Essential movies of … Paul Verhoeven!

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, is undoubtedly one of the most notorious directors of the last 40 years, creating a body of work full of classic thrillers and Sci-Fi action films, well known for his seductive blend of graphic violence, nudity and explicit sexual scenes.

He began his career working in television in his native Holland, before creating his beak through movie Turkish Delight in 1973, which starred frequent collaborator Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner). After creating a number of successful Dutch language films and being labelled as a ‘one man Dutch movie industry’, Verhoeven made the move to Hollywood in the mid 80’s to seek new opportunities.

He would go on to create seven highly original and notorious movies in a 15 year period, all achieving a cult status of sorts. The success of his work in Hollywood saw many of his movies spawn sequels with other directors taking on the subject matter, yet never living up to the originality or vision of Verhoeven.

In the 00’s he returned to working in Europe, slowing down his output but creating a handful of further uniquely stylised films, most recently with Bernadetta (2021) his tale of a 17th Century Nun, disturbed by erotic visions. Read on to find out the ten absolutely must watch essential movies, from Verhoeven’s impressive catalogue :

1. // Robocop (1987)

In Verhoeven’s second American movie he created something wildly different from anything he had made before, set around a Sci-Fi tale involving the resurrection of fallen Detroit police officer Murphy (Peter Weller – Naked Lunch), as his butchered cop provides the soul for the half human, half cyborg Robocop, a character who would become one of the most iconic of the decade. The shady Omni Consumer Products Corporation are hell bent on creating robotic police personnel, in a near future dystopian Detroit city. Early in the movie we see their failings as they unleash their Ed 209 robot model on a boardroom, with a gruesome outcome to their demonstration as it goes rogue, and mercilessly massacres an employee with gun fire, allowing Verhoeven to show us the kind of violent content and body horror FX we are going to see throughout the film. This repeats when Murphy literally has his limbs blown from his body by a deadly gang of mindless goons, prior to his transformation into the public protecting cyborg Robocop.

The film brilliantly merges its elements of Sci-Fi with all the classic traits of a 80’s crime / action film, while also crafting a perfectly sceptical satire on the role and influence of the media in 1980’s America. The violence depicted is gratuitously over the top, as are the hammy villains and memorable one liners. While the heart of the tale is a character driven story showing Robocop’s integration into the force and working the streets alongside sceptical colleagues. As memories of his past self come to the surface, he enlists the help of his former partner Lewis (Nancy Allen – Dressed To Kill) to help him understand his past, as well as helping him hunt down the killer thugs who had sent Murphy to an early grave. All of which leads him to uncovering corruption within the Omni Consumer Products Corporation, and at the very highest level of the force.

2. Total Recall (1990)

Verhoeven took his Sci-Fi production one step further with his follow up to Robocop, an out of this world tale inspired by the short story We can remember It For You Wholesale? by the legendary author Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep aka Blade Runner). Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator) arguably the biggest movie star in the world at the time stars as Douglas Quaid, an ordinary construction worker on a futuristic Earth, who dreams of an alternative life as a secret agent on Mars. His fantasy becomes reality as he visits Recall, a memory implant service who can provide him with a realistic memory of a trip to Mars, in the role of a spy that he would believe to be completely real. However during the process it would appear hidden deep in Quaids memory is the reality that he was indeed a secret agent who has had his mind erased, and replaced with the new memory of his mundane life.

And so begins a thrilling action / chase movie, as Quaid travels to Mars in search of the truth, pursued by assassins attempting to take him out at every turn, and where nothing in his life is at it seemed, and no one appears able to be trusted. The question being, which is the reality? The story we see unfold before us, or the fact he is indeed living a dream, created by the memory implant? Verhoeven created a larger than life spectacle in this futuristic movie set across two planets and with many iconic and memorable scenes. As with Robocop the R rating provided the opportunity for merging a high intensity action movie with grotesque body horror, gratuitous violence and nudity … all staple ingredients in a classic Verhoeven flick!

3. // Basic Instinct (1992)

Following on from the success of Verhoeven’s first big budget Hollywood movies, he took a break from Science Fiction and created one of the most notorious thrillers of the early 90’s. Stylish and sexy, Verhoeven created a noir style film full of suspense, while brilliantly casting and making a star of Sharon Stone (having previously worked with her on Total Recall), as the seductively mysterious writer Catherine Tremmel, opposite Michael Douglas’s (Fatal Attraction) detective Nick Curran. In the memorably brutal opening scene, we see a beautiful and naked blonde female who’s face is covered by her hair, having sex with a male who she she subsequently ties up. As he is in the throes of ecstasy, she pulls out an ice pick from under the sheet and violently stabs him in his face and chest, turning the liaison into an absolute bloodbath. In this one scene, Verhoeven shows both trademark sides to his direction, the use of nudity and sex, juxtaposed with over the top and bloody violence with use of body horror f/x.

