The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Born of film noir and Alfred Hitchcock, erotic thrillers began to flourish in Hollywood in the 1980s, with Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) from Brian DePalma, and the knock-out success of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987). Although nudity in film had been acceptable for a couple of decades, mainstream American cinema didn’t quite know how to do softcore cinema the way the European’s had managed to. So it’s almost as if erotic thrillers provided a solution—sex can be shown as long as it was presented with a threat, and usually, a punishment. In the hands of crafty screenwriters, bold stars, and directors who were not bashful, the genre stands out for its ability to titillate, taking audiences on a wild ride where sex can undo marriages and careers.
Overwhelmingly, men are the centers of these stories. They are police detectives dealing with alluring suspects, attorneys ensnared by their clients, psycho-therapists seduced by a patient’s vulnerability. Suppressed desires rise to the surface. In Basic Instinct (1992), soon after meeting Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone), Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas, king of the genre) has forceful rough sex with Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who remarks “You’ve never been like that before. Why?” Maybe an untapped propensity towards kink has been aroused, as in Body of Evidence (1993) which finds defense attorney Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) submitting to client Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) who covers in him hot candle wax and pins him to broken glass on the hood of a car.
As in film noir, erotic thrillers follow a tradition of the “femme fatale”—women are typically a combination of conniving, damaged, and weak. In the 1990s, they are less often weak, though they may present themselves that way as a means to an end. Often they are revealed to be lifelong con artists. Sometimes the threat they pose comes from their power. Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore) in Disclosure (1994), boss of Bob Garvin (Michael Douglas again), forces herself sexually on him and then accuses him of assault as the company stands by her. In Basic Instinct, part of what makes Catherine Trammell so menacing is her commanding presence, and how unapologetic she is about her sexual appetite. She almost never lets her guard down, and when she does, it may simply be an effective manipulation technique.
One of the more interesting femme fatales of the 90s is Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) in The Last Seduction (1994). Placed front and center in the narrative rather than in the shadowy sidelines of a man, Bridget is intelligent and classy, manipulating men with a sort of glee. She abandons slimy husband Clay (Bill Pullman, ever the left-husband), taking his drug money with her, and sets herself up in an upstate jerkwater town. There she meets Mike (Peter Berg), a rube with aspirations who is impressed by her confidence. Initially using him for her sexual gratification, she concocts an elaborate scheme for which his naiveté is essential.
Without giving direct spoilers, it is important to mention a key difference from film noir—death or other punishment of the femme fatales is not necessarily how erotic thrillers wrap up. Often, yes, but in some of the best films of the genre the woman gets away with it and the man is the one left to pay the price for giving in to sexual impulse.
If mature women are seen as capable perpetrators of ruin, teenage girls are equally adept at undoing a man’s life. In Wild Things (1998), guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) is accused of rape by two students, the sullen loner Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) and perky cheerleader Kelly Lanier Van Ryan (Denise Richards). The movie has as many twists as you can pull off, but you can count on Sam being on the losing end. Resisting temptation doesn’t always get a man off the hook, as in The Crush (1993), which finds fourteen-year-old Adrian (Alicia Silverstone) unleashing hell on Nick (Cary Elwes), a writer staying in her parents’ guest house. Though Nick flirts with Adrian, he ultimately rejects her, igniting her to concoct an elaborate plan for revenge.
Going a step further, in Poison Ivy (1992), the titular Ivy (Drew Barrymore) manages to seduce an entire household, first catching the eye of daughter Sylvie (Sara Gilbert). Sexual attraction between women is a common thread in 90s erotic thrillers, whether it is a curiosity that leads to making out (Cruel Intentions, 1999), acknowledged romantic relationships (Basic Instinct), or simply part of the game of manipulation (Wild Things). Only in Bound (1996) do we find a romance central to the plot, with Corky (Gina Gershon, an incredibly hot plumber) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who meet and immediately smolder. The two concoct a plan to free Violet of her abusive boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), and to also free Caesar of the two million dollars he is holding onto. It is an immensely stylish and sexy entry into the genre, with no redeemable male character to speak of.
