With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The erotic thriller is an odd choice for franchise potential. Like romantic comedies, a lot of the success or failure of such films rests on the chemistry between their leads. Or rather, that’s normally the case: When it comes to the how-did-this-happen film series spun off from the trashy 1998 potboiler Wild Things, all the usual considerations seem to have gone out the window. It wasn’t a big financial success; none of the film’s four leads appeared to possess any real affinity for one another, let alone chemistry; and in retrospective considerations of its merits, the moniker “so bad it’s good” gets copiously applied, like a wet Floridian heat soaking sculpted bodies, preferably while a heavily reverbed guitar shreds some hoary Delta blues-rock riffs in the background.

The only thing lending any real continuity to this series of movies is the setting: The fictional Miami-adjacent town of Blue Bay, Florida is one of those universe-in-a-nutshell locales that seems to encompass every possible type of land and economic strata. From upper-crust families living down the road from immaculate golf courses to swampland-dwelling gator-wrestlers looking to sell contraband, the geography—and the Blue Bay high school that serves as the jumping-off point for these narratives—is as fluid and variable as the quality of plots, performances, and justifications for these films’ existence, save for “international tax write-off,” which is always a good reason to make art.

The sole connective tissue beyond geography is genre. Each of these films, though completely disassociated from one another, is a form of twisty crime thriller suffused with tawdry (and largely juvenile) titillation: The amount of slow-motion camerawork directed toward women in revealing outfits could rival that of a Michael Bay joint, if Michael Bay stopped half-heartedly pretending his lens wasn’t ogling any available pair of breasts in the vicinity of the frame. (Men’s breasts, too—we haven’t forgotten you, Pain & Gain.) But as the films progress, even their ostensible raison d’être—watching sexy people do illegal things while periodically engaging in sexy behavior—becomes perfunctory, a grim-faced reworking of the original’s anything-goes bravado. There’s the initial crime, the eventual twist, a requisite threesome, inevitable betrayals and double-crosses, all a process of diminishing returns, so much so that by the fourth and (hopefully) final film, the only thing the producers can think of to up the ante is another person in the sexy mix; that last one is literally subtitled Foursome.

But none of the latter movies would presumably have gotten made were it not for the semi-notoriety of the first one. Wild Things is a laughably dumb film, but almost embarrassingly watchable in its unashamed pursuit of hokey, salacious pandering to its intended audience of normally functional human brains slumming it for a couple hours. The plot is as flimsy as one of co-star Denise Richards’ outfits in the film, though the end credits do their best to convince you there was a smart and intricate web being woven before your eyes, thanks to flashbacks of previous scenes we hadn’t seen, in which all the mechanics and relationships that determined the course of events are depicted in comically blunt fashion. Actually, “comically blunt” sums up most of the things that happen in a film in which teenage girls team up with a high school guidance counselor to bilk a wealthy family out of millions, while getting it on repeatedly in the process.

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For a good portion of the film, the protagonist seems to be Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon), the aforementioned guidance counselor at Blue Bay High. After an opening sequence wherein Lombardo holds court over a class assembly—one apparently on the topic of “sex crimes,” which, kind of a weird choice of discussion for a high school assembly—he turns the matter of education on the subject over to local detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and his partner. However, this time at school is really just to introduce poor outcast bad girl Suzie (Neve Campbell) and wealthy teen seductress Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), the latter introduced lasciviously flirting with Lombardo by doing everything but repeatedly poking her index finger through a thumb-and-forefinger circle (hereby referred to as “the ol’ fuck-hand”). However, soon both Kelly and Suzie have individually accused Lombardo of rape, and it looks like his comfortable life of boating and bedding local socialites is at an end.

Of course, that’s far from the actual story. Detective Ray is convinced the girls are lying, and during his trial, Lombardo’s lawyer, Kenneth Bowden (inexplicably played by Bill Murray), exposes both girls as making up their stories. Lombardo sues, and nets a sizable settlement. Cut to: A scene in which Suzie, Kelly, and Lombardo all celebrate in a seedy hotel room by having a threesome. Anyone who’s seen the film knows this is where it gets truly ridiculous: Suzie is murdered by Lombardo, who conspired with Kelly to take her out; Kelly is then shot and killed by Ray, who we learn teamed up with Lombardo so the two could split the money; however, once they’re out celebrating on a boat, Ray is double-crossed by Lombardo and the unexpectedly alive Suzie (whose murder was faked by Lombardo). Then Suzie poisons Lombardo and sails away, stopping only to pick up her massive cash reward from her lawyer—you guessed it, Bill Murray’s Kenneth.

