There aren't many people in the Venn diagrammatic intersection of "enjoys watching courtroom dramas" and "enjoys watching Madonna pour hot wax on Willem Dafoe's nether regions," which might go a long way toward explaining the dismal critical reception of Uli Edel's 1993 erotic thriller Body of Evidence. Having famously made Roger Ebert's "Most Hated" list ("It has to be seen to be believed—something I do not advise.") and earned the Queen of Pop one of her seven career Razzies, the film is nevertheless more maligned in the popular imagination than it deserves. Sure, the premise is absurd, the sex scenes more amusing than titillating, and the dialogue often mockable, but Body of Evidence is, like its femme fatale, inexplicably irresistible.
When an elderly Oregonian millionaire expires mid-coitus from heart failure, his lover, Rebecca (Madonna), is charged with—yes—banging him to death in order to collect the $8 million he's bequeathed her. Straight-laced lawyer and family man Frank Dulaney (Dafoe) takes Rebecca on as his client and privately expresses horror at her frank sexuality and sadomasochistic preferences: "All we did was make love," Rebecca defends herself at one point, to which a scandalized Frank replies, "In handcuffs!" Soon enough, though, he's drawn into her world, and partaking enthusiastically in all the naughtiness that Rebecca assures him goes on behind conservative Portlanders' closed doors (or in their parking garages).
Body of Evidence's treatment of relatively mild S&M as the height of salaciousness might seem quaint now, but set aside, the film unfolds as a marvelous example of Pacific Northwest gothic. Shot on location in Portland, its images of smeary lights through rain-drenched windows, dark wood interiors, damp cemeteries, and rusty train trestles—accompanied by an eerie score by Graeme Revell—are at times nearly William Friedkin–esque. The courtroom cat-and-mouse scenes, too, are oddly satisfying, and you can't claim Dafoe and company (including a young Julianne Moore, playing, unbelievably, the frumpy, jilted wife) aren't at least swinging for the fences. Body of Evidence might not be a great beauty, true enough. But give it a try, and you might discover unexpected pleasures.
Body of Evidence screens tonight, November 30, at Nitehawk Prospect Park on 35mm as part of the series “Nitehawk Diaries.”