10 underappreciated erotic thrillers

Ahead of Eli Roth's Knock Knock's arrival in cinemas on June 26th, we offer our selection of 10 underappreciated erotic thrillers...

Proving that nowhere is safe from Eli Roth’s macabre mind, the horror maestro’s latest film, Knock Knock, brings the gory nightmares of Cabin Fever and Hostel home to roost.

It stars Keanu Reeves as a well-to-do husband who’s left home on his own when his wife and two kids go on a few days’ holiday. But then two young women turn up on Reeves’ doorstep one rainy night, and ask to use his phone. Seduced by the pair, Reeves eventually realises that the ladies have something far nastier in store for him.

Knock Knock is a remake of the 1977 exploitation film, Death Game (also known as The Seducers), which starred Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp as the deranged young women who turn Seymour Cassel’s otherwise cosy bourgeois life upside down. Given Eli Roth’s track record, we can rest assured that the tone of Knock Knock will be far more icy than its predecessor – at the very least, we’re guessing that his film’s big seduction scene won’t be set to a wokka-wokka 1970s funk guitar track.

To mark Knock Knock’s UK cinema release on June 26th, here’s our selection of 10 underrated erotic thrillers. It’s a genre that reached its box-office peak in the 80s and 90s with such hits as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct – but as this list hopes to prove, there are lots more movies from the genre that offer a similar mix of sexual tension and unbearable suspense.

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10. Bad Influence (1990)

James Spader has never been afraid to place himself in saucy situations for his art – for proof, see David Cronenberg’s Crash, the superb Secretary and the not quite so superb sci-fi, Supernova. Before all those, he made Bad Influence, a modest yet highly enjoyable little thriller which also stars 90s heartthrob Rob Lowe. Spader plays the quiet wallflower Michael, whose polar opposite is the uninhibited, go-getting Alex (Lowe, naturally enough). What begins as a positive friendship, where Alex teaches Michael how to be more outgoing and seize life by the lapels, devolves into something far more worrying when it emerges that Alex doesn’t have any moral boundaries at all.

This slight premise is given huge mileage thanks to the pedigree of everyone involved. The screenplay’s by David Koepp, who wrote the screenplays for Jurassic Park and Carlito’s Way, among many things, while the director’s Curtis Hanson, who made the excellent LA Confidential. The erotic component of this economical and superbly-paced thriller isn’t especially pronounced, but it’s there all right – from Lowe’s sexual acrobatics to the palpable spark of tension between his character and Spader’s.

Bad Influence seems to be faintly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt. Lowe’s line, “People are such hypocrites – they walk through their whole lives playing innocent till the day they die. But they’re not innocent” being quite similar to a line uttered by Joseph Cotten in Hitchcock’s film. In turn, Lowe’s character in Bad Influence, both in looks and lack of inhibition, might have provided the template for Dan Stevens’ glittering-eyed maniac in The Guest. All three films are worth watching – perhaps together as a kind of charismatic psycho triple-bill.

9.Body Double (1984)

“Okay. You want to see violence? You want to see sex? Then I’ll show it to you.”

Such was director Brian De Palma’s response to the peals of press outrage that greeted Dressed To Kill, his 1980 hit thriller starring Michael Caine and Angie Dickinson. Determined to push the envelope even further, De Palma made Body Double, in which a voyeuristic actor, Jake (Craig Wasson) spies on his cavorting neighbour, Gloria (Deborah Shelton) and becomes a witness to her murder. Thereafter, Jake’s drawn into a very strange world of pornography, conspiracy and bad make-up.

Like Dressed To Kill, Body Double is a synth-pop, neon-lit homage to De Palma’s hero Alfred Hitchcock, complete with obvious references to Rear Window and Vertigo. It’s a far sleazier film than even Dressed To Kill, though, and even Pino Donaggio’s score can’t give Body Double’s excess an air of respectability. In this respect, De Palma’s work more closely resembles Italy’s Dario Argento than Hitchcock – its leeringly violent, pivotal murder scene could easily have come from one of Argento’s giallo movies. But accepting Body Double’s faults, which are manifold, its sleazy atmosphere and bonkers twists actually make it highly watchable.

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Frankie Goes To Hollywood even show up to perform their hit Relax during a shoot of a porno film called Holly Does Hollywood (featuring Melanie Griffith as Holly), which is one of the weirdest moments in any American thriller we can think of). Oh, and the reveal at the end (which we won’t spoil) has to be seen to be believed.

8. Swimming Pool (2003)

There’s an intense battle of wills in this smouldering thriller from Francois Ozon. Charlotte Rampling stars as Sarah, a British novelist holidaying in the French villa owned by her publisher. Sarah’s hopes for some peace and quiet while she tries to write her latest book (also called Swimming Pool) are cruelly dashed when her publisher’s sex-mad daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) shows up with a procession of equally randy men in tow.

Initially outraged by Julie’s bedroom antics, Sarah gradually becomes fascinated by them, and a strange game of one-upmanship grows between the two. Slickly made and superbly acted, Swimming Pool is a masterpiece of sustained, controlled suspense.

7. Femme Fatale (2002)

Here’s De Palma again with another deliriously trashy genre flick, which somehow made less of an impact in its day than Body Double did back in 2002. The plot’s wilfully preposterous: the femme fatale of the title is professional thief Laure (Rebecca Romijn), whose plan is to relieve a model of the diamond-encrusted bra she plans to wear while sashaying down a catwalk. Antonio Banderas plays a photographer who’s drawn into Laure’s heated locus, and it’s fair to say things get quite out of hand.

