When I was kid, about 8 or 9, I stumbled across a movie on late night television one night. My parents had a “black box” that gave you access to all of the premium channels, including Pay-Per-View, without having to pay for them — which was equally exciting and disturbing for a young girl who was a couple years away from puberty.
This particular movie was called COLOR OF NIGHT… and, before I revisited it recently, all I could remember was the weird feeling it gave me concurrent with excessive amounts of sex scenes, fucked-up gender identity issues and… something about a woman being nailed to a chair? I remember thinking to myself, “What in the hell did I just watch?”
The movie begins with a woman staring into her vanity mirror, maniacally applying red lipstick on and around her lips and teeth. It cuts to our star, Bruce Willis (when he still had hair), as shrink Bill Capa. He’s holding a session with this woman in his Manhattan office, and after being shrewd with her and asking her to look in the mirror and tell him what she sees, she proceeds to jump out the window of his office and falls to her death, startling a police horse. Capa turns towards the window, now only shards of glass left, with a single tear rolling down his face. Looking down at the pool of blood surrounding her lifeless body, he suddenly becomes colorblind — specifically to the color red.
Stricken with grief and guilt, he packs up his office in New York and heads to Los Angeles, where he links up with an old college friend and colleague, Bob Moore (Scott Bakula). Bob’s holding a group session with five seemingly misfit individuals, who are all dealing with one issue or another, and forces Bill to sit in on the session with him.
Here we learn about each of them: Sondra (Lesley Anne Warren), a nymphomaniac and klepto; Clark (Brad Dourif, the voice of Chucky), a high-strung lawyer with OCD; Casey (Kevin O’Connor), an artist with an unapologetically ’90s ponytail whose daddy pays for everything; Buck (Lance Henriksen of ALIENS and PUMPKINHEAD), a man who lost his wife and daughter; and Richie, a 16 year-old with gender identity issues and a raging temper.
After Bob is brutally murdered in his office by an unknown assailant, Bill takes over the group sessions, and begins to suspect it was one of the five people he’s treating that did it. He begins to dig into each of their pasts, trying to uncover the mystery surrounding Bob’s death.
While conducting this detective work, he becomes romantically involved with a woman named Rose (Jane March) who gets into a fender bender with him. Then, for reasons unknown — other than for shock value and a spot in Maxim’s “#1 Sex Scene of All Time” — Bill and Rose have a ridiculously long, four-minute sex scene.
Starting in the pool (where we see Willis’s cash & prizes), it then moves to the counter top, then the bed, only pausing for Rose to make Bill dinner and serve it to him in the nude, in which they proceed to have even more sex in a steamy shower.
We later learn that Rose is also seeing Sondra, the nympho/klepto, under the alias of “Bonnie,” as well as almost everyone else in the group. As Bill gets closer to the truth of who Rose is, as well as Richie’s past, attempts are made to put a stop to it: a rattlesnake is put in the mailbox, and someone in a red car tries to kill Bill several times.
In the epic third act, all hell breaks loose. We learn through Richie’s old shrink’s wife, Mrs. Niedelmeyer (Shirley Knight), that the real Richie died when he was 12, having hung himself after Dr. Niedelmeyer sexually abused him over a period of time. His brother, Dale (Andrew Lowery), had been to the same doctor as well, and knowingly put Richie into his care. Richie was survived by not only Dale, but also his sister Rose.
Bill puts two and two together… and next we find “Richie” in Dale’s warehouse in a chair with slash marks on his back and hands nailed to the armrests, whimpering. Bill finds him and takes off Richie’s glasses and wig, revealing… Rose.
Rose explains that after Richie died, Dale couldn’t handle Richie’s death, so he physically and sexually abused Rose and forced her to assume the identity of their dead brother. When Dr. Bob and Casey got too close, Dale knocked them off one by one.
After Bill frees her from the confines of the chair, Dale discovers them and chases after them with a nail-gun. Dale corners Bill and tries to hang him with a belt, but Rose comes to the rescue with the seemingly forgotten nail-gun and shoots Dale in the head. She flips out at what she’s done, tries to take her own life with the nail-gun, but fails when she realizes it’s out of nails. In a second attempt, she climbs to the top of a tower and tries to commit suicide. Bill saves her from her death and they embrace in the rain, Bill’s color blindness corrected. All is good in the world.
What in the fuck?
This was the same damn reaction I had recently, even after 20 years of not watching it… though not for the same reasons. Let’s discuss this movie for a minute.
First, the tropes are outrageously blatant: from the split personality, the promiscuity, the useless cops, to the roomful of suspects, it’s a living nightmare of a cliché. It was obvious director Richard Rush wanted to capitalize on the “erotic thriller” craze initiated by blockbusters like FATAL ATTRACTION and BASIC INSTINCT. Rush’s film failed miserably and flopped in theaters, making back only half of what its $40 million production budget. Willis was quoted later in retrospect of the film that “it didn’t work.” It even received a Razzie for “Worst Picture” of 1994.
Things that should be driving forces behind the movie are forgotten about, or have no real significant meaning whatsoever. Like Dr. Capa’s color blindness, for instance — other than he suffers a traumatic event, develops psychosomatic color blindness from it, fails to obey a stoplight here and there, and then regains his ability to see the color red after he saves Rose, it’s essentially unimportant.
But see… this is why I like it so much. It’s like a modern version of THE BIG SLEEP, done in the worst way. This movie is the epitome of a campy erotic thriller, and it’s almost laughable. It tries its damnedest to incorporate all the elements used by much more successful erotic thrillers, and fails deplorably — going over the top with the car chases, sex scenes, and a mystery that really isn’t a mystery at all.
Come on, guys. We all knew Richie was Rose. That prosthetic face, coke-bottle glasses, stutter, and BREAKFAST CLUB’S Bender outfit didn’t fool us one bit.
It’s a ridiculous ride that I still enjoy twenty years later. It’s outrageous, super un-sexy, and chalk full of tropes and clichés. Its utter badness and nonsensical plot made such an impact on me that I never forgot it.
We’ve all got that one really bad movie that we all love. That’s got to count for something, right? I wonder if this one might have done better rewritten and produced by Troma Entertainment…