Sounds like it doesn’t really make sense? It doesn’t, at least not in any reasonable way. However, in what will become a hallmark of the series, a set of flashback scenes during the closing credits fills the audience in on all the little setups we weren’t privy to along the way, showing how each person was slowly roped into the scam, beginning at the very start with Campbell’s Suzie being the master manipulator. Here, it somewhat makes sense, in that it does indeed provide a sense of goofy fun as we see how this Rube Goldberg-ian web of double-crosses came together. By the last film, there’s just scene after unnecessary scene during the credits, where characters are literally saying things like, “How’d you like to make a lot of money?” The Usual Suspects, this is not.

Directed by John McNaughton, the original is grade-A cheese, and knows it. The opening shots of Dillon driving an airboat through the Nawlins bayou swamps, accompanied by a drum-heavy Delta blues soundtrack, set a tone that was then perfectly encapsulated by the hilarious Umbro-meets-Manic Panic Day-Glo font. It’s ’90s as hell, too, with Lombardo driving Kelly home to her gated community set to a musical montage of “Semi-Charmed Life” and Smash Mouth’s cover of “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” And despite the centerpiece threesome of Dillon, Campbell, and Richards—followed by a pool-set twosome of Campbell and Richards—Bacon doesn’t miss out on the nudity, with a closing-minutes full-frontal shot of him in the shower that’s delightfully gratuitous. The film is proudly ridiculous, and even the cutaways to alligators lounging in the water may as well include thought bubbles of the animals going, “It’s all in good fun, folks, don’t forget to tip your waiters. There’s another show at 11.”

Wild Things 2 is like someone took the script from the original and turned it into a game of Mad Libs, just replacing characters, settings, and jobs with slightly different ones. It starts with someone on an airboat in the bayou, but it’s a teen girl instead of Matt Dillon. Cops give a school-assembly presentation about the dangers of partying instead of sex crimes. The high school girls are filmed in slo-mo playing volleyball in revealing outfits rather than washing a car. And the phony rape charge has been replaced by a phony paternity claim. But it’s still two teen girls (now played by women in their late 20s) and a duplicitous older guy, along with a shady insurance claims investigator (Isaiah Washington) to take over for Bacon’s corrupt cop. It is almost slavishly imitative; prior to the requisite mid-film threesome, one of them suggestively says, “This is the last time we’re all gonna be together”—exactly as it occurred in the first.

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The plot, such as it is, features obnoxious townie-turned-rich-girl Brittney (yes, with two t’s), whose wealthy stepfather dies in a plane crash, and whose will stipulates that absent a true heir, she gets a pittance and his millions go to a country club. Cue the poor bad girl who steps in to claim she’s his daughter, aided by phony lab results supplied by the scheming coroner in on the con with them both. Of course, the girls soon double-cross the coroner, and after Washington’s insurance guy uncovers the plan and demands to be cut in on the deal, Brittney shoots her vixen-esque accomplice, frames the insurance man for the murder, then flies away with her still-alive stepfather, only to push him out of the plane, supposedly in punishment for the mother’s death. Oh, and since the mother is revealed to be alive at the end, as well, naturally we have a scene of Brittney seeming to poison her, because apparently everyone needs to be betrayed by film’s end.

It’s one of those terrible digital TV films where everyone acts like an asshole for no good reason, a mainstay of bad writing. Not only that, but the IQ of each character couldn’t possibly be above 80, given that every “plan” is executed in the dumbest or least competent manner imaginable. One of the girls sets up a midnight rendezvous with the express intent of killing the coroner, then gives him time to run off after she makes her murderous aim clear. People who have supposedly been putting this plan together for months suddenly act hilariously guilty the moment anyone asks them a basic question. By the time the girls are thwarted by police from dumping a body in the swamp, and instead decide to drive back home with the body still in their car, the viewer is understandably wondering why this cheap cash-in sequel thought featuring even less gratuitous T&A than its progenitor seemed like a smart decision.

Wild Things: Diamonds In The Rough lowers the stakes even further. Our Blue Bay-bred protagonist this time around is Marie, played by an actor old enough that I spent the first third of the film wondering if part of the plot involved a clearly older woman pretending to be a 17-year-old. Marie’s inheritance of a pair of valuable diamonds from her dead mother (can you guess if Mom turns up alive by the end?) is being threatened by her stepfather, who sues her to claim the rocks for himself. So we get another phony-rape accusation, this time by a girl from the juvenile system, Elena, introduced wearing an ankle monitor at the now-requisite opening student assembly. (Surprisingly, one bit of continuity is actor Linden Ashby, playing the same detective in 2 and 3.) The assembly this time features guest expert Dr. Chad Johnson, who runs the forensics lab at the police department. Why is he delivering a school talk about the importance of sex education? God only knows. He also turns up to personally handle the physical exam of Elena after she accuses Marie’s father, because apparently Chad is also a physician. Oh, and he’s additionally the lead forensic investigator at the crime scene. This movie is almost too plausible.

