, I took to the jazz score that sounded like someone left their sprinkler on while they were recording. If anything, Traces of Red asks a very important question, how badly do you want to see female breasts? Would you sit through lots of scenes of unattractive people having sex?

And while one could say I was being judgmental for putting down Traces of Red for its barrage of visual atrocities, that would be unfair, because the whole idea of an erotic thriller is that it expresses an unattainable and sensuous fantasy.

Anyone can have sex with an ugly person. It takes real chutzpah to put it on screen as some sort of ideal version of mating.

vlcsnap-2981619It isn’t that the actors are all hideous looking people recovering from facial elephantisus; they’re just all wrong for an erotic thriller. By 1992, Jim Belushi was not the total eyesore he is today, but he’s still a bit chubby, balding (not helped by certain angles supposed to make him look sexy, only accentuating the receding hairline), and doesn’t really know how to make appropriate faces for the intimate situations. Belushi is known for his low-comic roles, and that’s about his water-level. He may think that his half-smirk that works in a buddy cop movie with Arnold in Red Heat or with a dog in K-9 (and its various DTV sequels) would be fine as an enticement to the ladies as well. But in a movie like Traces of Red, where he’s supposed to be eminently desirable as well as a serious detective, it plays more as if the Michael Douglas role in Basic Instinct were played by Walter Matthau.

vlcsnap-2980618In the case of Traces of Red (released 8 months after Basic Instinct), Belushi may be playing Michael Douglas. But just as badly off is a bleach-blonde, knock-kneed, skimpy-clothed version of Lorraine Bracco in the Sharon Stone role. Now Bracco can be a reasonably attractive woman when she plays it subtle. But shoving her boobs in our face, trying to act sultry makes you notice why she should never have taken the part. And it isn’t because she looks like a poorly made-up drag queen in 90% of her scenes. Bracco doesn’t have a lot of grace, nor the appropriate girly softness combined with a hard edge that is a must for the femme fatale in an erotic thriller. She’s all smoking voice and pouty-lipped, emphasizing parts of her that aren’t appealing (her thighs, her dyed hair). You don’t get the feeling that she might either fuck you or kill you. Rather, you wonder whether or not she set enough places on the table for the family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

vlcsnap-2980834What’s most curious about Bracco’s casting is that the movie might have worked had she switched roles with Faye Grant, with her gentle, non-abrasive, and attractive demeanor. Grant gets stuck with the thankless cop’s wife part (and the wife of a supporting character at that, the better half of Tony Goldwyn and his hilariously dated hair), when Bracco already perfected that very same role in Someone to Watch Over Me, in which she had trouble competing with Mimi Rogers, playing a cold socialite (which is what Bracco has to play in Traces of Red), as her husband, Tom Berenger, began to stray.

vlcsnap-2981188

Writer Jim Piddock, looking for the cue card guy

No matter who played what part, both actresses would still have had to contend with the random-twist-heavy script, which forces all the actors to play either the villain or innocent, often within the same scene. I’m sure writer Jim Piddock (who aptly enough, has a piddling part) thought he was being clever by keeping us off-balance. But even the conclusion before the real conclusion doesn’t make much sense.

Perhaps trying to cover up the holes, the dialogue features characters saying things like “nothing is what it seems here,” or “when time was money and the girls were big time,” pretending to reference other incomprehensible noirs of the past, but updated with diversions about AIDS, sexual abuse, and modern printers. And Piddock, in trying to fool the audience, falls for the same trap as the hilariously bad Halle Berry vehicle Perfect Stranger, where the culprit of the crime keeps trying to figure out who did it, even though that would obviously only expose them. If you think I gave away the ending to Traces of Red, I didn’t, because predicting who killed the female victims and left lipstick clues or wrote the insidious poems is eventually irrelevant anyway.

vlcsnap-2979906If there’s one thing you will take away from Traces of Red (if it isn’t already Belushi’s stiff delivery of the line “you’re not who I thought you were, boy” or his constant “ah, c’mon!”), it’s the image of Bracco, trying her darndest to be a turn-on, sucking on an orange, en flagrante. She’s the sexiest woman … who ever looked like a monkey eating a grapefruit.

* It also spawned the “I can’t see or hear, but look at my boobs!” trilogy of thriller masquerades, Jennifer Eight, Hear No Evil, and Blink.

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Whenever there’s a genre parody or ode to a specific era of films, such as Black Dynamite’s mocking of Blaxploitation films or Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, the danger is that the film might fall into the trap of either being condescending without any particular insight, or so faithful that it becomes the very flawed thing it is emulating.

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.