The Lost Art of the Erotic Thriller

The erotic thriller rose to cinematic prominence with 1987's Fatal Attraction, and was dead in the water a decade later. What happened?

The Lost Art of the Erotic Thriller

Once upon a time, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman got stoned and discussed fidelity—the state of the union, if you will—for about 15 minutes straight, and for all the world to see. Not their union, but that of William and Alice, the characters they played in Stanley Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut. Against the golden glow of a bedroom lamp in the couple’s tony New York apartment, the scene unfurls like a ribbon of smoke in slow motion, keeping with the somnambulist pace of the movie whose dreamlike tone makes for an aerodynamic drag on its plot. He’s topless, she might as well be given the sheerness of her shirt, and they drift from affection to contempt, from pillow talk to real talk (or the approximation of it that such a stylized world allows). Nothing about their interaction suggests they have spent much time together, let alone that the stars had been married for more than eight years at the time of the film’s 1999 release.

Say what you will about its conservative core and the nonexistent chemistry of its then-married co-stars, Eyes Wide Shut nails the distinct flavor of confusion wrought by dreams. As the movie continues and Cruise’s doctor character drifts from one bizarre, innuendo-laden, and ultimately unsatisfying social interaction to the next, an unmistakable sense of what-the-fuck-was-that? mounts. Viewed today as an artifact, the film conveys a sort of meta-commentary on the subgenre whose conventions it played with and sometimes defied, the erotic thriller. This form that provocatively intertwined sex and violence and took up so much cultural space in the ’80s and early ’90s is now mostly dormant and seems itself like a thing of dreams looking back on it now. What the fuck was that?

The erotic thriller was to cinema history what Sharon Stone’s exposed vulva was to the genre’s vajazzled crown jewel, 1992’s Basic Instinct: A brief glimpse into the forbidden and a momentary flash so distracting as to remain indelible. In 1994, when film scholar Robert Barton Palmer published Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, he could convincingly argue that the erotic thriller was “perhaps the most popular genre in the 1990s.” But by the end of the decade, it was clear that flops had well outnumbered the smashes, and the genre had mostly migrated to the easily dismissed space of the small-budgeted direct-to-video market. By the new millennium, they were essentially gone, aside from the rare curiosity. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” could be said about movies in general, given the continually evolving industry. “They don’t make ‘em, period,” is more like it regarding the erotic thriller.

The erotic thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s are now dated in the best way possible, relics of a very specific time and place. They are small history lessons that underscore the anxiety over dangerous sex, as well as the somewhat conflicting interests of consuming sex and punishment in a single sitting. Only in the late ’80s and ’90s—after the sex wars, against the backdrop of AIDS, and in the midst of increasingly fraught public discussions of gender politics—could pleasure and pain intertwine so enthrallingly on film.

Defining parameters would probably be useful here, though, in keeping with the twisty nature of their plots, the erotic thriller is difficult to pin down precisely. British film studies professor Linda Ruth Williams defined the genre like so: “Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for onscreen softcore sex.” Bodily danger and pleasure must remain in close proximity and equally important to the plot.

Hallmarks of the genre include a femme fatale figure (the embodiment of dangerous sexuality), the testing and upholding of legality (via awry investigative procedure and courtroom drama), an adjective-noun naming convention (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Final Analysis, Mortal Passions, Wild Orchid), and gratuitous A-list full-frontal male nudity (Bruce Willis showed in The Color of Night, as did Kevin Bacon in Wild Things). Certain actors (Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Linda Fiorentino, Mickey Rourke), directors (Paul Verhoeven, Adrian Lyne), and writers (Joe Eszterhas) are associated with the genre. You’ll notice that many of those had a hand in the subgenre’s apotheosis, Basic Instinct.

it cannot be a mere coincidence that the deadliness of sex was being explored onscreen during a time when sex itself had been bestowed a newly deadly reputation in real life.

1987’s Fatal Attraction is generally credited with kicking off the erotic thriller craze proper, though the format had been germinating in mainstream cinema since the start of the decade via Brian de Palma’s Hitchcockian 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill and Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 steamfest Body Heat. In her 2008 memoir Send Yourself Roses, Body Heat star Kathleen Turner argues that it was precisely because they were working in an old-Hollywood framework that they were able to get away with the sexual explicitness that would set the tone for the ensuing decade: “Film noir has a formality and shape to it. Its very familiar form allowed people to accept more readily the daring content that we were presenting.”

Williams writes that erotic thrillers “operate with a constant awareness of masturbation as a prime audience response and index of the film’s success,” and it only follows that they thrived on home video. A 1993 USA Today article called the erotic thriller “one of the fastest-growing genres in video stores,” reporting that these “dressed-up and sexed-up B-movies,” could be made cheaply and quickly. But while the direct-to-video market was an important part of the overall narrative of the erotic thriller, I’m much more interested in what Hollywood got away with in the light of day (which is to say, the glow of the multiplex’s silver screen).

