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A lost world

How many film noir movies can you name off the top of your head? Go ahead, stop reading for a moment and try to do it.

Could you name as many as three? Five? Ten? What images flash through your mind when you hear the words film noir? Men in black fedora hats…women in lace veils…strips of fading sunlight on the wall of a cluttered office…an old Ford with fat wheels gliding over wet pavement…a police interrogation chamber lit by a triangle of light…?

Ask anyone to try this. Most people will remember titles such as The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944) or The Maltese Falcon (1941). Digging deeper, they might recall Touch of Evil (1958), Sunset Boulevard (1950), or even This Gun for Hire (1942). These are the films that show up on all the “best of” lists; the Hollywood movies glittering with names that evoke the glorious silvertone world of the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, Marie Windsor, Gene Tierney, Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd, Jane Russell, Dan Duryea. But the story of film noir is much deeper than a half-dozen films. Like the greater part of an iceberg, lurking beneath a few marquee studio pictures is a vast submarine world of low budget films made on a wing and a prayer. Most have amusingly similar titles. The Big Combo (1955). The Big Heat (1953). The Big Knife (1955). Accused of Murder (1956). An Act of Murder (1948). Dear Murderer (1947). Man in the Attic (1953). Man in the Dark (1953). Man in the Shadow (1957). Shadow of a Woman (1946). The Woman in White (1948). Woman on the Run (1950). Call Northside 777 (1948). Dial 1119 (1950). 99 River Street (1953). 711 Ocean Drive (1950). The Killers (1946). The Killing (1956). Killer’s Kiss (1955). And one of my favorite titles: Kill Me Tomorrow (1957). Michael F. Keaney’s Film Noir Guide tells us there are over 700 films in the roll-call of film noir. Easily three times that many books on the subject have been published in the past fifty years. Visit the film noir section of any academic library. It occupies shelf space from head to toe and stretches as far as your hands can reach on either side. Even if most people haven’t read these books, they are familiar with the world of film noir through the many films influenced by it. They know its stock characters, its themes, and its imaginary landscape.

cat chaser erotic thrillerThe double page Trade Ad for Cat Chaser (1989) from Video Store Magazine.

What if I told you there is another, forgotten world of American film history like film noir, and its imaginary landscape occupies a similar place in our shared imagination? A world articulated by the same number of films and illuminated by its own pantheon of glamorous icons. A world of films that secretly dominated neighborhood video stores and late-night cable television for over a decade in a film cycle that surfaced and submerged without anyone, even its own practitioners, knowing how vast it had become. Unlike film noir, however, there is no dedicated section of the library for books about these films. No film festivals. No comprehensive guides. It’s a world that has been lost in time.

The 25th anniversary of Basic Instinct (1992) in 2017 prompted a few publications to take a renewed look at something called the erotic thriller, an illusive film subgenre that seemed to quietly emerge on the outskirts of Hollywood in the 1980s, gain momentum after the release of the controversial domestic thriller Fatal Attraction in 1987, then explode in popularity after Basic Instinct hit theaters in 1992. The Den of Geek! article “The Erotic Thrillers That Followed Basic Instinct’s Success” was the first. In no less than its Sunday print edition, The Washington Post followed suit by devoting a full page to the question: “Where Have the Erotic Thrillers Gone?”. This prompted Esquire to offer a list of “The 35 Sexiest Erotic Thrillers” and Vice‘s Broadly to launch an investigation into “The Gruesome Demise of the 90s Erotic Thriller”. Struggling to identify signature films, the writers of these articles all referenced the same, small pool of studio pictures: Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Sea of Love (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Body of Evidence (1992), Jade (1995), Wild Things (1998),  Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Most people are familiar with these films. These are the high profile erotic thrillers on all the “best of” lists; the studio films glittering with name actors. Once in a while a dark horse like John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994) might creep in, or in an attempt to diversify the stable Jane Campion’s gorgeously tactile In the Cut (2003) will get a mention.

But some of us remember what it was like to walk the long, carpeted aisles of Blockbuster Video, and our recollection of late-night cable TV in its early days tells us there must be a significant part of the story not being told. We remember there were more of these films. Probably a lot more. The baiting, double-barreled titles were unmistakable. Illicit Behavior. Criminal Passion. Die Watching. Each was a whispered invitation to peek behind a closed bedroom door and steal a glimpse at forbidden passion, dangerous desire, secret sin. The abundance of these films was evidenced by the many bewildering sequel numbers tacked onto films we never saw the first time. Animal Instincts 2Secret Games 3Night Eyes 4? By the time you became aware of an erotic thriller in the 90s, it had already multiplied.

In 1995 the thriller section of every neighborhood video store was a parade of half-naked men and women in lusty embraces; yet inspecting the video box further, we often noted the silver barrel of a gun held just out of sight, or the flash of a knife pressed into the small of a back.

thriller erotico dtvThe VHS boxes for Perfect Strangers (1984), Deadly Passion (1985), Backfire (1987), In the Heat of Passion (1992), and The Corporate Ladder (1997). These images clearly illustrate how the sex/death iconography of the erotic thriller was fully in place as early as the mid-1980s.

The provocative tag-lines are still amusing:

“If you think you can handle her, you’re dead wrong.”
Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry 3 (1994)

“When passions run this hot, someone’s bound to get burned.”
Deadly Desire (1991)

“When adultery turns to obsession, the climax may be murder.”
Deadly Embrace (1989)

If we were bold enough to rent these films, perhaps sandwiching a few between Pretty Woman (1990) and Jurassic Park (1993), we might recall they were all set in an alternate reality that was always somewhere in Los Angeles: a sun-drenched landscape of designer homes, poolside resorts, and beach houses flanked by slender palm trees. There was a nightside to this world also: a neon-lit metropolis of upscale strip clubs, moonlit alleys, and arty loft apartments in urban warehouses. Deep red, hot pink, and luminous magenta were splashed on every surface, and no amount of artificial blue moonlight was too much in this shadow-land on the outskirts of Hollywood.

The stories we remember were like dark parables for mainstream society. Bored, disillusioned housewives on odysseys of sexual exploration. Bodyguards drawn into risky affairs with lonely rich women. Lust and revenge behind closed doors in corporate highrises. Hidden cameras and secret photos. Guns in designer handbags. These parables seemed all designed to communicate the same abstraction, told over and over in a myriad of arousing and secretive ways: desire is dangerous.

erotic thriller dangerous touchKate Vernon and Lou Diamond Phillips in Dangerous Touch (1994).

The hazy, soft-focus contours of this nocturnal kingdom obscured more than its fictions, and behind a seemingly naive imitation of Hollywood lurked something uncanny, like store mannequins stepping off their pedestals to mimic shoppers after hours. Were these expensive-looking shadow-plays “real” movies, or a new kind of upscale, boutique pornography? The actors in these films, like the glamorous icons of film noir, occupied a mirror-pantheon erected in imitation of Hollywood’s star system. Shannon Tweed. Andrew Stevens. Shannon Whirry. Delia Sheppard. Martin Hewitt. Lisa Comshaw. Gabriella Hall. Landon Hall. Griffin Drew. Bobby Johnson. David Christensen. Monique Parent. Kira Reed. Nancy O’Brien. Douglas Jeffery. Jennifer Burton. Daniel Anderson. Rochelle Swanson. Julie Strain. Jodie Fisher. Tim Abell. Tané McClure. Lisa Boyle. Throughout the 1990s these actors were a traveling theater troupe whose stage was late-night cable TV and the shelves of Blockbuster video. Each entered and exited that stage on queue, through the hidden doorways and dark curtained passages of the home video industry. Like mythical sirens, they clashed by night in a bioluminescent sea of adult fantasy, and their mating rituals — photographed like Playboy magazine spreads accompanied by throbbing soul jazz reminiscent of Sade or the downtempo worldbeat of Enigma — were frequent and mesmerizing. The camera lingered on arched backs, exposed breasts, and the pre-Raphaelite beauty of a woman’s upturned and ecstatic face, her eyes closed, her mouth partly open. Entering the mysterious world of these films late at night — and it was always late at night — was like entering a shopping mall through the perfume section of a major department store. The air was so rarified it was difficult to breathe, and the act of looking imparted the pleasurably uncomfortable feeling a privacy of some kind had been violated.

thriller eroticoMany DTV erotic thrillers feature women on aspirational journeys to “the dark side of desire”. In Ultimate Desire (1993), desire is literally a perfume used by a killer to mark each victim.

It was in fond remembrance of this lost world that one of the articles published in 2017 did something new and unexpected for the first time. Donald Liebenson’s Vanity Fair HWD article “The Sexpendables: How Basic Instinct Birthed a Schlocky, Sexy Cottage Industry” marked the first time any major publication had stooped to reference a few of the numerous but now forgotten late night thrillers such as Night Eyes (1990), Body Chemistry (1990), and Animal Instincts (1992) in the same breath as a lofty studio film like Basic Instinct (1992). This was a door in popular writing that, for nearly 25 years, had remained firmly shut. No enthusiast of these films could be anything but thunderstruck to find a picture of Animal Instincts star Shannon Whirry on the same page as a picture of Sharon Stone. It was as if the streams had finally crossed, the poles had switched from minus to plus, and there was at last, miraculously and for the first time, some official recognition these lost, low-budget erotic thrillers were not just knockoffs designed to cash in on the success of Basic Instinct, but a wave of innovative B-movies Hollywood leveraged for its blockbuster successes. Was this article a sign the tide was turning? Was this forgotten film subgenre, treasured only by a secretive and diffuse tribe of late night movie aficionados, finally getting some long overdue recognition?

