by John S
Movie Postmortem is a monthly series that reviews certain films that showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.
The Casualty: Sliver
The Case History: Based on the 1991 bestseller by Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, A Kiss Before Dying, The Boys From Brazil), Sliver follows cool, composed, but emotionally-vulnerable Manhattan book editor Carly Norris (Sharon Stone, at her foxiest) and what happens when she moves into the titular “Sliver” building, so named because it is 32 stories tall with only two flats on each floor. The place is luxurious as hell, with some hot-ass tenants in the form of computer software engineer Zeke Hawkins (Billy Baldwin, arguably the foxiest Baldwin), rough-edged crime novelist Jack Lansford (Tom Berenger, when he still looked like Kevin Costner’s dirty/sexy twin brother), and slinky maybe model/maybe escort Vida Warren (Polly Walker, who was the hottest thing in Patriot Games).
Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the whole place, to include the apartments, is full of hidden video cameras and someone is watching all the tenants from a war room full of monitors deep inside the building somewhere. Unbeknownst to any of them. Think of it as Big Brother, but considerably more effed-up. Oh, and the Sliver building has also been labeled by the media as the “Haunted House” because of all the tenants who have had fatal accidents or suicides over the last two years. Could this high death toll have something to do with the hidden cameras and the mysterious voyeur? Hmmmmm?
In the year leading up to its release in mid-1993, everything looked promising for Sliver. Sharon Stone, hot off Basic Instinct from the previous year, was cast in the lead role, a very different character from the calculating, bisexual, potential murderess she played in that earlier film. By contrast, Carly Norris was meant to be an “ordinary girl” just making her way through life in the big city, and the versatile Stone was more than equal to the task. William Baldwin, hot off Backdraft, needed another hit to finally put him over the top and make him a star the level of his older brother, Alec, and was cast Carly’s mysterious lover, Zeke, who may or may not be the unseen watcher. Joe Eszterhas, writer of Basic Instinct, was hired to shape the novel into a screenplay and producer Robert Evans (Rosemary’s Baby) was reportedly pleased at the final result: it was tense and unsettling with an eerie ending you won’t see coming. I know: I own the shooting script, which is what was initially filmed before all the negative test screenings and infamous reshoots and fatally-changed ending, but more on that later.
What was most promising during Sliver‘s pre-production phase, though, was the selection of Australian director Phillip Noyce to be in the driver’s seat. Noyce had made classic thrillers in 1989 and 1992 with Dead Calm and Patriot Games, respectively, and was clearly someone who understood suspense and atmosphere. Like Dead Calm, Sliver unfolds in a confined setting (two boats in the Pacific for the former, a Manhattan highrise for the latter) and it was a no-brainer that Noyce could easily repeat his creepy, claustrophobic magic, given half the chance.
Then there was the poster for Sliver which was minimalist perfection: a simple black backdrop taking up most of the space, with only a very narrow panel in the middle (a sliver) showing a collage of images: the highrise, a glaring eye, and Stone and Baldwin’s faces in the heat of passion. And a simple, but highly effective, tagline: “You like to watch. Don’t you.” In my opinion, it’s right up there with Alien‘s classic poster and its now-famous tease: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The effect was elegant yet also somehow dirty at the same time. I’m not ashamed to say it hangs in my living room. Maybe I should be? Anyway, Sliver‘s trailer was also provocative, promising a sexy, suspenseful, daring thriller that just might be the 90’s version of Rear Window. All in all, it didn’t look like Sliver could possibly miss.
On the weekend of May 21, 1993, Sliver opened in the #1 spot at the national box-office, taking in about $12.1 million (which would translate to about $25 million today). It was a very solid opening, especially considering it was Sharon Stone’s first movie movie to carry on her own shoulders. Basic Instinct had opened to $15 million the year before, but that was largely on the strength of Michael Douglas, who was already a box-office draw, with Stone essentially not a factor there. With Sliver, however, it was her show all the way and it looked like everything was going to pan out.
Unfortunately, most critics savaged the film, calling it a pale, misguided imitation of Basic Instinct. By the second weekend of national release, Sliver had dropped to #6 at the box-office, with negative word of mouth spreading fast. Ultimately, it wound up with a not-horrible but not-great either domestic take of $36 million. That would be about $74 million today-nothing to sneeze at. Still, Sliver‘s domestic performance was considered to be one of 1993’s major box-office disappointments, especially considering all the hype surrounding the production, the popular source material, and the then red-hot Stone. Not to mention Basic Instinct had grossed about $117 million in North America alone one year prior (about $240 million today), and expectations were for Sliver to come close to that. Fortunately, Sliver was a solid hit overseas, and this helped mitigate the overall profit situation. Still, there was no denying it: the movie was a misfire in the U.S.
So…what the hell happened?
THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: I’m a huge fan of Basic Instinct and believe it only worked because of how Sharon Stone took the role of complex murder suspect Catherine Trammell and ran with it under Paul Verhoeven’s skilled direction. Honestly, she should’ve gotten an Academy Award nomination that year, but the role of a sexually-adventurous bisexual writer who may or may not be killing anyone who gets too close to her is probably not the kind of character the conservative Academy would dignify with recognition. I’m also a fan of the novel version of Sliver and Ira Levin’s thrillers, and it goes without saying that Sliver, with the bonus of Sharon Stone in it, was the movie event I looked forward to the most for the summer of 1993. Even more than Jurassic Park, which I love. Yes, really.
