Lesley Ann Warren
Kevin J. O'Connor
2 Hrs., 19 Mins.
Color of Night May 25, 2020
t no point in the deranged erotic thriller Color of Night (1994) do we find out what the color of the night conclusively is. While I believe it would be best represented by either navy blue or black, I'd posit that the color the title is referring to is red. It is, for starters, the first one to really jump out at us in the movie. In the opening scene, a female patient of the film's protagonist, New York City-based
psychiatrist Dr. Bill Capa (Bruce Willis), sits at a vanity in her messy apartment, applying red lipstick. She's upset by something, and as she gets increasingly upset by that unseen something, she begins to angrily draw far beyond the limits of her lip lines. Then she starts to put the lipstick on her teeth, as if it were no different than Arm & Hammer Advance White.
In the following scene, in which said patient is in a session with Capa, she for reasons unclear bolts through the floor-to-ceiling window of his top-floor office. She (i.e., a gussied-up mannequin) plummets stories and stories to her death. She’s wearing a Kermit-green dress that eye-poppingly juxtaposes with the pool of blood spreading underneath her. “It was the reddest blood I ever saw,” says Capa, via private-detective-like voiceover narration recorded sometime in an unspecified future. From then on, Capa is unable to see the color red, hammered in by a later scene in which we get a glimpse of his socks and one is green and the other is — I’m sure you can guess.
The death of Capa’s patient, and the color-blindness which accompanies it, are just two of the forces which push the action in Color of Night, one of the most fascinatingly bad movies I’ve seen. Understandably traumatized by what he’s just lived through, Capa finds himself unable to continue with life as he’s known it. So he heads to Los Angeles to stay with his psychiatrist friend Bob Moore (Scott Bakula). Moore heads a therapy group, which Capa sits in on; he also lives in a lavish beachside mansion fit with lots of ornate glasswork and a strict alarm system that doesn't work when it's supposed to. Before Capa can get comfortable in a new routine, though, Moore is violently murdered by an anonymous figure who breaks into his office. Capa then “inherits” the therapy group, to whom he immediately (and unwisely) divulges everything that has happened to him in the last week. He also inherits the beautiful house, which, OK.
Both Capa and us are led to believe, by an unstoppably wise-cracking detective (Ruben Blades), that one of the people in the therapy group is responsible for Moore’s death, which makes Capa's taking it on crucial. Around the same time, Capa starts a sexual relationship with a young woman named Rose (a lost-looking Jane March), whom he meets-cute when she rear-ends his car at a stop sign. Her most developed personality traits are that she likes to show up to things unannounced, that she is mysterious, and that she has a lower-back tattoo (of a rose!). The nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long movie fills its runtime with stuff that is not compelling enough to cycle through for almost two and a half hours: uninteresting group-therapy sessions, languorous one-on-ones between a specific patient and Capa that are meant to lead us to the identity of the killer, and stunningly graphic sex scenes acted by March and Willis.
The suspects in Color of Night include Sondra, an über-wealthy nymphomaniac-cum-kleptomaniac (Lesley Ann Warren) who I think actually has a normal sexual appetite; Buck, a very depressed retired cop (Lance Henriksen); Clark, who doesn't use his inside voice and has obsessive-compulsive disorder (Brad Dourif); Casey, who professionally paints portraits of scantily clad women in chains (Kevin J. O’Connor); and Richie, a 16-year-old drug addict who has trouble speaking because of a childhood trauma and who has been so bizarrely done up in the hair-and-makeup department that we can tell immediately that both the hair and the makeup will eventually be taken and washed off, respectively, for plot-twist purposes. The movie, to my eye, is worth watching not for the Skinemax-baiting sex scenes for which it has become infamous but rather for the character actors playing these therapy-group members who take up too much of the movie. Their performances are unreal. The scenery-chewing is so voracious, it's like everyone here is coming off a days-long fast. This is not Color of Night, starring Bruce Willis and Jane March; it’s Color of Night, starring Lesley Ann Warren and Brad Dourif.
Color of Night is a doomed marriage of the parlor-room whodunit and the
erotic thriller. There are too many suspects, too many sex scenes. The structuring is basically zigzagged. You can tell that it just wants to fit in with movies like Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992). But it's never that hard to detect a poser next to the real deal. Color of Night is so breathlessly bad, it almost seems to be parodying itself. In some cases, its unbelievability — mostly stemming from "identity-obscuring" makeup — is so unbelievable that I sometimes thought what I was seeing in a certain moment was meant to mock erotic-thriller tropes. Other times I figured that something had been muddied up by unsolicited editing-room interference. (Then again, I watched the director’s cut of the movie.) Fitting for a film always dancing as fast as it can, what "shocks" us in Color of Night is not who the culprit behind the murders is per se but rather the circumstances which led the culprit to commit them. Said circumstances are so complicated that they almost require a whiteboard on which to sort out the connections.
I don't know how much Color of Night's badness has to be untangled. What's clear is that it's bad in the way prestigious bad movies like 1968’s Boom! or 1995’s even worse Showgirls are. (Showgirls, like Color of Night, has a gimmicky sex scene set in a pool, just not with a penis cameo.) It's competently shot and, as a result, sometimes actually visually innovative. But otherwise, the choices made, whether related to acting beats, parcels of dialogue, or developments in the narrative, are so wrong-feeling that at first the feature seems made by an alien getting acquainted with human behavior. Inevitably, there comes a point where the movie's wrongness evolves into
surreality, which I honestly don't think is that bad a thing.
Color of Night is often thought of as the nadir of the erotic-thriller genre so popular in the late-1980s and early ‘90s. The genre would arguably die (in terms of ubiquity) after a long sickness around 1995 with the one-two punch of the aforementioned Showgirls and Jade. It would come back into the mainstream, briefly, with 2002's Unfaithful. I like to think of Color of Night not as a mere failure but more a kind of transcendent moment where every one of the genre’s most tiresome tropes coalesced and then started the process of stupefying genre self-cannibalization. You can’t stop looking. D+