The answer is an unequivocal maybe. It’s possible as a new generation looks back on the pre-internet, pre-ironic world of the 1990s, the unapologetically sincere late-night films of the era are acquiring a certain nostalgic luster. A running joke on the 2016 Netflix comedy series Love (2016-2018) was nerdy lead character Gus Cruikshank’s fascination with the erotic thriller as a lost film movement, and his determination to make one of his own despite the doubts of his hipster friends. For a show obsessed with the awkward sexual inhibitions of its millennial characters, the yearning for hot, uninhibited adult romance is easy to understand. In the first season, Gus tries to explain what an erotic thriller is to his would-be girlfriend Mickey:

GUS: Have you ever heard of, um, erotic thrillers?
MICKEY: Like, horror porn?
GUS: No, more like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct or, like, Brian De Palma movies. You know, people loved those movies and they made a whole bunch of ’em, but now they don’t anymore.
MICKEY: Yeah, I guess now with the internet, you don’t have to go to a movie theater to see boobs.

How many, we wonder, is a whole bunch of ‘em?

As it turns out, it’s a historically significant number. It’s a number far greater than even the producers, writers, and directors of these films thought possible. In 2016 I began producing a documentary titled We Kill for Love in order to investigate the lost world of these films. I tracked down directors, writers, producers, actors, and other practitioners of the DTV erotic thriller and I interviewed them about their work. In 2019 I spoke with B-movie director Fred Olen Ray (the director of a dozen erotic thrillers throughout the 1990s) at his home in Studio City, Los Angeles. I asked him how many erotic thrillers he thought were made from 1980-2005? “A few hundred, tops” was his guess. When I told him I had by then found over 625, he laughed out loud in disbelief. In sheer size alone, the erotic thriller surely demands consideration as one of the largest, specifically American film movements of the 20th century; so why does the bulk of it, like an ancient city, remain to be excavated? My six-year attempt to answer that question started in a Chicago library.

Media archaeology

When I began my search for these films, I thought if I could find a few academic books about 1990s thrillers, these might collaterally include a few erotic thrillers I could add to my growing list of films to watch. I couldn’t believe my eyes when, standing alone in the Mansueto library at the University of Chicago, I found an entire book on the subject. Reading The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005), written by UK academic Linda Ruth Williams, was like reading a book about the lost city of Atlantis written by someone who had actually been there. This led me to a second book, Nina K. Martin’s 2007 Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller. Martin took a more feminist and psychoanalytic look at the subgenre. David Andrews devotes a sizable portion of his 2006 book Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in its Contexts to a discussion of erotic thrillers as they relate to the “paracinematic” world of the American softcore industry. Besides these, I discovered a handful of academic articles scattered across many obscure or now extinct journals, such as Douglas Keesey’s 2001 CineAction article “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre” and Robert Eberwein’s 1998 article “The Erotic Thriller” for Post Script. For me these five sources, combined, were like a map to hidden treasure. When I emerged from the library I had a list of about 250 films. What I didn’t have at the time was a clear definition of the very thing I was searching for.

Genre definitions are not easy to come by, and as anyone who studies film genre can testify, there is cross-pollination and hybridization within and across genres. There are Westerns that look like science fiction films and science fiction films that look like thrillers. The vessel can sometimes be confused with its contents. Also, from a purely economic standpoint, home video distributors in the 1990s were less concerned with honoring genre taxonomy than they were with selling tapes. Given the success of erotic thrillers on home video, many films of the era baited customers with provocative titles, lusty imagery on video boxes, and erotic thriller code words such as “seductive” and “steamy” in industry trade ads. This kind of mimicry was common with many made-for-TV romance thrillers (a tangential film type I cover at the end of this casefile), a few action films, and a raft of European slashers.

dangerous ads thriller eroticoThe egregiously misleading VHS video box cover for The Dangerous (1995) compared to an image used to market the film today. The half-naked woman has been replaced by a phallic sword, Paula Barbieri’s name has been removed from the top-line credits and now only male actors are listed, and what a tag line change!

In order to cleanly separate erotic thrillers from films that merely camouflaged themselves as erotic thrillers, in 2015 I developed a simple working definition, synthesized from the academic writing and my own viewing of many films. First and foremost, an erotic thriller must be a thriller. To avoid spiraling into a prolonged definition of the thriller as a discrete film genre, for the sake of this survey it’s best to say thrillers come in easily recognizable variants: the mystery thriller, the detective thriller, the obsession thriller, the suspense thriller, etc. There are many exemplary films clustered around these designations and identifying them is not difficult. Second, an erotic thriller must be a thriller in which its psychosexual element — some formation of dangerous desire, illicit romance, or erotic fantasy — is central to the plot. Finally, the erotic thriller must have scenes of sexual spectacle that justify its PG-13 or R rating. Though the frequency and amount of sexual spectacle varies widely across films (thus a few are rated PG-13 but most are either R or simply unrated) this necessary genre element — like a monster in a monster movie or improbable surveillance technology in a spy thriller — is expected by all fans.

This working definition helped me isolate verifiable erotic thrillers from a wide spectrum of films. The first two rules unequivocally separated erotic thrillers from the many garden-variety suspense thrillers, dark dramas, action films, and slashers I found that happened to contain a bit of nudity or simulated sex but were not centrally concerned with the abstraction desire is dangerous. The third rule separated erotic thrillers from a huge swath of timid romance thrillers that traded in that abstraction without delivering sexual spectacle.

The term “erotic thriller” began to circulate in the 1980s to describe this new thriller variant. By the early 1990s the phrase was being used in trade ads to appeal to video stores and on video boxes to bait customers. Accelerated by a few massively successful Hollywood films that ignited the market at intervals, erotic thrillers were made as fast (and toward the late 1990s, faster) than the worldwide direct-to-video, or DTV, market could keep up. This market, which included in-store video rentals, cable television, and pay-per-view movies in hotels, was hungry for R-rated content but intolerant of traditional X-rated films, even those cut down to an R rating. This “family-friendly” environment, cultivated throughout the 1980s in reaction to cultural shifts of the 1960s and 70s, proved to be essential to the life of the DTV erotic thriller. It supplied regulated doses of erotic content within the upscale package of a traditional film genre, and it thrived in close relationship to a smaller collection of financially successful Hollywood erotic thrillers. As Linda Ruth Williams later discovered, this relationship was beneficial for both parties. As the DTV films served as a laboratory for the development of ideas central to the erotic thriller, Hollywood amplified those ideas into films which became massive, defacto advertising campaigns for the DTVs. As many trade ads from the era testify, the DTV erotic thriller was one of the top-selling video products of the 1990s.

animal instincts 2The double-page trade ad for Gregory Dark’s Animal Instincts 2 (1994), starring erotic thriller icon Shannon Whirry.

To find and document as many of these as possible, I cross-referenced actor filmographies. I tracked down VHS tapes, laserdiscs, and DVDs. I scoured clandestine file trading sites. Similar to film noir, a few key words unlocked hundreds of titles:

PASSIONCrimes of Passion (1984), Deadly Passion (1985), Passion Flower (1986), Mortal Passions (1989), In the Heat of Passion (1992), In a Moment of Passion (1993), Criminal Passion (1994), Fatal Passion (1995), Deadlock: a Passion for Murder (1997), Dark Passion (1998), Sheer Passion (1998), When Passions Collide (1997), Hidden Passion (2000), Passion’s Obsession (2000), Passion Crimes (2001), Tropical Passions (2002), Dangerous Passions (2003), Trail of Passion (2003), Passionate Deceptions (2005).

KILLDressed to Kill (1980), If Looks Could Kill (1986), Stripped to Kill (1987), Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989), Easy Kill (1990), Kill Me Again (1989), Kiss Me a Killer (1991), Write to Kill (1991), Ladykiller (1992), Through the Eyes of a Killer (1992), Killer Looks (1994), Killing Jar (1994), The Soft Kill (1994), Killing for Love (1995), Killer Instinct (1991), The Killer Inside (1996), Killing Me Softly (2002).

OBSESSIONDangerous Obsession (1989), Twisted Obsession (1989), Deadly Obsession (1989), Dark Obsession (1990), Intimate Obsession (1992), Naked Obsession (1992), Hidden Obsession (1993), Tortured Obsession (1993), Beyond Obsession (1994), Blindfold: Acts of Obsession (1994), Double Obsession (1994) , Killing Obsession (1994), Shadow of Obsession (1994), Desperate Obsession (1995), Private Obsession (1995), Evil Obsession (1996), Object of Obsession (1998), Sinful Obsession (1999), Passion’s Obsession (2000), Sex, Lies, and Obsession (2001), Dark Obsession (2002), Deviant Obsession (2002).

SEXSexual Response (1992), Sexual Intent (1993), Sexual Outlaws (1994), Sex and the Other Man (1995), Sexual Roulette (1996), Sex, Secrets, and Betrayals (2000), Sexual Intrigue (2000), Dead Sexy (2001), Sexual Predator (2001), Stolen Sex Tapes (2001), The Sex Spa (2003).