“The best thing to me about the erotic thriller is it takes everything that is usually sort of treated in ellipses and film and just looks at it directly for as long as it takes,” Dr. Veronica Fitzpatrick told me recently by phone. Fitzpatrick is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in modern culture and media at Brown University, an erotic thrillers enthusiast, and a contributor to the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, whose July issue focuses on the erotic thriller. Fitzpatrick recalled being “blown away” by the camera lingering on the sex between Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke during a recent viewing of 9 1/2 Weeks. “It just goes on so much past the duration of what it takes for you to understand, OK, they’re having sex now,” she said.

“It was also a time period where women were battling between recognizing that sexualizing their bodies could be a lucrative experience for a very narrow window of women”

The erotic thriller thrived against the backdrop of what German sexologist/sociologist Volkmar Sigusch deemed the “neosexual revolution,” “a tremendous cultural and social transformation of sexuality during the 1980s and 1990s” that served to dismantle “the old patterns of sexuality and reassembling them anew.” Dr. Nina K. Martin, a professor of film studies at Connecticut College, told Jezebel that the so-called sex wars between pro- and anti-porn feminists played a key role in the genre’s ascendance. “Because of the newness of those kinds of discourses swimming around popular culture I think [the erotic thriller] became kind of popular at that time,” she said.

The erotic thriller’s early ‘80s rise to its mid-‘90s fall overlapped directly with the plague years of AIDS. While few of the genre’s entries, if any, addressed AIDS directly as a source of terror, it cannot be a mere coincidence that the deadliness of sex was being explored onscreen during a time when sex itself had been bestowed a newly deadly reputation in real life. AIDS was so in the forefront of the conversation that a journalist asked Madonna during an interview for the 1993 flop Body of Evidence why there were no condoms to be seen in the movie. “We don’t talk about it in the movie, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t practice it,” Madonna replied. “I don’t think you have to hit somebody over the head and every time there’s a sex scene, pull out a box of condoms. I mean, this is a fantasy. I’m not saying I condone her behavior. I played a character.”

“It was also a time period where women were battling between recognizing that sexualizing their bodies could be a lucrative experience for a very narrow window of women,” said Martin.

The erotic thriller offered an opportunity to convene in the multiplex for the express purpose of watching sex, without any seedy, trench coat associations that porn took on soon after its initial “porno chic” splash in the early ’70s mainstream culture. Porn flick narratives, when they existed at all, tended to embody the ethos that the debut of the birth-control pill fomented the decade prior: “pleasure without regret,” as Sigusch summarized. The erotic thriller offered pleasure with a cost, and sometimes the greatest possible cost imaginable: the loss of human life. The danger came primarily via the noir archetype of the femme fatale.

“There’s a way in which the femme fatale is this kind of like portal or chaperone for usually a cop to go from the world of normality into the world of noir or the erotic thriller,” explained Fitzpatrick. “She opens the door and he wants to walk through it.”

Martin pointed out that while the classic femme fatale was often as deadly as her erotic thriller counterpart, the latter was made up of “more enigmatic, mysterious women whose motivations were unknown.”

“They were more ciphers,” she continued. “Even in a film like Body Heat or Basic Instinct or The Last Seduction, gender politics aside, those women had a lot of agency and they also had a lot of narrational strength. They already had figured out this story and the men were much more dupes. There’s something more pleasurable for women during that time period watching those films because the men were so stupid and they just got led around by their dicks.”

It is also useful to view the erotic thriller in context of the violent cinematic fare that had preceded it. In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween set the template for the slasher subgenre that dominated horror for the next 10+ years. Those movies almost inevitably featured a male figure preying on groups of young people that dwindled down to a single “final girl,” the term coined by film scholar Carol J. Clover. If the slasher film were to be summed up by one image, it would undoubtedly be the prototypical panicked teen girl covered in blood.

In the erotic thriller, it was the man who was most often in danger. The femme fatales came in the form of bisexual novelists (Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone), high-powered executives (Disclosure’s Meredith Johnson, played by Demi Moore), an ostensibly mentally ill woman experiencing “pathological intoxication” (Final Analysis’s Heather Evans, played by Kim Basinger), a career mistress (Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close), and a redux Lolita figure in a movie that set out to directly replicate Fatal Attraction (Poison Ivy’s Ivy, played by Drew Barrymore). The most blatant depiction of the femme fatale is perhaps Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) in Body of Evidence, who is described with the subtlety of a lead pipe to the head by the prosecutor of her murder trial as “no [different] than a gun or a knife or any kind of weapon.” Forget the metaphor, this woman was deadly by nature.

At last, after years of slashers, women got to be the serial killers, albeit by using their bodies. They often preyed on authority figures—cops, therapists, executives—but they were still working within a patriarchal framework that reduced their power to their vaginas. In the words of Madonna’s Rebecca: “I fucked you, I fucked Andrew, I fucked Frank. That’s what I do; I fuck. And it made me eight million dollars!” If the erotic thriller bespoke a certain anxiety about the potential for societal breakdown in the wake of women’s sexual agency, it’s hardly a coincidence that these movies were almost entirely written and directed by men. That said, so were most movies. In fact, they still are!