Catherine Tremmel is the No 1 suspect, being the girlfriend of the murdered male, who it turns out is a famous rock star and she was last seen with him the night of the murder as they left a nightclub together. She quickly assumes the classic role of Femme Fatale, slowly seducing Detective Curran into her mysterious world of sex and game play. There’s no hard evidence linking her to the murder, although in her latest novel, she had written about a rock star murdered with an ice pick by his girlfriend in a mirror image scene. A web of intrigue, manipulation and a deadly game cat and mouse ensues as Curran works the case, falling for Tremmel and risking everything in the process. Sharon Stone really made a name for herself with this role, none less so than than in one particular scene of interrogation when she uncrosses her legs, revealing to the room of Police officers that she is wearing no underwear. This became a major talking point of the film at the time, with Verhoeven clearly knowing exactly what he was doing, in pushing mainstream Hollywood to its limits.

4. // Black Book (2006)

Verhoeven’s return to Dutch language cinema after a near 20 year career in Hollywood, saw him create arguably one of the finest Second World War set movies of all time. Opening post war in 1950’s Israel, we meet singer Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten – Game Of Thrones) as she looks back to her time in Holland towards the end of the war in 1944, where as a Jewish lady from a wealthy family, she is in hiding at the home of a family, whose house is subsequently bombed, while she is sun bathing close by. She escapes and ends up falling in with a member of the Dutch resistance, who offers to help her with a safe route of passage to the liberated Belgium. She reunites with her family and the group board a boat, only for the vessel to be ambushed by Nazis, who massacre the passengers by machine gun. Rachel once again manages to escape, and after changing her appearance and being provided with a false identity, joins a group of resistance fighters.

One day she meets a German officer Ludwig Müntz (Sebastian Koch – The Lives Of Others) on a train, who instantly becomes taken with her. A plan is concocted for her to infiltrate the Nazis by manipulating a relationship with Müntz in order to spy for the resistance in the Nazi headquarters. Here she discovers a conspiracy where rich Jews in the area are being fed to the Nazis, and she realises her family’s massacre was an orchestrated trap. Verhoeven beautifully created the mid 1940’s in this epic war story full of deceit and twists and turns as Rachel fights for her survival, never quite knowing who to trust or who is manipulating who during her journey through to the end of the war, in an undercover role that is fraut with danger. The movie was hugely successful in Verhoeven’s native Holland with many viewing the film as the long overdue homecoming,of their own master film maker.

5. // Starship Troopers (1997)

Verhoeven’s over the top and unique social satire on the absurdism of war and the expendability of human life, as a futuristic society embark in a never ending battle against brain sucking, space alien bugs, who fire meteorites at the Earth with catastrophic consequences. Life is geared around preparing the youth to serve the federation in battle, within a society that has become brain washed into believing violence is the answer to all of life’s problems. We follow infantry pawn Johnny Rico (Casper Van Diem – Sleepy Hollow) and his aspiring pilot girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards – Wild Things) as they join the federal service, labelled as ‘fresh meat for the grinder’, and as they train to get ready for Earths endless fight. The movie feels like both Robocop and Total Recall in its tone and cinematography, cementing Verhoeven’s place at the top table when it came to making colourful R rated Sci-Fi adventure films.

Verhoeven’s satirical use of the media to help us understand the world in which his story inhabits mirrors that of Robocop, and similarly also there is an underline comic element used to off set the darkness of the violence the audience is shown. Visually the space sequences owe much to the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars, while this is also a war film with clear inspiration from the likes of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, and this may just be the grandest scale in which Verhoeven has ever worked, typically keeping his tongue in cheek all the way of course. Plenty of gratuitous 80’s-esq body horror mixed with 90’s CGI give this movie an interesting style, and the story would go on to spawn a number of B movie level sequels, that Verhoeven wisely stayed well away from.

6. // Hollow Man (2000)

In Hollowman Verhoeven took on another classic Sci-Fi tale, that of the Invisible Man made famous during the classic monster horror days of Hollywood’s Universal Pictures. Kevin Bacon (Tremors) stars as Sebastian Caine, a brilliant but flawed scientist who heads a team including Linda (Elizabeth Shue The Karate Kid) and Matthew (Josh BrolinNo Country For Old Men), as they research invisibility for the US Military. As their research develops he chooses himself to be the guinea pig, as behind their paymasters backs, they test their formula on a human for the first time. As Sebastian is turned invisible we start to see his already established playful character come to the forefront, alongside a more disturbing element to his personality, hinted at in the an early scene when he is watching his attractive neighbour undress from his window.

It does not take long for Sebastian to start pushing the limits of his behaviour with his female colleagues. The team then discover that bringing Sebastian back from invisibility will not work successfully, in the same way that they were able to with their research animal. And so he becomes stuck in his translucent state, undergoing all manor of tests, which as the days drag on start to take their toll on his sanity. Sebastian leaves the compound in order to clear his mind, but cannot resist the urge to play on his invisible state, with Verhoeven showing just how far his deranged state of mind has become, as he rapes his beautiful neighbour, enabling Verhoeven to once again focus on sexuality and violence as the main themes of his movie. As he spends longer in his invisible state he propels himself from rapist to murderer, and his colleagues are pitted in a battle to control Sebastian, as they end up in a fight for survival, with him turning on them one by one, in a thrilling climax.