DEATHDeadly Passion (1985), Deadly Desire (1991), Deadly Surveillance (1991), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1991), Dance With Death (1992), Death Dancers (1993), Dead On (1994), Deadly Eyes (1994), Dark and Deadly (1995), Deadly Past (1995), Deadly Sins (1995), Dead Heart (1996), Dead Tides (1996), Deadly Charades (1996), Deadlock: A Passion for Murder (1997), Kiss of Death (1997), Dead by Dawn (1998), Interlocked: Thrilled to Death (1998), Dead Sexy (2001), Deadly Betrayal (2003).

This was just the tip of the iceberg. When my list of films grew to 400, then 500, then finally to over 700, I knew I was onto something. As the academic writers had discovered in the early 2000s, these illusive yet abundant films, united by their exposition and articulation of the same theme, amounted to a lost continent of American cinema. I looked back at the early days of my research and wondered why the same studio pictures — Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Sea of Love (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Body of Evidence (1992), Jade (1995), Wild Things (1998),  Eyes Wide Shut (1999), In the Cut (2003) — were referenced over and over in articles about the erotic thriller as if this small collection defined its scope and possibilities?

Dead media

The easiest explanation for why the erotic thriller is narrowly defined by one small collection of studio films is simply that the much lower budget DTV films aren’t readily available anymore. Many were released only once on VHS tape — raise your hand if you can play one of those — and though some made the jump from VHS to DVD, most titles have been out-of-print for decades. Of the 700+ erotic thrillers I’ve found so far, perhaps a third remain on VHS or laserdisc without a DVD release. Some films were photographed in Los Angeles but released only in Russia, the U.K., Brazil, or Germany. Of these, a few were captured from cable TV broadcasts in far away places and they occasionally surface on clandestine file trading sites.

Physical media itself is quickly becoming a boutique collector’s pastime, and though a few DTV erotic thrillers from the 1990s magically appear and then just as quickly disappear on streaming services as owners dust off film cans and pay for expensive restorations, the technological landscape shifts too quickly for most to keep up. From SD to HD to 4K and beyond, each technological upgrade requires film reels to get spooled back onto scanning stations and charges are by the foot. When I spoke with Andrew Garroni, former producer at DTV erotic thriller powerhouse Axis Films International, the metal cans containing the original Animal Instincts (1992) 35mm film negatives were stacked in a corner of the room. Garroni lamented the cost of a new 4K film scan, which some streaming services required. The best way to watch a DTV erotic thriller may still be on an actual CRT tube television from the 1990s. The “tape heads” of today, a growing subculture of physical media enthusiasts who collect forgotten movies on VHS, may not have a Blu-ray player, but they will certainly own a VHS deck.

vhs thriller eroticoMany erotic thrillers from the DTV era were released only on VHS tape. Some, such as Secret Sins (1992), have been abandoned by their makers and do not even have IMDb entries.

So obsolescence certainly helps explain why the DTV films remain unseen and therefore rarely considered. It’s also why the studio films, owned by corporations that can afford to maintain large film libraries, are still available. Yet even this technological hurdle cannot itself account for the near invisibility of a film subgenre that dominated the home video market for 15 years. As the rapid ascension of horror as the premiere American film subculture testifies, fans inevitably discover and canonize countless lost films. No stone has been left unturned in the horror genre, and once obscure films like Black Christmas (1974) and Suspiria (1977) are now considered mainstream fare and have been remade by Hollywood or re-released in deluxe Blu-ray editions. Even the shot-on-video (SOV) cheapies of horror, such as Sledgehammer (1983) and Fatal Images (1989), have been re-released for a seemingly insatiable horror collector’s market.

Horror as both a genre and cultural commodity proves something other than outdated video formats is preventing the erotic thriller from being reclaimed. If we scan contemporary film writing for what might be contributing to this problem, we find evidence in numerous quotes like this one:

Perhaps the most popular genre in the 1990s, the so-called erotic thriller […] is a direct descendant of the classic film noir.1

This observation, made usually after reviewing only a dozen studio erotic thrillers, is common and it’s a good one. As a definition, however, it’s narrow. Too narrow. As the academic writers pointed out while mapping the diverse story origins of the DTV erotic thriller, many erotic thrillers can be described as descending from film noir but films of that type, which amount to perhaps no more than a third of the total, can’t define the subgenre because there are just as many erotic thrillers which do not articulate a film noir story or import its stock characters, tropes, and plot devices. Erotic thrillers of the DTV era capriciously imported story elements from Gothic romance, Hitchcockian suspense, Giallo horror, European cinema, and even from introspective therapy/confessional films such as sex, lies, and videotape (1989). This broad spectrum of story types from which the DTV erotic thriller could choose allowed many, most notably the films with female protagonists, to jettison the story toolbox of film noir altogether while still articulating a thriller narrative and, most importantly, while still committing to the abstraction that desire is dangerous. For instance, when we compare a hardboiled studio erotic thriller such as Body Heat (1991) to an etherial DTV erotic thriller such as Secret Games (1992), the problem of using film noir as a defining story type becomes clear.

Body Heat is a modern take on classic film noir — Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) — with all its tropes and story beats in place. It has an easily legible doomed man narrative, a gorgeous femme fatale, eccentric ancillary characters, a crime thriller plot, and its dialog frequently collapses into fits of clipped 1940s patois. Body Heat follows one man’s descent into the underworld, and it articulates the trap any man could fall into if he allows himself to be led by a raging libido. This man is finally locked away in a dungeon of his own desire, a literal prison within which he plots his escape and his revenge upon the woman responsible for his undoing. Secret Games, on the other hand, is an aspirational obsession thriller in the lineage of European arthouse films such as Belle de Jour (1967), in which a sexually dissatisfied married woman moonlights as a high class courtesan. Her sexual journey is not presented as a descent into a criminal underworld, as it is in Body Heat, but an ascent to an overworld of beautiful women and their clients coupling and copulating inside the high walls of an elite L.A. estate. Between satisfying men and women in luxurious rooms outfitted with surveillance cameras monitored by the estate’s imperious matron, the women of the house take long baths, talk openly about sex and men, and exchange intimacy with each other in an atmosphere of sexual freedom and abundance. As in Body Heat, the protagonist’s journey to the dark side of desire leads her to a trap, but that trap is sprung only after we’ve taken the escalator upwards with her into a timeless mirage of erotic fantasy. Unlike Body Heat, the woman escapes from prison with the help of her new courtesan friends, and overcomes the man responsible for her confinement.

body heat secret games brivido caldo thriller eroticoTwo very similar prisons but two very different erotic thrillers. William Hurt in Body Heat (1981) and Michele Brin in Secret Games (1992).

One of these films is film noir in story type, tone, character, and theme. The other contains very little evidence of film noir at any stratum. Yet both are erotic thrillers. To suggest film noir is in a position to define both films clearly places one of them in limbo, and again, this is the film with a female protagonist. Indeed, many female-dominant erotic thrillers such as Secret Games appear to have been banished to critical limbo because of this too-frequent occlusion of the erotic thriller behind film noir. Unfortunately, the use of film noir as the only tool with which to analyze the erotic thriller dominates formal assessments of the subgenre, even though film noir as a story type comes encumbered with a special problem of its own. No one is exactly sure what it is.

Film noir and the erotic thriller

The concept of film noir was invented in the 1940s to describe a cycle of dark, often sexy, usually nihilistic American films made between 1939-1960. The term was revived and popularized in the 1970s and today, like a hugely successful brand, it is a household word.

Yet no one has ever been able to properly define film noir or agree on its boundaries, as the designation does not neatly place any film into now standardized genre categories such as thriller, horror, science fiction, romance, etc. The actual films of film noir live in separate genres, and they are only capriciously united within film noir by certain themes, tropes, character types, and stylistic eccentricities collectively agreed upon by film writers. For this reason film noir is, and has always been, a troubled category. Any reasonably dark film made between 1940-1960 is eventually proclaimed a work of film noir by someone, without regard to its genre or even its country of origin. The problem of defining and encapsulating film noir has compounded over the years, as new child-designations such as “neo-noir” and even “neon noir” have emerged which attempt to view modern thrillers through an already opaque lens.

In his often-referenced book More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore is unequivocal about the ambiguity of ever defining film noir:

There is in fact no completely satisfactory way to organize the category; and despite scores of books and essays that have been written about it, nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a “phenomenon”.2

Stephen Neale is even less generous in Genre and Hollywood:

Film noir as a single phenomenon […] never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it and why the contours of the larger noir cannon in particular are so imprecise.3

These warnings have done nothing to stop contemporary film writers or historians from applying the term film noir (or neo-noir) as a genre-like designation to any film that has either a passing resemblance to, or contains themes, tropes, character types, or visual eccentricities that resemble those found in, film noir — however broadly that might be defined or interpreted. The result has been unchecked expansion of the brand.

In a March 2, 1988 NPR interview with Terri Gross on the radio show Fresh Air, Bob Swaim, the director of the superlative neo-noir erotic thriller Masquerade (1988) starring Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly, said “I just wanted to do classic film noir“. He is not asked to elaborate on what this means to him, so we have to make a guess based on our own conception of what film noir means.

masquerade thriller eroticoRob Lowe and Meg Tilly in Masquerade (1988).