Critic Susan Wloszczyna, who wrote for USA Today in the ‘90s (and was one of the few, if the only, to recognize the camp appeal of Showgirls upon its release, as she did in her USA Today review), told Jezebel that the erotic thriller provided an alternative to the testosterone-fronted action flicks of the day. “I appreciated them without them being embarrassed,” she said

A BBC article that ran in June argued in its headline that “Basic Instinct defined the erotic thriller—and killed it,” with writer Nicholas Barber reasoning that the 1992 Verhoeven flick “took every aspect of the erotic thriller to such outrageous extremes that there was nowhere left for any film in the same vein to go.” Ultimately, “Making an erotic thriller after Basic Instinct was like making a space opera just after Star Wars came out.”

Nothing matched Instinct’s cultural impact (it grossed $117.7 domestically), though Barry Levinson’s 1994 film Disclosure was a bonafide hit ($83 million domestically). But this was not for lack of trying. Phillip Noyce’s 1993 movie Sliver reteamed Sharon Stone and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas in a peek into voyeuristic dystopia set in a high-rise whose units are all outfitted with hidden cameras. William Friedkin’s 1995 Jade (based on yet another Eszterhas script, albeit one he claims in his memoir was butchered by Friedkin) tantalized with the concept of a sex worker who was prized for her willingness to do anal, while David Cronenberg’s 1996 slow burn Crash explored car-accident fetishes.

And then there was 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s stab at the genre (or something like it), based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle, about a couple whipped into crisis upon the very introduction of the concept of extramarital sex. The story is a fascinating interrogation of monogamy as social order, and yet the movie avoids sex by design, luxuriating in unrealized opportunity. Whereas Fitzpatrick above praised the erotic thriller for teasing out what is usually left elliptical in other genres, Eyes Wide Shut is nothing but ellipses.

It wasn’t that the drive to explore via this subgenre dried up. Like all things in Hollywood, it was about money. Erotic thrillers just stopped making money, and outside of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, few did any business really worth noting. I think the death knell sounded upon the back-to-back flops of Showgirls and Jade, which were released less than a month apart in the fall of 1995. Though Showgirls cannot reasonably be labeled an erotic thriller—one rape-revenge scene and volatile protagonist prone to vomiting, throwing French fries, and flailing wildly does not a thriller make. Showgirls was a heavily hyped, generously budgeted reunion of Verhoeven and Eszterhas. Its bloat and meager box office grosses combined made for the ultimate high-profile bomb. Jade, also written by Eszterhas, was a similar financial disaster, and one that wasn’t even fun it its trashy ineptitude.

As The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway explained to the Guardian in a 2019 piece on the death of the cinematic sex scene, “Hollywood is simply no longer in the business of making mid-budget character dramas that might or might not include physical bonding.” Certain streaming platforms have taken up the mid-budget mantle, but with the preponderance of internet porn (and supposed ability that actors feel to advocate for themselves in the wake of MeToo), you can see how low-priority showcasing bold-faced softcore sex might be for creators. In any event, it’s migrated to television and lost the thriller elements.

But why? Key players had theories and they involved the shifting cultural landscape of the United States. Verhoeven and writer Nicholas Meyer (who did uncredited writing on Fatal Attraction) told the Hollywood Reporter that George W. Bush’s America was simply too conservative to sustain the erotic thriller in a 2006 piece pegged to the commercial failure of Basic Instinct 2. Said the former: “Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States. Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.”

Times indeed had changed, and we can’t ignore that some trends—especially topical trends—just weren’t meant to last. In some ways, the erotic thriller was no longer needed because it ceased speaking to the fears and interests of the viewing public. Though AIDS still claims far too many lives, the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) made HIV a manageable condition for many with access to it. HAART became commercially available in 1996, the year after Showgirls and Jade bombed. And of course, so much attention in the late ’90s was directed at the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, a sort of erotic thriller that played out in real time (and using the wrong notes—now more Americans are better equipped to view it as the abuse of power that it was and not some temptress snare). If Basic Instinct was tough to top, Clinton and Lewinsky were utterly impossible.

“There is a kind of just like horndog cheesiness to [erotic thrillers],” said Fitzpatrick. “In the Internet that I’m on, there’s so much kind of worry and self-awareness and, the sort of politicization of consent and all this stuff that feels really at odds with the erotic thriller.” Adding to the idea that they are outmoded, Martin observed that the genre was “terribly white” (with some exceptions like the Trois series). “I think people are focused on other issues, like race and the wealth gap in Hollywood,” she said.

There is some hope for those who fetishize the form: Adrian Lynne will reportedly return to the subgenre next year with the Ben Affleck-starring Deep Water. Just as the erotic thriller reanimated noir for modern sensibilities, so might this movie and whatever it yields do for the erotic thriller. It has a lot to live up to: Part of the joy in erotic thrillers is their self-seriousness, the sleek and carnality of sex they portrayed. For the most part, the refusal to ever let on that it knows or even cares about its own ridiculousness, combined with the camp-enhancing remove of a few decades, makes the erotic thriller a trove for the pleasures of reexamination. Despite itself, the erotic thriller made on-screen sex fun. How unfortunately rare that has become.

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