I remember watching Sliver on opening weekend in 1993 and walking out of the theater afterwards liking a lot of what I saw, but disappointed overall and thinking there were some huge mis-steps in adapting the novel to the screen. But it certainly isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be. For a lot of its running time, Sliver is reasonably compelling, with director Phillip Noyce keeping you interested as we realize the extent of the hidden surveillance system in the building. It’s also interesting to watch as Carly develops relationships with both Zeke and Jack, and gradually believing one of them is the killer offing tenants in the building. But which one? The film’s musical score, a combo of evocative songs and mournful compositions by Howard Shore, sets a brooding atmosphere that gets under your skin from time to time.
Unfortunately, writer Joe Eszterhas keeps shortchanging the central mystery by unleashing yet another sex scene on us in an attempt to match or top Basic Instinct from the year prior. When Carly should be further investigating the deaths in the building, as she did in the novel, the script instead forces into her more sex games with Zeke. Had Sliver not been made in such close proximity to the highly-successful Basic Instinct, the “sex factor” might have been minimized and the focus shifted more squarely on the murders in the building. Whenever tension starts to build, it’s interrupted by another overlong sexual interlude. Trust me, it was possible to develop the romantic link between Carly and Zeke without having to cut to some rumpy-pumpy every ten or fifteen minutes, Joe.
Then there’s the ending, which was hastily added when test audiences rejected the original, controversial conclusion. Not going to explicitly spoil what originally went down, except to say it exists in the shooting script of Sliver and is actually much, much better than what replaced it in theaters. Basically, the ending that was added is more politically and morally-correct, but also negates the entire story that came before it, and is likely the reason why this film is so reviled. I remember how I felt when I first saw it on opening weekend: cheated and disappointed. I actually didn’t realize the movie was over until the credits started rolling. I couldn’t believe what I’d watched was the actual ending.
There are reportedly bootleg DVDs out there of the original cut of Sliver that includes the original shooting script ending, and from what I understand from some online comments I’ve read, it is supposedly a much better film that may be unconventional but also makes more sense-albeit, in a dark, sinister way. This is all I’ll say about the original ending in the shooting script: imagine if Mina Harker willfully rejected Jonathan Harker, and decided to side with Count Dracula and embrace vampirism fully. That’s essentially the original ending of Sliver that test audiences didn’t like. If the original filmed cut with the controversial ending is anything like the shooting script then Paramount should consider releasing it so we can all see it.
I should probably point out that the novel’s ending is also different from both the original shooting script’s controversial ending and the replacement ending that was released in theaters. The book’s conclusion is a much more conventional and predictable thriller ending. Given a choice of these three climaxes, I much prefer the original shooting script’s ending because it’s so eerie, atypical, and unexpected. At the same time, though, it’s not so unexpected because all the hints leading up to it are set up properly. Maybe I’m just as twisted as Zeke and Carly. Whatever.
Sadly, the replacement theatrical ending just doesn’t work for the film. It might have worked for a different story. However, Sliver is set up as a dark romance with murder mystery elements and the original ending would have suited it much better, despite the negative original reaction. It’s just one of those endings that you apparently need to see again to understand. Hell, it might’ve even lead to repeat business and increased the box-office takings. If only the studio had stood their ground and their convictions.
Possible Cause of Death: Ironically, changing the ending in reaction to the negative test screenings in an attempt to “save” Sliver is what ultimately doomed it. The emphasis on sex versus the murder mystery might have actually been okay if the original shooting script ending had been kept, since it was meant to be a sinister capper to a dark, twisted love story. The original ending was just way ahead of its time. Had Paramount chosen to be brave and ignore the negative comments from the test screenings and stick to their vision, Sliver might have done better. Stone and Noyce reportedly liked the original ending better and from what I’ve read in the shooting script, I agree completely.
The Conclusion: Sliver never had a chance when the studio decided to change the original ending to something “safer” in response to test audience comments. Unfortunately, the new ending is so diametrically opposed to how the story is set up that it weakens everything that came before and renders the whole thing senseless…and almost a non-event.
Suggestion: with the current trend of taking cinematic thrillers like Hannibal, Scream, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and turning them into TV shows, Sliver should be given another shot at life. The more generous TV series format would be great for tracking Carly’s gradual descent into mystery, voyeurism, and murder, as well as exploring the lives of everyone in the building that she and Zeke are spying on. With the current rage for reality shows, this would be awesome. After all, the only genuine reality show is one in which the participants don’t know they’re being watched. Paramount, there’s hope yet. And while you’re at it, how about a BluRay release of the original cut of Sliver? Per favore?
Next Month’s Casualty: Batman V Superman.
Sorry, but any hugely-anticipated movie that costs $250 million and opens at $166 million on its first weekend, and then ultimately grosses “only” $330 million (barely twice its opening weekend take) is a bit of a misfire, no? Oh, and there’s that little matter of it not crossing $1 billion worldwide. Just saying: them legs ain’t the strongest, yo.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.