Masquerade and films such as Body Heat (1981), After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Dangerous Passion (1990), Dead On (1994), and Trade-Off (1995) are easily categorized as film noir because they recycle the plots of 1940s crime films. A few erotic thrillers — Don’t Sleep Alone (1997), Midnight Blue (1997), and Scandal: The Big Turn On (2000) — import classic film noir lighting, props, set pieces, and costumes to the degree they border on parody. Erotic thrillers such as Fallen Angel (1997) go the final step and are actually set in the 1940s. But the DTV erotic thriller wave from 1985-2005 produced over 700 films — loosely comparable to the number of canonized film noir movies produced from 1940-1960 — and any fair assessment (as demonstrated above by comparing Body Heat and Secret Games) will conclude many are not an attempt to recycle film noir and it would be foolish to view them that way. With the exception of the academic books and scholarly articles which have attempted to tease apart the diverse story threads of the erotic thriller, the continued effort to evaluate the erotic thriller against film noir has been the rule.

None of the hefty film textbooks that percolate to the surface every few years in new editions — Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film Art: An Introduction, David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, or Jon Lewis’ American Film: A History — mention the erotic thriller even once; yet film noir and neo-noir are matter-of-factly presented as film genres (this is true in both Cook and Lewis) and example films are listed. In reference to American film in the 1980s, David Cook writes:

Another adult film genre that appeared in the second half of the decade was film noir. More generally characteristic of moral confusion than a specific political condition, this film type had its first 1980s venue in the steamy and very nearly perfect Body Heat (1981) […] After a lull of several years, film noir came back into its own as “neo-noir”.4

Cook cites a few studio films as examples, including Black Widow (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Masquerade (1988), and Sea of Love (1989). How Fatal Attraction — an upscale obsession thriller with a diffuse visual style culled from European arthouse films such as Emmanuelle (1974) and Bilitis (1977) — could be considered film noir or even neo-noir is a mystery, but Cook continues:

This trend toward textbook reworkings of the dark 1940s genre continued strongly in the 1990s, when neo-noir became a major form of American film practice for first-time directors and veterans alike.5

In this later group Cook cites, among many others, films such as After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Bad Influence (1990), Dead Again (1991), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), Shattered (1991), and of course Basic Instinct (1992). The omission of the erotic thriller at this point in Cook’s analysis, even as a term, is puzzling given the worldwide popularity of the subgenre in the 1990s and the promotion of these films under the “erotic thriller” banner designation in newspapers, on posters, in trade-ads, and on the covers of many video boxes. Cook is certainly looking in the direction of the erotic thriller, but because it’s occluded by film noir, he doesn’t see it.

In his 2002 book Crime Films, Thomas Leitch references the erotic thriller by name and devotes an entire chapter to it. For Leitch, the erotic thriller was a new formation of film noir that “returned with a vengeance in 1981 with Body Heat and a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice” and this marked a “resurgence of a new cycle of neo-noirs defined alike by their borrowings and their distance from the earlier cycle”. Leitch actually mentions DTV erotic thriller icon Shannon Tweed in passing, but DTV erotic thrillers starring Tweed that clearly aren’t noir crime films — such as the sex odyssey thriller Sexual Response (1992), the Gothic romance Illicit Dreams (1994), or any of the sex therapy thrillers in the Indecent Behavior franchise — are outside his field of view. That said, in a few stray sentences Leitch does seem near something like a revelation:

Because the central figure of this new generation of crime films, the fatally alluring, often naked body of the female star, points both toward and away from its noir antecedents, the films are less accurately called neo-noirs than erotic thrillers6.

Leitch’s nude woman leads us precipitously to what is probably the most significant reason DTV erotic thrillers occupy an indistinct region on our cinematic map, and that is their position adjacent to (and sometimes within) a maligned film modality called softcore.

The scarlet letter

A common perception of erotic thrillers is that they exist for sex, while Hollywood films exist for story. In this way arousal becomes the index for marginalization.
– L. R. Williams, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2005, p. 10.

A softcore film is, generally speaking, any film in which sexuality, artfully photographed nudity, and simulated physical intimacy are the primary selling point of the work, sometimes above and beyond named actors or the story itself. In this way softcore, though not itself a film genre, is similar to a genre in that it delivers a certain exploitable element at regular intervals. Action films have explosions and stunt work, horror films have blood and prosthetic effects, softcore films have scenes of nudity and simulated physical intimacy. The exploitable elements of a film are used by writers to punctuate stories in ways that both bait and satisfy audiences, and more often than not these elements cost film producers a disproportionate amount of time and money to deliver. For this reason they are used sparingly and strategically. Not all DTV erotic thrillers aspired to be softcore films. Many included only as much sexual spectacle as was necessary to make them a viable market product. Some films, such as Bare Witness (2002) starring Angie Everhart, actually scaled back nudity and sexual spectacle for release on DVD after screening in a more explicit form on late night cable. Other films, such as Illicit Behavior (1992) starring Joan Severance and Jack Scalia, added nude scenes (using body doubles) after production wrapped in order to satisfy market demand. The amount and duration of sexual spectacle in erotic thrillers varied from film to film. Overall, that amount escalated quickly into the early 2000s.

mrg entertainment erotic thrillerHidden Passion (2000), Sex, Secrets, and Lies 2 (2002), Dangerous Passions (2003), Undercover Sex (2003), Forbidden Passions (2006). The softcore-dominant MRG Entertainment erotic thrillers are treasured by fans of softcore primarily as a display case for the many attractive men and women who starred in them.

As the erotic thriller entered its “deflationary period” (to quote David Andrews) and a few hundred were churned out for the pay-per-view video market, many were first and foremost softcore films. Considerations of story (starting with the script and extending to later stages of development) were placed downstream from this initial business plan. These softcore-dominant erotic thrillers — most produced on shoestring budgets by prolific studios such as MRG Entertainment — seemed to begrudgingly include only as much thriller/romance plotting as was necessary to pass for legitimate movies, and many foregrounded scenes of sexual spectacle at regular intervals. In Dangerous Passions (2003), leathery gumshoe Walt Hodges (played capably by former porn star Randy Spears) travels from scene to scene interrogating suspects played by highly unskilled actors. The young, attractive, and evidently very horny cast spends as much time pounding each other as Spears does pounding the pavement. An interesting plot point concerning a rare nickel — reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window — lends the film an intriguing air of detective-story mystery, but frequent, uninspired grinding is motivated throughout by little more than two people being in the same room. Many late-stage erotic thrillers like Dangerous Passions in fact imported performers, like Spears himself, from the hardcore film industry; a paracinematic migration that increased as budgets plummeted and the subgenre declined in popularity. The titles of these films read increasingly like parodies of the subgenre: Devant Vixens (2001), Insatiable Desires (2003), Forbidden Lust (2004), Insatiable Cravings (2006), etc. All of these films blurred the already thin line between the erotic thriller and pornography, and surely this diluted its critical appeal.

It would be intuitive and tidy to believe all softcore-dominant erotic thrillers such as these were merely supplying sexual spectacle to maximize market potential and therefore are not worthy of serious consideration alongside studio erotic thrillers, but this is surprisingly not the case. Some of the most explicit softcore-dominant erotic thrillers were directed by the subgenre’s recognized auteurs (Gregory Dark, Tom Lazarus, Ed Holzman), photographed by brilliant cinematographers who would later go on to photograph big-budget studio films (Wally Pfister, Phedon Papamichael), or featured actors who could easily have transitioned to mainstream film and TV (among others, Kira Reed, Catalina Larranaga, Rochelle Swanson, Bobby Johnson, Elizabeth Sandifer, Monique Parent, Shannon Whirry). The scarlet letter of pornography obscured many careers, and there are many complex films veiled behind those which had no other ambitions than to supply a worldwide demand for non-pornographic sexual spectacle.

lazarus erotic thrillerWord of Mouth (1999), House of Love (2000), Voyeur Confessions (2001), The Exhibitionist Files (2002). Images from the “Lazarus Quartet”, four psychologically penetrating films written and directed by Tom Lazarus for Playboy TV, starring Catalina Larranaga. The Lazarus Quartet contains some of the most explicit scenes of the DTV era, but because the films ingeniously interrogate their own audience by making voyeurism a central concern, they amount to a powerful work of art that has few equals in softcore.

Indeed, fully aware DTV erotic thrillers occupied a shadow-zone between legitimate cinema and pornography in the public imagination, some writers and directors smartly interrogated their own audiences by making surveillance and voyeurism a central concern of their stories.

In The Finishing Touch (1992), hard boiled police detective Sam Stone (Michael Nadler), hot on the trail of a serial killer targeting beautiful women, drags suspect Mikael Gant (Arnold Vosloo) into police HQ and interrogates him about his overtly sexualized installation art. If we read Stone’s questions as a kind of conservative censorship that equates all sexualized spectacle with pornography, and Gant’s coldly delivered and somewhat pretentious responses as the erotic thriller distancing itself from Stone’s myopic worldview, we get something like a defense of the subgenre.

STONE: Hell of a day for a hanging, don’t you think? Oh come on, you like to play games, don’t you Mr. Gant?
GANT: What do you mean?
STONE: You’ve got us all believing that you’re some sort of “artiste”, when actually you’re just a cold blooded killer.
GANT: What am I doing here?
STONE: I’m curious about this so-called video art of yours. Tell me something, why are you so obsessed with making nudie films?
GANT: I do not make nudie films. I explore sexual icons as a means to make your society understand what it holds sacred.
STONE: I think you make these films and whack off to them.
GANT: Yes, you would. There’s a conflict within our society regarding sexual images, and it is my responsibility to expose this conflict, just as others have seen fit to stifle it.

