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Hidden Gems: Sensation (1994)

Sensation, 1994 (Eric Roberts/Kari Wuhrer) Kushner-Locke

“I give you an object. You touch it, you feel it, you absorb vibrations, whatever … and then you tell me about the person that owned it.”

Halfway through Sensation, Kieran Mulroney’s character shows Kari Wuhrer Roman Polanski’s movie, The Tenant. The taut Hitchcockian thriller starred Polanski as a man who undergoes a strange metamorphosis wherein he assumes the identity of the previous tenant of his apartment. He begins to dress in her clothes and become consumed in paranoia as he suspects she was murdered by the neighbors in her apartment building.

I don’t know if The Tenant represents a thematic connection to Sensation other than Wuhrer moving into an apartment that once belonged to a dead woman. Rather, director Brian Grant working from Doug Wallace’s script, throws a bunch of ideas at a wall to see if they stick. The new wave of “erotic thrillers” began, unofficially, in 1987 with Fatal Attraction. The peak of the genre’s popularity occurred in 1999 with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

I remember seeing Sensation in the middle of the night on HBO. I had a mad passion for Wuhrer ever since her stint as a “VJ” and co-host of MTV’s game show, Remote Control before she was replaced by Alicia Coppola in 1990. Some years later, she replaced Sabrina Lloyd on Sliders. Insanely gorgeous with a voluptuous body, it only made sense that she should become some kind of an ingénue or starlet. It didn’t quite work out that way, as she appeared in small parts in big movies, and bigger parts in smaller movies.

In Sensation’s (and several other movies featuring Wuhrer) case, she made her bones in direct-to-video and “skinemax” vehicles. Grant’s camera loves her as it lingers on her curves, even though she comes up short on presence and charisma.

The unimaginative script is riddled with cliché, but again Grant keeps us visually engaged with some stunning photography. Wuhrer plays artist/college student Lila who is engaged by scientist Eric Roberts to take part in a series of sensory experiments.

He believes impressions of people can be left behind on inanimate objects such as stockings or earrings. He gives Lila an object to study and then records her impressions and observations. Roberts has an ulterior motive as the objects belonged to a dead woman; a former student and lover of his. Think of it as a rip-off of Sliver with supernatural overtones. It is an interesting jewel-in-the-rough with an incredible cast joining Roberts (who is always reliable).

Ron Perlman is a detective who worked on the case of the dead woman. Ed Begley, Jr. pops up to harass Kari. Paul LeMat plays Wuhrer’s pervy new landlord. It’s a shame Sensation didn’t get the right kind of attention. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the movie could’ve used less scenes of erotica and sex and more emphasis on what could’ve been an interesting story. It could’ve also used a better actress than Wuhrer in the lead role. As relentlessly easy on the eyes as she is, her performance is one-note (read: tacky), she has one face, and she says everything in the same tone of voice.

For a little over a decade, erotic thrillers graced the programming schedules of premium cable channels. They were cheap, relatively easy to produce, and quick money-spinners that turned profits faster than big budget mainstream movies, until the bottom dropped out at the start of the new millennium.

Grant (who got his start directing music videos) tries to put an “artsy” spin on this overused premise, but well-photographed smut is still smut. Sensation (as with most erotic thrillers) could have benefited from less lacquer, less intrusive music, and less expository dialogue. The other day, I was thinking about a good performance and how a story can be told in an actor’s face. With as little dialogue as possible. A face can speak volumes. An inexperienced upstart needs the build-up of emotion and a dramatic liturgy to keep us interested.

Sensation borrows liberally from nearly every popular (or even marginally popular) erotic thriller released between 1987 and 2000. All of the tropes and archetypes of the sub-genre (itself a logical progression from the film noir of the ’40s and ’50s) are present and accounted for: the disturbed young woman, the jealous lover, the red herring ineffectual male rival, the less-attractive friend, and the ulterior motive. In addition, we have a killer running around seemingly bent on revenge against…who?

It can’t be Kari, because the killer doesn’t really know Kari. The screenwriter wants us to think Eric Roberts is the killer. Then he throws us Paul LeMat, which, I guess makes a little more sense, and then there’s Ed Begley, Jr., who seems to be there to create a negative male stereotype as well as another possible red herring. It’s weird watching him get fresh with Kari. I would’ve gone for a Jeff Fahey-type myself. When the killer finally surfaces, the dead woman appears in Kari’s dreams to warn her, which, I have to admit, is novel.

In the end, it’s revealed Kari has a gift (or “talent”) and she is encouraged to use that gift. I feel like this little detail wasn’t in the script and was wedged in at the insistence of an actor. Otherwise, the whole point of the exercise was to remove Kari’s clothes and film unabashed, non-stop sex scenes while Eric Roberts runs around wearing David Keith’s White of the Eye makeup in a series of increasingly bizarre dream sequences. Let’s be real about this.


David Lawler has written for Film Threat, VHS Rewind, Second Union, and his own blog, Misadventures in BlissVille. Lawler has produced several podcasts including That Twilighty Show About That Zone, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar (with co-host David Anderson), EQ Lawler/Saltz (with Alex Saltz), and Upstairs at Froelich's (with co-host John Froelich).

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