7. // Elle (2016)

Verhoeven’s second most recent film is this French set thriller, which opens with the rape of Michèle (Isabelle Huppert – La Pianiste) on her kitchen floor, after her home is broken into by a masked intruder. After the suspect leaves, she tidy’s up the scene of the crime and takes a bath, seeming very calm and collected, before her son visits for dinner. We learn that she is rich, living alone and the head of a successful video game company, where she is popular with some staff and not with others. We also learn that there is a sinister family history involving her father, hinted at early and then fully explained as the film progresses.

Almost all of her relationships are overtly complicated be it with her intriguing neighbour and his glamorous wife, her cougar mother, her son and his girlfriend that she has an obvious disliking for, her ex husband or her friend and business partners husband, who she is having an affair with. In Elle, Verhoeven has created a perfect character study of a woman who seems able to remain in control, while her life unravels around her. And as she chooses to investigate her own rape, rather than reporting it to the police … and where there are suspects all around her.

8. // Showgirls (1995)

Showgirls tells the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley Saved By The Bell) a country girl who hitches a ride to the glittering lights of Las Vegas in order to make her way as a dancer. ‘You’ve got to gamble if you want to win … and I’m going to win!’ After being ripped off of all her belongings as she arrives in town, she fortunately meets Molly (Gina Ravera – Kiss The Girls) who works in the costume department of ‘Goddess’ a big production show at the Stardust Hotel . Molly takes her in and Nomi finds work dancing at ‘The Cheetah’, a seedy back street strip club. From here we watch Nomi’s rise as she works her way from the gutter to the stars, in a gloriously over the top production from Verhoeven, alongside a host of characters including A-List dancer and performer Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon – Bound) and the Stardust’s entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle Maclachlan – Twin Peaks).

On its cinematic release the movie was critically panned and flopped in terms of Box Office numbers. Elizabeth Berkeley’s performance and a cheesy script came under heavy criticism and the film saw Verhoeven presented with two undesirable ‘Golden Raspberry’ awards for worst film and worst director in which he gleefully attended the award ceremony, accepting the awards and embracing the event without a care in the world. However this is a film that following its release went on to achieve over $100,000,000 in the rental/DVD market as it quickly acquired a cult status, beloved by many due to its flamboyant sexiness, elaborately choreographed dance routines and frequent nudity. With Showgirls, Verhoeven took a break from Sci-Fi and his usual violence and body horror, creating this R-rated template for a Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) style spectacle.

9. // Flesh+Blood (1985)

Verhoeven’s first English language film, and his introduction to working in Hollywood was with this medieval drama starring Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), a long term friend and collaborator going back to his time working in Dutch TV. Hauer plays Martin, a swashbuckling common soldier who following a victorious battle is double crossed and outcast by his lord. In revenge, with a gang of similarly treated outlaws, Martin subsequently takes captive the beautiful young high born Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh – Dolores Claiborne) who is betrothed to the lords son.

Verhoeven’s film has the feel of a classic Hollywood period drama, but with the added sex, female nudity and bloodshed we would become accustomed to from the Dutch director. Agnes attaches herself to Martin after being raped by the gang, looking to him for protection to keep her safe from that point on, by forming what appears to be a genuine bond with him. The film progresses to her rescue attempt and a final battle as Verhoeven keeps us guessing as to whose side she is will be on, whether her love and affection for Martin is genuine, or has it been part of a manipulative game for survival.

10. // The Fourth Man (1983)

In the opening credits, Verhoeven shows us a spider weaving a web and catching a fly, cocooning the insect before devouring it, setting up the symbolism for what is to come, in what would be his final Dutch language film, until Black Book in 2006. We follow bi-sexual author Gerard Reve (Jerome Krabbè – The Living Daylights) as he travels by train from his home in Amsterdam to a seminar he has been booked to speak at. He gets lost in fantasy at almost every juncture of the journey, with thoughts of murder, sex, and his own death, triggered by people or pictures that he sees along the way. At the seminar he meets the mysterious Christine (Renée Soutendijk – Eve Of Destruction) who takes him to her home where they seduce each other, before he dreams that she murders him with a pair of scissors, while they are laying in bed together.

The following morning he discovers her husband has recently died in an accident, and he finds a photograph and letter showing that she is also involved in a relationship with a man that he had earlier fantasised over at the train station back in Amsterdam. Rather than leaving her as a one night stand, he decides to stay for a while in hope of manipulating a meeting with Hermann (Thom Hoffman Black Book), the male lover in her photograph. Later while snooping among her possessions, he discovers that Christine had also had two further former husbands, each it would appear had also passed away under mysterious circumstances. And his sanity downward spirals, he begins to fear that either he or Hermann, will become The Fourth Man to fall victim to her spider like trap.


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