Unfortunately, it seems Stone finally won this argument. Despite the erotic thriller’s endeavor, in this any many other films, to address and implicate its own audience by interrogating the erotic part of its thriller narrative, the DTV films were hastily filed away under pornography and the case has been closed for many years. The DTV erotic thriller could have had more to say had it survived, but by the time we were ready to listen, something even worse than the scarlet letter of pornography was on the horizon. As the year 2000 approached, the home video landscape was preparing for upheaval.

Footprints in the sand

In 2001, the Canadian journal CineAction published Douglas Keesey’s article “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre”. A professor of film and modern literature at California Polytechnic State University, Keesey’s plea for the subgenre as a necessary zone of formal study was impassioned and direct:

When these kinds of films first started appearing in the late eighties, they were often dismissed by critics as mere imitations designed to cash in on the surprising success of Fatal Attraction (1987). But it soon became clear that something more important was happening. […] As the erotic thriller extends generic lines in new directions and intertwines formerly separate strands […] the birth of a new genre from older forms is a social-historical event as much as it is a moment in film-aesthetic history.7

Though Keesey’s article reads like the herald of a new film genre, it was in fact a eulogy. Like following footprints in the sand that suddenly disappear, the careers of many erotic thriller writers, directors, and actors come to a sudden halt in the early 2000s. Though most did not know it at the time, their destiny was written in the shifting sands of home video. The graph below is compiled from my own database of the 650+ erotic thrillers made between 1980 and 2005.

thriller erotici numero per anno

As this graph indicates, the erotic thriller percolated through the 1980s but it never reached a boiling point. Though films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), The Seduction (1982), Body Double (1984), and Thief of Hearts (1984) would prove to be influential a decade later, they were not animating the subgenre into a full-blown industry. Without the unexpected international success of Fatal Attraction in 1987, it is unlikely the erotic thriller would have progressed for very long as anything other than a boutique film type. The industry jolt that followed Fatal Attraction was significant, and marks the year of its release as the beginning of the classic era of the erotic thriller.

After 1987, erotic thriller production ramped steadily upwards, then a sudden gold rush began after the low-budget erotic thrillers Night Eyes (1990) and Inner Sanctum (1991) made millions in worldwide home video sales without theatrical releases. At this critical moment Basic Instinct (1992) arrived and sent the subgenre into overdrive. Erotic thriller production crested in 1994 with over 70 films, and then it began a mostly continuous downhill slide, mitigated briefly in the early 2000s by a surge of erotic thrillers made for the pay-per-view video market.

Though no single film can be considered the final erotic thriller of the classic era, there is probably no better film to reference in this regard than Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

basic instinct 2David Morrissey and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

If any movie cemented a feeling the erotic thriller had finally run its course it was this unfairly maligned sequel. In the March 28, 2006 Village Voice, David Limm wrote: “The original Basic Instinct was both a manifestation and a critique of sex panic, an effortless distillation of a late-’80s/early-’90s zeitgeist: the end of second-wave feminism, the peaking of AIDS anxieties, the dawn of the Clinton years. Stale and corny, Basic Instinct 2 isn’t even accidentally relevant.”⁠ It had been 26 years since the release of the first modern erotic thriller, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), and the subgenre was beginning to show its age.

Though Limm saw Basic Instinct 2 as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future leading the erotic thriller to its own cinematic tombstone, this one film is rarely cited as a reason for the sudden demise of the subgenre. Today, the most common reason given for the erotic thriller’s sudden disappearance in the early 2000s, repeated endlessly in online reviews and rehashed in numerous articles on the subject, is the internet.

The internet and the erotic thriller

The logic behind identifying the internet as the reason for the sudden demise of the erotic thriller is the unstated suggestion that the erotic thriller was displaced by a more efficient, more private method of piping naughty images into our homes, and that was online via dial-up modems. This reasoning is trotted out in countless online articles and subsequently it has reverberated endlessly through social media. Adam White’s September 2021 Independent article — “Ice picks, full frontals and the grand, urgent return of the erotic thriller” — stated the argument directly: “There are any number of reasons why the mainstream erotic thriller went limp towards the end of the Nineties. The easy availability of internet porn meant randy adults didn’t need to pay £15 to see simulated sex with tasteful lighting.”

There are two problems with this claim. The first is the erroneous conflation of erotic thriller audiences with porn audiences. They were not identical. Conflations like White’s are made, however, not to compare audiences, but to define them. The unspoken claim White is making about his audience is that female nudity and simulated sex must have been the only reason people watched erotic thrillers, hence horny straight guys (the “randy adults” who statistically are the primary consumers of online porn) must have been the only audience that mattered to the financial success of the films. This is an inaccurate representation of the 1990s market for erotic thrillers. As David Andrews pointed out in his book Soft in the Middle, from the very beginning home video executives and cable television programmers made it their policy to satisfy both men and women in order to maximize reach and profit. Erotic thrillers (and many softcore dramas made for late night television) displayed a deliberate balance of gendered perspectives because buyers had been militating against guy-oriented sex films from the outset. Summarizing an observation in David Mair’s book Inside HBO, David Andrews wrote:

In the words of HBO programmer Brigitte Potter, Cinemax was looking for content that was “spicy, but not obscene”. This new ethos, driven by a woman at the top of its programming hierarchy, was a clear message that HBO would not be subsidizing lowbrow, guy-oriented films associated with grind houses and drive-ins.8

Nudie pictures downloaded by men off the internet do not appear to have been a threat to conglomerate video chains or premium cable television channels. Indeed, as the above quote indicates, these industries succeeded by distancing themselves from porn.

The second problem with the argument, layered onto the first, is that it simply overestimates both public adoption of the internet throughout the 1990s and early internet connection speeds. Even if it were true that “the internet killed the erotic thriller”, the internet would have needed the capacity to do this by the mid-1990s, which was the time the erotic thriller began its rapid decline, and at that time the internet was not widespread or fast enough to accomplish the task.

To put some data behind this argument, if we look at graphs of U.S. internet adoption and connection speeds over time and compare these to our graph of erotic thrillers by year, we can see that by 1999, as the erotic thriller was rapidly on its way to extinction, only 40% of American adults 18+ used the internet, and of all homes connecting, 90% of those used a 56k or slower modem, with half using 28.8k or 33.6k modems. This means 60% of America, if they used the internet at all, did so at their local library. In 1999, a single full-screen image at the average home internet connection speed crawled down the screen one line at a time. It goes without saying the postage-stamp sized videos to be found were short, blurry, and sounded worse than AM radio. For most consumers other than a sophisticated group of advanced computer hobbyists who patrolled Usenet news groups, pornography online had not yet arrived.

So the false and frequently repeated correlation between internet pornography and the erotic thriller would be a case of correlation is not causation if the two were actually correlated, but they appear to miss each other by a few important years. The correlation is probably better explained by what psychologists have described as the availability heuristic. Since a broad spectrum of video pornography is currently widespread and free via the internet, film writers erroneously assume it must have always been that way from the very beginning. The claim requires us to believe that as soon as the internet arrived, we all had it and we were all downloading porn at high speed. That may be happening now, but that’s not what was happing then.

It wasn’t until well beyond 2006, with the widespread adoption of broadband cable and the rise of modern search engines such as Google, that online pornography became easy to find for the average internet user. Two of the most currently visited porn sites on the internet, and, were not even founded until 2007. By then, as Basic Instinct 2 was screening in theaters, the home video industry was already capsizing and the erotic thriller was going down with it.

The collapse of the video industry

In a strange reversal of common business sense, a desire on the part of video store owners to satisfy customers officiated the collapse of their own industry. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, video stores unwittingly hammered nails into their own coffins by inventing ever more efficient ways to give customers what they wanted. Not doing this was exactly what filled video store shelves with new movies — and new erotic thrillers.

An industry driven by dissatisfied customers seems counter-intuitive, but it was a phenomenon documented by industry analyst Thomas K. Arnold in the pages of Video Store magazine. Arnold called it deliberate consumer dissatisfaction. It went like this: When new videos were moved out of genre sections such as THRILLER, HORROR, and COMEDY to a special NEW RELEASE wall, many customers stopped browsing the main floor. Subsequently they stopped renting the lower-budget genre films that were similar to the Hollywood films they came into the store to rent. Over a decade this reduced profit for independent film distributors, whose business model was to stock those genre sections with a Fatal Passion (1995), Fatal Seduction (1997), Fatal Pursuit (1998), and Fatal Desire (2003) in response to every Fatal Attraction (1987); or a Body of Influence (1993), Body Shot (1993), or Body Language (1995) for every Body of Evidence (1993).

When Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video rose to prominence, they inflated that new release wall to grotesque proportions, wrapping it around the outer perimeter of every store. They filled that perimeter with studio films, purchasing 25, 50, or 100 copies of each movie. This economy-of-scale takeover of shelf space was called “copy depth”. Consumers loved it because the Hollywood movies they wanted were guaranteed to be available. Independents hated it because it further muscled them out of competition. DVDs came along soon afterward, and though this format was glamorized as “the disc that saved Hollywood”, it was not a boon for independent film distributors. Since DVDs were priced at roughly 1/4 the cost of VHS tapes, distributors suddenly found their sales reduced by 75%. Even worse, consumers began collecting DVDs and building home video libraries. This rerouting of disposable income away from rentals toward purchases caused a big drop in sales for sexy independent genres like the erotic thriller. No one wanted their neighbors to stop by and see a copy of Indecent Behavior 2 (1994) sitting on the shelf next to Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World (1998), much less a copy of Naked Obsession (1990). Erotic thrillers were designed to be rented and returned. DVD libraries were aspirational. When in the early 2000s the studios inked deals with Walmart and Target to bypass video stores and sell DVDs directly to consumers (“sell-through”) they unwittingly signed the death warrant on the home video rental industry. The corporate video stores that once put independent “mom and pop” video stores out of business now saw their own profits eaten away by larger corporations. By 2010 both Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video declared bankruptcy.

blockbusterAn abandoned Blockbuster in Chino, CA. 2017. Photo by the author.