Sometimes the motivations of women in erotic thrillers are murky. Often it is money, which is a means to independence. In Impulse (1990), Lottie Mason (Theresa Russell) is an undercover cop who in a split-second decision, accepts money to go home with a dangerous man. Realizing she may be in over her head, she resolves to leave only to witness the man’s murder, finding herself in possession of a large bag of cash. Unlike other movies typical to the genre, she is not a polished, calculating deceiver, but rather a flawed person stuck with the consequences of an impulsive choice.
There are several “homme fatale” takes in the genre. Mark Wahlberg as David in Fear (1996) draws in Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) with his good looks and charming ways, only to later reveal an obsessive and violent nature that puts her family in danger. There are moments that are straight-up shocking, like when David carves “Nicole 4EVA” in his chest and a now-infamous roller coaster ride in which David pleasures Nicole.
David Cronenberg created another kind of “homme fatale” in Crash (1996), his adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel. As Dr. Robert Vaughan, Elias Koteas is both repulsive and captivating, seducing both James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger)—the only sex between men in a 90s erotic thriller to my knowledge. Though it plays outside the normal standards of the genre, Crash effectively fits as it outdoes almost any movie in the lengths it goes to for depravity.
A worthy outlier that does a complete inverse of the usual erotic thriller comes from Donna Deitch, whose only other feature, the lesbian period drama Desert Hearts (1985), has become an arthouse classic of sorts. In 1994 she directed Criminal Passion, in which Detective Melanie Hudson (Joan Severance) is seduced by murder suspect Connor Ashcroft (John Allen Nelson). It is refreshing to see the role reversal, with the female gaze in full effect as Melanie ogles Connor’s naked body (a rarity in all American cinema—male full-frontal nudity!), giving in to her desire even if it means putting her job on the line. Even as a cheap direct-to-video movie, it is well made, cast in shadows, with some humor in the mix (Connor gives Melanie a book called The Art of Erotic Ecstasy, you gotta love it).
There is a seemingly endless supply of direct-to-video erotic thrillers, movies made on the cheap for late night cable stations for those looking for a little intrigue without going to full on porn. It is a bounty of trashy treasures worthy of its own column. One standout is Fleshtone (1994), a Body Double riff in which Matthew Greco (Martin Kemp), a painter with an eye towards the macabre, gets involved in a sexy romance-by-phone with Edna. After receiving photos of her, at her request he paints her bisected as the waist (like the “Black Dahlia”), but when they finally set a time and place to meet, he finds her dead in exactly the position he painted her. Exactly the kind of set-up that makes erotic thrillers such an entertaining genre.
Other recommended viewing:
Color of Night (1994)
Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist who goes color blind after a patient commits suicide. Retreating to Los Angeles, he takes over a group therapy session after a fellow therapist is found murdered. It goes absolutely off the rails but to reveal anything would infringe on the fun. Just know the therapy group includes Lance Henriksen, Lesley Ann Warren, and Brad Dourif.
Love Crimes (1992)
Born in Flames (1983) director Lizzie Borden clearly had to make some compromises on this thriller produced by Miramax, but Love Crimes goes to some unexpected places. Starring Sean Young as an Atlanta attorney hellbent on catching David Hanover (Patrick Bergin, one year past Sleeping with the Enemy, same kind of creep), a photographer who exploits unsuspecting women. When she steps beyond her professional capacity to trap him, it dredges up her own sexual issues, and she manages to out-creep the creep.
Maybe one of the most out-there plotlines where egomaniac surgeon Alec Baldwin ultimately removes Nicole Kidman’s ovaries and Bill Pullman is once again a double-crossed husband.
The same year she played Amy Fisher, Drew Barrymore starred in this supernatural erotic thriller as a young woman who tries to escape her evil doppelganger. There are incredible special effects here and forgivable deliberate campiness. It’s the kind of madness you crave to discover on a late sleepless night.