Diamonds In The Rough makes Wild Things 2 look like There Will Be Blood in terms of logic and characterization. Blue Bay’s favorite sport has changed from volleyball to diving, allowing plenty of chances for the camera to ogle the women masquerading as girls. No one behaves in a recognizably human manner: At one point during a high school pool party, Marie’s dad stumbles upon a topless teen girl hooking up with a guy behind some trees, and this young lady turns to him and says, “Oh hi, Mr. Clifton.” Oh hi, indeed. When Marie calls up Elena to offer her money in exchange for dropping the charges against Marie’s father, she hisses into the phone, “Listen to me, little slut. Get your ass over here right now. I wanna talk to you about something.” Clearly, Marie has a future as a shrewd negotiator.

Eventually it’s revealed that the two girls are in cahoots together, along with Chad, the dumbest physician/forensics expert in history, providing one of the most unintentionally hilarious beginnings to a threesome in cinematic history. As the nudity begins and Marie and Elena start getting it on, we hear a voice from behind: “Mind if Chad joins in?” Yes, Chad announces his arrival in the third person, and it is the best part of this awful movie. Obviously everyone slowly betrays one another—first Chad, then Elena, but all via elegantly constructed machinations such as Elena and Marie openly making out and plotting in front of other girls at school when they supposedly hate each other. The cops eventually have Elena wear a wire to get Marie to confess to killing Chad, which leads to Marie getting shot by the cops (don’t ask), and a “twist” reveal where we learn the woman cop is Elena’s birth mother, and the stepfather is killed in a celebration of girl power, or something. It’s flabbergasting.

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If nothing else, Wild Things 2 and Diamonds In The Rough feature one of the more confounding credits in recent memory: The writer of the first film gets a “based on characters created by” credit, despite literally none of the characters even being mentioned in subsequent films, let alone included as plot devices. Hell, the returning cop doesn’t even seem to remember the events of the second movie by the time the third comes along.

By the time Wild Things: Foursome stumbled into existence five years later in 2010, the only remaining link to the previous installments was the phony-rape charge plot point (not the best choice of ideas for continuity in your franchise, people) and the end-credits flashback scenes. To the idea the characters in Wild Things 2 and 3 are unlikable, Wild Things: Foursome says, “Hold my beer.” Not even pretending to give a shit if the protagonists are still in school (they’re technically in college, but the movie doesn’t care and neither should you), the film follows young people using said fake rape charge to free up an inheritance—for the sole reason that the main guy is too impatient to wait until he’s 30 to get his millions. So he teams up with two girls to hatch a plan to kill his father, then get himself accused of rape, leading him to get married to free up the money for his defense (per the oh-so-coherent details of his father’s will), then drop the accusation and enjoy the spoils. It barely nods in the direction of logic, let alone narrative structure, so by the time everyone starts getting bumped off, you’re just happy they’re gone.

The movie finds its one shred of onscreen plausibility in a detective played by the original Bo Duke himself, John Schneider, perhaps brought in to remind everyone what it looks like when a competent actor does his best to salvage rotten material. Unfortunately, he also makes everyone else’s performances resemble scenes that would get left on the cutting-room floor of a soft porn film for not being believable enough. For example, the reason the above trailer is available on the official YouTube channel for awful early aughts reality-TV boy band O-Town is because it stars Ashley Parker Angel, one of the members of said band. He plays the spoiled heir Carson, a performance that makes you wish O-Town were still together, just so that this wouldn’t exist. And while the other leads have actually gone on to do good work elsewhere (one of the two starring women is a main character on CBS’s Code Black, for example), Foursome is proof that if a script is execrable enough, it can drag down even the most game actor. Call it the Portman-In-Clones principle.

The Wild Things series is a prime example of something that should have left well enough alone, a stupidly entertaining original film that got reworked into three reprehensible films that are really sequels in name only, tired reiterations of the same basic concept that offer almost nothing of value. If you’re curious about the ostensibly provocative T&A—the only enticement these films can offer—you can find better simulated sex scenes in the average low-budget softcore film on Cinemax. And better acting in a Pornhub clip.

Final ranking:

1. Wild Things (1998)
2. Not watching anything
3. Wild Things: Diamonds In The Rough (2005)
4. Wild Things 2 (2004)
5. Wild Things: Foursome (2010)