The erotic thriller hid under the protective canopy of the home video industry. Its VHS tapes infiltrated video store shelves like palace thieves. When the industry began to collapse, the DTV erotic thriller had nowhere to go but to the increasingly crowded slots of late-night cable television, which shifted focus onto reality series drama and upscale in-house productions. By this time the erotic thriller had been a dominant genre for 20 years, and a force even more debilitating than the collapse of the video industry had begun to weigh it down: market saturation and audience fatigue. All of the film producers I interviewed on this subject pointed to this simple, often overlooked truth of the movie business.

Most popular film genres, especially B-movie subgenres, work in cycles. Early boons lead to a gold rush, followed by a flood of similar films made on increasingly lower budgets. As audiences grow accustomed to the same product and buyers become more discriminating, a tailspin of reduced profit follows. When I spoke with director Rogelio Lobato, he claimed when he set out to make his independent erotic thriller Depraved (1996) distributors assured the producers they would see a return on their investment several times over, especially if they cast star Barbara Niven as a femme fatale. By the time Depraved was completed, there were so many erotic thrillers flooding the market from which those same distributors could choose, Depraved was lucky to make back a third of its budget. Shortfalls like this cleaned out many film investors and drove them away from the subgenre, which by 1999 appears to have simply run its course. Veteran director Fred Olen Ray remembered the sad fate of many films and first-time filmmakers with a dull gleam in his eye when I spoke with him about the final days of the erotic thriller. Like an old sea captain recounting dangerous journeys in faraway lands, he said: “…and then they all got washed out of the business. They got washed right out”.

depraved erotic thrillerAnthony Guzman, Seidy Lopez, and Barbara Niven in Depraved (1996).

Deep waters

It is a fact that fish will not live where the water is too clear. But if there is duckweed or something, the fish will hide under its shadow and thrive. Thus, the lower classes will live in tranquillity if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard. This fact should be understood with regard to people’s conduct.
– Tsunetomo Yamamoto, The Hagakure

In 2019, rumors began to circulate that Adrian Lyne, the legendary director of 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Unfaithful (2002), would be directing and updating Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel Deep Water, about a marriage held together by an unusual arrangement that leads to resentment, jealousy, and murder. Discourse around the film’s 2022 release, accompanied by candid photos of stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in New Orleans, percolated with speculation as to how far Lyne would go this time. In an age dominated by adolescent comic book adaptations and cartoons, it seemed incredible that a royal figure of adult, upscale erotica would return to the throne after 20 years.

But then at the 11th hour, Fox/Disney pulled Deep Water from theatrical release and handed the film off to streaming giant Hulu for a subaltern digital premiere. Subsequent reviews of the film were divided, focusing at turns on the erotic aspirations of the film, the believability of a 50s-era thriller updated to a modern setting, or the film’s value as a new formation of a seemingly lost film type called the erotic thriller.

ana de armas ben affleck deep water erotic thriller lyneAna de Armas and Ben Affleck in Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water (2022)

In terms of its erotic content, Natalia Keogan at Paste thought the film was “boiling over with the heat of forbidden desire”. Writing for, Brian Orndorf commented on the “terrific chemistry” between stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. Richard Roeper, however, was not aroused, writing in the Chicago Sun Times: “the sex scenes between Affleck and de Armas are about as erotic as the feeling you get when you jump into a freezing shower”.

Many were puzzled by a thriller based on a 1950s-era premise that an open marriage was by itself taboo-breaking. At ABC News, Peter Travers thought “In sexually liberated 2022, this updated Deep Water doesn’t make a lick of sense.” Anna Bogutskaya, at The Face, asked “What taboo can an erotic thriller break in 2022?” and she found that, even when Affleck’s character turns murderous due to his wife’s flagrant infidelity, “The thrill of banging a potential murderer feels dated and corny”.

Of particular interest were articles nostalgic for the lost film type many thought Deep Water might revive. At Slate, Dana Stevens opined “Whether you find Deep Water deliciously preposterous or just preposterous may depend on how much you miss that kind of movie. In my case, the answer is a lot.” Likewise, Stephanie Zacharek, writing for Time, felt that “Deep Water comes dressed up as an ‘80s-style erotic thriller, a genre that I, for one, would love to see revived”.

The above commentary, and much more like it on social media, underscored the uphill battle any erotic thriller is likely to face in either scandalizing or thrilling contemporary audiences. More importantly, it also masked a puzzling cultural blindness with regard to where the erotic thriller has been all these years. The unstated assumption in nearly every article was the same. The erotic thriller is the relic of a lost era.

This assumption is in fact supported by this survey. As indicated by the above graph of erotic thriller releases from 1980-2006, production percolated in the 1980s, ramped up quickly after Fatal Attraction in 1987, crested in 1994 on the heels of Basic Instinct, then sloped off on its way toward rock bottom with Basic Instinct 2 in 2006. From this it seems reasonable to assume that by the early 2000s, the erotic thriller no longer existed as a film type, and we might also be tempted to conclude that its central concerns and plot tropes — men destroyed by gorgeous femme fatales, women on excursions to the dark side of desire, illicit romance, dangerous obsession — had also been abandoned by modern cinema.

But this isn’t true. Although the erotic thriller is no longer packaged and labelled as such, the central concerns of the subgenre never died out or disappeared. As a narrative formation that encapsulates danger, romance, and a bit of softcore seduction, the erotic thriller has been quietly thriving since its supposed demise in 2006. Like an octopus cruising the ocean floor, in the early 2000s the erotic thriller merely activated color-changing cells and adopted new camouflage to match new surroundings. As I’ll attempt to describe in this final section, that camouflage may be central to the erotic thriller’s nature, and a lack of it the very reason why, in our connected age of streaming services and pervasive social media commentary, we don’t see Hollywood making more of them. In places where the erotic thriller can evade scrutiny, where its audience is specific and responds to its central concerns, and when it can provide regulated doses of erotic content within an environment resistant to pornography, it proliferates and it has been proliferating. Despite a chorus of opinions that the erotic thriller has been absent for over 20 years, if we look beneath the surface of Hollywood and into the depths of contemporary home video, we see it thriving in three very different markets: women’s television, black independent cinema, and Bollywood. These markets show us how the erotic thriller is not in fact some fossil of a bygone era simply because Hollywood isn’t making them anymore, but a living story formation patrolling the wide expanses of cinema on an endless hunt for new audiences.

1. Women in jeopardy

The made-for-TV romance-thriller — referred to variously as “femjep”, “woman-in-peril” films, and sometimes (in shorthand and in reference to the network that produces many of them) as “Lifetime movies” — has always been a staple. Today these films are made in abundance for an array of streaming services and they are almost as explicit as canonical erotic thrillers, yet they are rarely referenced in discussions of the erotic thriller as few writers appear take them seriously enough to evaluate them alongside “real” movies. Thus the films amount to a kind of unacknowledged lagoon in proximity to both independent cinema and Hollywood, and in this way they mirror the DTV erotic thriller as both a market product and spectral film type. The made-for-TV romance thriller shares so much DNA with the erotic thriller the two forms are sometimes difficult to tell apart. The romance-thriller preceded the erotic thriller by many years in popular fiction and then television. It rode the sexy thriller wave throughout the 80s and 90s, and when the erotic thriller finally crashed in the early 2000s, it quietly returned to a less explicit form. Less explicit, that is, until recently.

Looking at advertising materials from the 1980s and 90s, it’s evident the made-for-TV woman’s thriller, bound by content restrictions imposed by network television, had nothing to lose by suggesting viewers were going to see something steamier and more dangerous than what they actually got. The television channels ABC, CBS, and NBC (for a very long time the only TV channels available to American audiences) mimicked erotic thriller advertising strategies with the implicit suggestion their films, too, could be risky excursions to the dark side of desire.

The trade ads for Through Naked Eyes (1983), Naked Lie (1989), and French Silk (1994). Like their more explicit counterparts, the made-for-TV or faux erotic thrillers used seductive code words and suggestive video box imagery to bait viewers.

Through Naked Eyes (1983) was a made-for-TV thriller starring Pam Dawber, the actress famous for playing Mindy on the television show Mork & Mindy. The trade ad for Through Naked Eyes stated: “He watches her. She watches him. An exciting game. A seductive game. Until they see something they shouldn’t…and the game turns to terror”. Anyone who watches this film for more than 15 minutes, however, will quickly realize there is zero chance they are going to see something they shouldn’t…or anyone naked. Its advertising was a carefully engineered bait-and-switch campaign. Naked Lie (1989), on the other hand, starring Victoria Principle as an attorney on a murder case involving a judge and a dead prostitute, is centrally concerned with dangerous sexual desire, and it turns up the made-for-TV heat to a degree there is no reason not to view it as an erotic thriller — though technically it could be titled Half-Naked Lie. Trade ads for the film show Victoria Principal and co-star James Farentino posed in the kind of lusty bedroom embrace typical of many 1990s erotic thriller ads. Though the film never gets steamier than this one provocative image, several love scenes in the film, especially the saxophone-drenched bedroom tussle between Farentino and Principle, are clearly imitative of the prolonged softcore scenes found in DTV erotic thrillers.

