Black Widow (1987)

Bob Rafelson directs Debra Winger, Theresa Russell and Sami Frey in this cat and mouse thriller where a Justice Department bookworm uncovers a mysterious woman marrying and killing off millionaires with alarming frequency.

A proto Basic Instinct. Black Widow was exactly the type of glossy thriller my parents would rent from the video shop in the 1980s. Sexy, glamorous, formulaic. A gorgeous serial killer (Theresa Russell is electric here) who enters a game of seduction and betrayal with the ‘cop’ investigating her. The lesbian undertones are obvious… yet muted wherever possible. I doubt a modern day remake would be quite so coy. In fact every element of Black Widow works except the diluted storytelling choices. Debra Winger is the box office draw so she gets more screen-time. We get 40 minutes of her chafing against the men in her department who underestimate her in the first act. This means we rush through the first few seductions and murders by Russell’s femme fatale. Dennis Hopper’s presence as an early victim is literally blink and you’ll miss it. And not in a playful Drew Barrymore in Scream kinda way. In a studio mandated, editing room fumble kinda way. Likewise the ending where everything is tied off slightly too neatly comes from an era where the bad girl must be punished. These days, if such films were still made with any frequency, Russell’s deadly enchantress would be given the Hannibal Lecter coda… eyeing up her next prey, victorious despite obstacles only a true evil mastermind could navigate. The sheeny end product we are left with lacks potential bite but is an easy, accessible blast from the past. One well worth exploring for its still rare takes on gender and fluid sexuality in a mainstream US release.

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