During the closing moments of John Carpenter’s They Live, a sound collage of news readers and media pundits is unfurled, one of them indignantly blasting the low culture wrought by the likes of George A. Romero and Carpenter himself. It was a none-too-subtle in-joke for fans, but also a gesture of respect, one craftsman tipping his hat to his peer across the aisle. Had the speaker continued, he might easily have spoken the name of Paul Verhoeven, whose U.S. tour of duty resulted in several of the highest-profile and least respected films of their day.
Verhoeven signed his name to at least two VCR classics (RoboCop and Total Recall), one bona-fide game changer that dominated media and water-cooler conversations for months on end (Basic Instinct), and one certified turkey (Showgirls) whose fate may still be undetermined. While his stock rose and fell several times during his volatile tenure as a Hollywood auteur, his films rarely failed to provoke excitement and contention; only the bookends (Flesh+Blood in 1985, Hollow Man in 2000) fail to contribute to the tsunami.
Verhoeven didn’t just arrive in America a fully formed auteur director; he began making features that way, arriving at his feature directorial debut, Business Is Business, equipped with a favorite set of progressive themes and a flair for instilling even small moments with a swaggering, ramshackle kineticism. Most movie buffs will now associate his name only with rank sensationalism—bare breasts and broken bones—and it isn’t as if he would decline the honor. But filmed depictions of sex and violence don’t exist within Verhoeven’s purview exclusively. What we may have been responding to was the casualness, bordering on grinning impertinence, with which he deployed images designed to titillate or shock. A girl in Turkish Delight lops off the top of a banana before using a spoon to extract the meat. Verhoeven goes after your nervous system the same way: Why peel?
In honor of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete retrospective of Paul Verhoeven’s work, running from November 9—23, we ranked the Dutch filmmaker’s films from worst to best.
Hollow Man (2000)
Verhoeven ended his Hollywood residency not with a bang, but with a sigh. Hollow Man was neither big enough or weird enough to provoke a wrathful response from the likes of the Razzies, but time has nevertheless been far less kind to the film than to Verhoeven’s other U.S. assignments, especially with regard to the curiously unfinished quality of its visual effects. In hindsight, we now look at the film as a vainly foolish attempt to jazz up the legacy of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, but the comforting certainty that the effects in James Whale’s classic 1933 adaptation look far better than the Oscar-nominated work of the 2000 “update” shouldn’t distract from the fact that Hollow Man is also surprisingly mean-spirited for its design as fun, summertime multiplex fare. A work of sad indifference, forever relegated to gas-station DVD racks the world over.
Enthusiasts inspired to dive backward into Verhoeven’s pre-RoboCop career may think they’ve stepped in something when they encounter the director’s English-language debut. A tuneless entry in that decade’s often ill-advised sword-and-sorcery sweepstakes, Flesh+Blood wears the dress of an epic action adventure; underneath there’s a surprisingly convoluted and stagey mess, as if someone took The Hateful Eight and reconfigured it as the worst possible episode of Game of Thrones. The film is shouty, unpleasant, long as heck, and kind of gross. Verhoeven did well to pivot in the direction of sci-fi action with his subsequent work.
A crack in the otherwise smooth surface that is the 10-year gap between Black Book and Elle, the anomalous Tricked heralded a more refined, statesmanlike Verhoeven, perfectly adaptable to single-camera televisual storytelling and willing to subsist on a relatively shoestring budget. A melodrama of backstabbery, subterfuge, and, yes, people being tricked, Tricked is neither a triumph nor a masterpiece cloaked in store-bought finery. The narrative tips its hand a little too often to earn the highest marks, but it’s a stock premise executed with delicacy and verve, and, typical of Verhoeven, the women steal it.
Katie Tippel (1975)
In which a few recurring Verhoeven motifs—humiliated men, objectified women given agency, an unqualified respect for prostitution—are diagrammed with laser precision within the first few minutes, under the auspices of a lavish period setting: Vivre Sa Vie by way of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Curiously, genre expectations put a damper on Verhoeven’s customary inventiveness, and too many scenes, lively as they are in execution, are stifled conceptually, an admirable attempt to reveal hypocrisies in polite, authoritarian society undone by an air of condescension. In its portrayal of a savage time barely redeemed by aspirations toward respectability, Katie Tippel is too often conventional, flat, and not very Verhoeven. Seeds of Showgirls and Black Book abound, but in the same farm league I tend to prefer the lackadaisical morality and gallows humor of Business Is Business.
The 4th Man (1983)
The last film Verhoeven made in the Netherlands before Black Book, almost a quarter century later, the prickly, deliberately nauseating, and decidedly Polanski-esque The 4th Man bears as a striking familial resemblance to Basic Instinct in more ways than one, with more subtle connections to such distant cousins as Total Recall and Elle. The damaged, alcoholic protagonist (Jeroen Krabbé) is a novelist, rather than a police detective, but the conflated prospects of sex and death represented by the blond femme fatale (Renée Soutendijk) are unmistakably proto-Catherine Tramell. Arguably the most formally accomplished of Verhoeven’s Dutch work, it’s the only one I’d charge with an undue degree of juvenile pretentiousness, so unconvincing is its use of blunt Christian imagery to wag a cosmic finger at a nearly depleted man behaving badly.
Knowing a little about Verhoeven’s greatest hits might lead you to think that Spetters, from the sound of the title alone, has something to do with arterial blood untimely ripped. The reality? Saturday Night Fever for the motocross racing cults, with “boys will be boys” roughhousing transitioning into inevitably gloomier “we were never the same after that” visits from sexual violence, shattered illusions, and death. A cadre of fresh-faced Breaking Away-type youths attempts to fight off incipient adulthood through their shared love of racing bikes. Not everyone survives, and not everyone who survives does so without scars, inside and out. Uniquely crotch-obsessed, even by Verhoeven standards, the penis-to-breasts ratio in Spetters is, strangely enough, a Larry Clark-ian dead heat. There’s also a brutal male-on-male rape scene that’s as disturbing as the one in Alan Clarke’s Scum—more so, perhaps, for being stitched into a largely by-the-numbers coming-of-age saga. It’s a hallmark of Verhoeven’s art that he offers to the audience unbridled genre kicks and crippling uncertainty in equal doses, and it’s with Spetters that he chose the most circuitous path to arrive there.