These kinds of faux erotic thrillers became common in the 1980s and 90s as female actors who were already name brands in TV and film — Jane Seymour, Susan Lucci, Cheryl Ladd — moonlighted in this shadow-subgenre to add spice to their filmographies. The proliferation of more explicit erotic thrillers on late night cable and video store shelves no doubt provided cloud cover for the stealthy infiltration of these films into the home video market.

As cable television diversified into the late 90s, new channels like Fox, USA Network, and Lifetime (a premium channel with targeted female audiences) arrived and the faux erotic thriller gained more traction. My Stepson, My Lover (1997), a USA Network movie, featured erotic thriller icon Rachel Ward in several inexplicit but compromising positions indicated by the film’s lurid title. The film goes so far as to use the same blue moonlight and diffuse photography found in boutique erotic thrillers such as Animal Instincts (1992) and Secret Games (1992). The video box says the film is “Erotic…Provocative…Utterly Compelling”. My Stepson, My Lover is all of that, but for those of us who have actually seen Animal Instincts and Secret Games, erotic is a bit of a reach.

indiscretion erotic thrillerChristopher Backus and Mia Sorvino in Indiscretion (2016), a contemporary faux erotic thriller.

As modern streaming services erode the line between theatrical and non-theatrical movies, the line between the faux erotic thriller and the real erotic thriller continues to smear. Indiscretion (2016), starring Mia Sorvino as a politician’s wife whose weekend fling with a young artist leads her into danger, is an infidelity/obsession thriller so similar to DTV erotic thrillers such as Carnal Crimes (1991) and Erotic Boundaries (1997) it is a virtual remake. Indiscretion screened on both Netflix and Lifetime, and features bedroom scenes in which Sorvino, covered strategically by a lace negligee or a lover’s hand, goes through the same motions erotic thriller icons Linda Carol and Kathy Shower once did without cover-up.

Today Lifetime, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, and now Passionflix (the brain child of Tosca Musk, sister to the electric car magnate and space explorer Elon Musk) produce a torrent of sexy thrillers that push female protagonists into shadowy borderlands of dangerous desire. In the past decade the titles of these films have become as unapologetically lurid as those of many late-stage erotic thrillers, and the films have begun to explore more sexually explicit territory. A selected but by no means complete list of faux erotic thrillers produced for only Lifetime in just three years includes Dating to Kill (2019), His Deadly Affair (2019), In Bed with a Killer (2019), The Killer Downstairs (2019), My Wife’s Secret Life (2019), His Fatal Fixation (2020), Sleeping with Danger (2020), Mile High Escorts (2020), Obsession: Escaping My Ex (2020), Obsession: Stalked by My Lover (2020), Obsession 3: Her Final Vengeance (2020), Pool Boy Nightmare (2020), Psycho Escort (2020), Psycho Yoga Instructor (2020), Sugar Baby Murder (2020), College Professor Obsession (2021), A Date with Danger (2021), Deadly Dating Game (2021), Deadly Seduction (2021), Designed for Death (2021), Her Deadly Boyfriend (2021), Lethal Love Triangle (2021), Fatal Memory (2022), Sins in the Suburbs (2022), The Wrong Blind Date (2022), Student Seduction (2022), Swindler Seduction (2022), etc. These films share so much DNA with the female-centric, romance-dominant erotic thrillers of the DTV era they are functionally the same species. That the films are typically not as explicit as their 90s DTV counterparts does not appear to be an inflection point for their intended audience. The woman’s romance-thriller is rarely noted in reference to contemporary erotic thrillers or the supposed disappearance of the subgenre because it thrives below the surface of mainstream cinema and, more importantly, mainstream scrutiny. The women who enjoy these films generally don’t review them, men don’t watch them or admit to watching them, and critics on every rung of our cultural ladder ignore them because they aren’t sufficiently hip, prestigious, counter-cultural, or star-studded. Outside the view of academics, film reviewers, and social media pundits, the sexy woman’s thriller is free to wallow in the lurid, erotically charged atmosphere its target audience craves — an ideal breeding ground for the erotic thriller.

2. The new black erotic thriller

As is sometimes noted, erotic thrillers of the classic era were predominantly white and heterosexual. There are a few deviations. One is Michael Miller’s neo-noir crime thriller Dangerous Passion (1990), a DTV re-telling of Jacques Tourneur’s film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947) in which a bodyguard falls in love with the wife of the mobster he is hired to protect. Though Dangerous Passion stars Black actors, the plot and its reflected themes are not overtly dependent on Black culture or a specifically Black experience. The film merely happens to have Black actors in every starring role, and these actors — Billie Dee Williams, Carl Weathers, and Lonette McKee — could have been exchanged for an all-Latino or all-Asian cast without undermining the story.

This changed with Tim Reid’s Asunder (1999) and Rob Hardy’s Trois (2000). Both of these films were written and directed by Black men and both films are set in Black communities. In both, the Black experience is legible and takes center stage.

trois 3Brian White and Patrice Fisher in Trios 3: The Escort (2004).

Rob Hardy’s own Rainforest Films continued with the production of Trois 2: Pandora’s Box (2002), Trois 3: The Escort (2004), Motives (2004), and Motives 2 (2007). These films opened the door for a new Black erotic thriller movement, and soon even Hollywood was responding with erotic thrillers dominated by Black actors. Writing for The Guardian online in 2016, Dave Schilling wrote:

What was once a ubiquitous, highly profitable genre for the movie industry – the tawdry erotic thriller – has faded from the mainstream consciousness in the past 20 years and is almost solely the purview of the so-called “urban” market. […] The erotic thriller that was once all about white suburban angst now taps into the upper middle class black nightmare of infidelity – side-chick-sploitation, thot (that hoe over there) horror or black erotic thriller (BET), whatever you want to call it.

In movies such as Obsessed (2009), No Good Deed (2014), Addicted (2014), and The Perfect Guy (2015), Schilling found the old transgressions, aspirations, and fears of the classic erotic thriller resuscitated for Black audiences — a cinematic warning, perhaps, that as Black culture ascends the social hierarchy, it becomes susceptible to the psychosexual problems latent in white culture. Illustrating this, writer David Loughery’s new Black erotic thrillers Obsessed (2009) and Fatale (2020) followed Rogelio Lobato’s all-Latino DTV erotic thriller Depraved (1996) in the way each thrusts a professional, non-white man into a web of dangerous sexual desire woven by a white femme fatale. The unspoken thematic undercurrent of each film, recapitulated in a series of calculated attacks by a psychotic white woman bent on dismantling the carefully engineered complacency of a Black or Latino man’s life, is that the obsessive psychosexual pathology of Fatal Attraction (1987) — the white-on-white Ur-text of the contemporary erotic thriller — is an insulated venom of upscale white society and a clear threat to those who dare encroach.

Searching for more of these films on my own in 2017, I was led to the website of independent film distributor Maverick Entertainment Group. Discovering Maverick’s catalog of 2000s-era direct-to-DVD new Black erotic thrillers, all titled similarly to the erotic thrillers of the classic era, was a revelation.

maverick film thriller erotici softcoreDVDs available on the Maverick Entertainment Group website. The mimicking of DTV erotic thriller titles, tag lines, and imagery is notable, as is the fact that none of these films are referenced in contemporary discourse around the erotic thriller. A few of these do not even have IMDb entries.

All but invisible to contemporary discussions of the erotic thriller, this proliferating strain of the subgenre is yet more evidence it thrives when it is made for an audience who is receptive to its abstractions and only where it can remain hidden from public view. In her book on the DTV erotic thrillers of the 1990s, Linda Ruth Williams commented: “These films knew what they were, and who they were for”. Nowhere does this statement apply more potently than to the new Black erotic thrillers, which are clearly made for an audience that does not care if writers for Jezebel, Vox, and New York Magazine fail to reference Forbidden Fruit 2: Second Bite (2021) or Deceitful Tendencies (2022) when lamenting “the death of the erotic thriller”.

3. Bollywood

In the early 2000s a few classic DTV erotic thrillers — such as Body Chemistry (1990), Animal Instincts (1992), and Secret Games (1992) — began showing up on YouTube with the government of India’s unmistakable Central Board of Film Certification header; an indication that India’s long-standing anti-pornography stance did not extend to R-rated thrillers of the DTV era, and that the fan base for erotic thrillers in India might be large. When at roughly the same time a new species of erotic thriller clearly influenced by the classics began singing and dancing its way out of Bollywood, the connection was obvious. Continuing through the present day, the Bollywood erotic thrillers include Jism (2003 — translated as “Body”, followed by Jism 2 in 2021), Aitraaz (2004), Hawas (2004 — Translated as “Lust”, an adaptation of Adrian Lyne’s 2002 erotic thriller Unfaithful), Murder (2004 — followed by Murder 2 in 2011 and Murder 3 in 2013), Sheesha (2005), Aksar (2006), B.A. Pass (2012), Hate Story (2012 — followed by Hate Story 2 in 2014, Hate Story 3 in 2015, and Hate Story 4 in 2018), Zid (2014), Wajah Tum Ho (2016), and certainly many others.

jism sected gamesThe DVD releases for Jism a.k.a. Body (2003) and Secret Games (1992). The new Bollywood erotic thrillers take their queues directly from American DTV erotic thrillers of the 1990s, reconfiguring the same images and taglines.

As Dave Schilling indicated in his review of new Black erotic thrillers, the aspirational and upper middle class elements of the erotic thriller — luxury homes, sports cars, high paying jobs — became central to the rarified atmosphere of the Bollywood films, and also reanimated its central pleasure/danger principle (to paraphrase Nina K. Martin) by virtue of being the very things put in jeopardy by explorations of taboo sexual desire. As their 1990s DTV counterparts discovered, Bollywood erotic thrillers centered around female desire have proven to be an uncharted yet exciting territory for an audience acclimated to films typically centered around male desire. Interviewed by the Hindustan Times, Mahesh Bhatt (a pioneer of Bollywood erotic thrillers and the producer of Raaz, Raaz 3, Murder 2, Murder 3, and Love Games) offered an explanation for the success of the erotic thriller in India:

Raaz, Murder and Jism ushered in the new age of cinema where [a] younger demographic in India were waking up to a bold and unafraid side of women that was buried […]. Bipasha Basu, the protagonist in Jism says the body knows lust not love. She [sleeps with men] outside marriage [and] dares to show a new side to Indian women. We revisited the same thing in Murder 2 and mixed violence with erotica.

So once more, the erotic thriller thrives when it finds an audience susceptible to its abstractions and where cultural taboos can be interrogated. In many ways the atmosphere surrounding the contemporary Bollywood erotic thriller is not unlike the conservative atmosphere which gave rise to the DTV erotic thriller. When traditional values and middle-class aspirations can be put in jeopardy by the erotic thriller’s fatal attractions, illicit romances, and dangerous desires, the conditions are fair for its return.


Unfortunately for those who would like to see more contemporary erotic thrillers, we are at an impasse. Though new erotic thrillers such as Deep Water (2022) may be used for cultural caché on social media or as a momentary diversion from the abundant and more transgressive media found on YouTube, video games, or any number of new streaming services, this is not necessarily fertile ground for the resurgence of a film subgenre which is traditionally wary of public scrutiny.

There have been a few serious, high profile attempts at the genre after 2010, but none have motivated a resurgence of the subgenre, either in Hollywood or its fringes, and the designation is frequently applied, without much regard for accuracy, to any dark drama that indulges in brief scenes of softcore spectacle. Olivia Wilde’s claustrophobic science fiction thriller Don’t Worry Darling (2022) was labelled an erotic thriller by online publications such as Movieweb, Insider, Vanity Fair, and others presumably because a few daring scenes of softcore intimacy were woven into the story and Olivia Wilde is said to have studied Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993) in anticipation of directing. It’s a terrific movie but it’s not an erotic thriller, at least not one as defined by this survey, and it is unlikely fans of the subgenre would read it as one. As it happens, a dozen verifiable, mid-budget erotic thrillers which fans of the subgenre would agree are erotic thrillers have been released in the past decade or two, but for some reason these films are not referenced in articles that lament the death of the erotic thriller or used as examples of a possible resurgence.

Andrea Arnold’s surveillance/obsession thriller Red Road (2006) starred Kate Dickie as a CCTV operator whose smoldering libido causes her to cross personal and professional boundaries to pursue a love interest on the other side of the screen — as Andrew Stevens once did in the DTV erotic thriller Night Eyes (1990). A down-beat exercise in existential cinema, it featured a fearless lead performance from Dickie. Jon Knautz’s Goddess of Love (2015) was a wild psychological erotic thriller held aloft by Alexis Kendra’s intense performance. The film harkened back to DTV erotic thrillers such as Stripped to Kill 2: Live Nude Girls (1989), Hard Drive (1994), and One Night Stand (1995) by suggesting the protagonist’s warped mental state could change the course of the story. Thrilling and powerfully executed, to date there are no reviews of Goddess of Love in any official or above-ground publication. It was simply ignored. The presence of pop-star Lindsay Lohan in Paul Schrader’s unexpectedly racy The Canyons (2013) guaranteed it would not be ignored, but sadly the film failed to attract audiences the way Fred Olen Ray’s Inner Sanctum (1991) had done in the 90s when it cast one of Charlie’s angels — Tanya Roberts — in a salacious tale of dangerous sex. Like many late-stage erotic thrillers, The Canyons imported a porn performer (James Deen) into the cast in an attempt to heat up the proceedings, but Hollywood Reporter found the film “lame, one-dimensional and ultimately dreary”. Though advertised as a “neo noir” thriller and funded in part by the Humphrey Bogart estate, White Orchid (2018) was in fact an aspirational sex odyssey in the style of DTV classics such as Stripped to Kill (1987), The Finishing Touch (1992), Undercover Heat (1995), and Shadow of a Scream (1996). In this female-driven erotic thriller variant, a woman goes undercover to catch a killer but then becomes addicted to the performative sexuality afforded by her new disguise. In this case brunette social worker Olivia Thirlby dons a blonde wig to become a mysterious and sexually uninhibited woman whose unsolved murder thrusts her into the dark side of desire. Beneath the gloss of its high definition photography, White Orchid is classic DTV fare. Recently, Michael Mohan’s The Voyeurs (2021) polarized viewers unaccustomed to unapologetically lurid tales of voyeurism and sexual manipulation. Screen Rant said: “In The Voyeurs, writer-director Michael Mohan takes all the lessons of the truly wild erotic thrillers of the 1990s and brings them into the modern age.” Indeed, the film is eerily similar to the 1995 DTV erotic thriller Watch Me. Both films are the story of a beautiful young woman whose clandestine surveillance of her attractive landlord’s loft apartment (which sits directly across from her own) draws her into a whirlpool of dangerous desire. Soon the tables are turned, and while she peeps through an open window at people having sex near open windows, she herself becomes the unwitting model for a series of her landlord’s own voyeuristic photographs. Mirroring what could be said of any DTV erotic thriller, Slant Magazine continued with: “It’s hard to deny that Michael Mohan’s preposterous fable doesn’t exert the dark pull of voyeurism itself.” Waxing nostalgic, The Guardian called the film “a well-made gutter we haven’t had the chance to visit for far too long”.

Sydney Sweeney in The Voyeurs (2021).

A nostalgic return to the “well-made gutter” of the erotic thriller may be on the horizon, but nostalgia by itself may not be enough to resuscitate a dormant film genre for mainstream audiences. For that, as is suggested by the abundant women-in-peril films, the new Black erotic thrillers, and Bollywood, we should be receptive to what the erotic thriller is designed to tell us. Film genres exist to whisper secrets in our ears, and for us to hear and understand those secrets we cannot simply desire to hear them, we must need to hear them. Indicated by film subcultures which have quietly carried the erotic thriller’s flame after mainstream audiences have moved on, the erotic thriller does not appear to be interested in reinventing itself as yet another consumer product akin to zombies, teenage vampires, or comic book action heroes; nor does it appear to be interested in returning to our screens with royal fanfare. It’s likely the erotic thriller will only return and proliferate when and where it is allowed to do what it has always done; when it can speak to a market resistant to pornography but hungry for a bit of thrilling erotica; when it can live just outside the boundaries of mainstream cinema and mainstream scrutiny; when its audience is susceptible to its whispered abstraction that desire is dangerous; and finally, when that abstraction can be dramatized in a way that is arousing and even a little bit scandalizing for its audience.

Some have speculated that the #metoo movement and a contemporary reevaluation of issues around consent, both on and off screen, may itself be laying the groundwork for new stories of dangerous desire. There also appears to be a direct correlation between our contemporary streaming services — which are in effect vast, virtual home video stores — and the brick and mortar home video stores of the past. These services, which are increasing in number every year, are hungry for new content, actively financing independent films, and are as intolerant of pornography as Blockbuster Video was in the 1990s. So where are all the new erotic thrillers?

As demonstrated by the family photo which ends Fatal Attraction or the entwined lovers at the end of Basic Instinct, the erotic thriller often reinforces the value and necessity of the very things it puts in jeopardy. Given the erotic thriller has so far not been able to follow mainstream audiences into the modern age and Hollywood has fumbled with the subgenre as a story type, it’s possible we have lost some capacity to collectively agree on what is of value. Like a genie in a magic bottle, for mainstream audiences the erotic thriller may be trapped forever in the tube televisions of our past, the frozen figure of an era before the socially fragmenting influence of cell phones, social media, and unlimited porn on the internet. Perhaps the time will come when the glass will be broken — by Hollywood or someone else — and the genie will be free once more. Since all of these matters are a point of conjecture and there is no more evidence in the case to submit, the erotic thriller detective has nothing further to report.



1. Robert Barton Palmer, Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, Twayne Pub, 1994, p. 168

2. James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, University of California Press, 2008, p. 9.

3. Stephen Neale, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, 1999, pp. 173-174.

4. David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4a edizione, W. W. Norton & Company, 2003, 873.

5. Ibid.

6. Thomas Leitch, Crime Films, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 147.

7. Douglas Keesey, “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre“, in CineAction, n. 56 (2001), p. 46.

8. David Andrews, Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts, ‎ Ohio State University Press, 2006, p. 84.