Like Body Double, Femme Fatale contains some a reveal that may have some throwing their TV controllers at the wall, but if you’re semi-prepared for this, and you have an interest in De Palma’s style of baroque camera moves and editing, you’ll almost certainly get a lot out of Femme Fatale. It’s one of the few really good later movies from a director who’s never quite managed to recapture the fame (or notoriety) that he enjoyed in his late 20th century heyday.

(On a side note, the theatrical trailer for Femme Fatale was heroically awful. Little wonder audiences didn’t flock to see it.)

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6. The Blue Room (2014)

Short, taut and coolly shot, The Blue Room stars Mathieu Amalric, who also stars. Amalric co-wrote the screenplay with Stephanie Cleau, adapting a 1964 novel by Georges Simenon. Cleau also appears in front of the camera as Esther, a pharmacist’s wife with whom Amalric’s character Julien embarks on a passionate affair. The intimacy of the production extends to the film itself, which almost feels like we’re being given a voyeuristic peek into a real relationship – that is, until thoughts turn from lust to murder.

Anyone who’s seen his earlier films will know that Amalric’s a great, intense actor, and he’s superb here as a man wracked by guilt. Less violent and twist-laden than some of the other thrillers on this list, The Blue Room is nevertheless an absorbing watch.

5. Bound (1996)

Before the Wachowskis made their name with The Matrix, they shot this nifty erotic thriller that, on its release in 1996, felt both thoroughly modern and a welcome throwback to a bygone age of film noir. Key to its success is its pairing of Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as a pair of lovers who plan to steal $2m in cash from Joe Pantoliano’s money-laundering mobster.

Bound serves up typical thriller staples – bags of cash, double crosses, mobsters, and so on – in a way that feels fresh, largely thanks to the superbly-drawn characters. Hilariously, the Wachowskis were asked by some Hollywood executives to switch the gender of Corky, the ex-convict turned plumber, to a male – which would have completely up-ended the whole point of the film. 

As well as the chemistry between Tilly and Gershon, there’s some great cinematography from Bill Pope, who gives the film a graphic sense of depth and drama, and makes the film look a lot more expensive than its meagre budget might suggest.

Its R-rating and meagre distribution left Bound struggling at the box-office, but the film remains one of the better genre films of its era.

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4. The Fourth Man (1983)

With his biggest US hits – RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct – Dutch director Paul Verhoeven established himself as one of Hollywood’s foremost directors of the violent, the lurid and the downright smart. Before he moved to the States, Verhoeven managed to build a similarly fearsome reputation in his native Netherlands, and you only have to look at a film like The Fourth Man to see why.

More than a hint of delirium runs through this simple story of a novelist (Jeroene Krabbe) who falls wildly in lust with a woman he meets at a lecture, only to learn that she may actually be some kind of embodiment of evil. If you think that brief description sounds strange, wait until you see how Verhoeven directs it.

Full of religious symbolism, graphic sense and more than a hint of gore, The Fourth Man has the intrigue of a thriller and the devilish quality of Rosemary’s Baby. Then again, what more should we expect from a director who made a cyborg cop walk on water and made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes pop out on Mars?

3. Bad Timing (1980)

An executive at The Rank Organisation reportedly called Bad Timing “a sick film made by sick people for sick people,” which might hint at some kind of Z-grade exploitation movie. In fact, Bad Timing (also distributed with the title Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession) is a mid-career film from the great Nicolas Roeg, who directed Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Here, Roeg applies his personal style of filmmaking – all flashbacks and startling montages – to an intense and disturbing drama-thriller.

The film relates the relationship between two Americans living in Vienna – American psychiatrist and teacher Alex (Art Garfunkel) and a fragile young woman named Milena (Theresa Russell). What begins as an affair – Milena’s already married to Denholm Elliott’s Stefan – gradually morphs into obsession and, finally, some quite stomach-churning revelations.

As you’ve probably already gathered, Bad Timing didn’t exactly go down well at the time of its release. The film was given an X-rating, which meant that few people got to see it, and so Roeg’s handiwork wasn’t really given a chance to shine until it was released as part of the Criterion Collection in 2005.

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Viewed today, it’s easier to appreciate just how great Russell’s performance is, how brave Garfunkel was in taking on the role of such an unsympathetic character (an understatement, to say the least) and just how precise Roeg’s direction is. Still shocking even in 2015, Bad Timing is arguably among the Roeg’s best movies.

2. Angel Heart (1987)

An unholy pall hangs over Alan Parker’s thriller, set in mid-50s New York and New Orleans. Dishevelled private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by long fingernailed, dapper gentleman Louis Cypher (Robert De Niro) to locate a missing singer named Johnny Favourite. Harry’s investigations take in voodoo, mental asylums and Faustian pacts, all building to an unforgettably dark conclusion. Rourke has seldom been better, even in his Wrestler-driven renaissance a few years back, and De Niro is coldly sinister in his brief yet important role.

Angel Heart is also a great-looking film, all intense light and shade, sweating foreheads and scary silhouettes. It’s a triumph of style and gradually-building dread. The film also sparked a bit of controversy on release for its claret-spattered love scene between Rourke and ex-Cosby Show actress Lisa Bonet. But it’s a terrific film from Parker, who writes and directs, and all the more powerful for its focus on suspense and atmosphere rather than out-and-out horror.

1. The Last Seduction (1994)

Just one year after he made the great neo-noir Red Rock West, director John Dahl returned with the steamy and similarly noirish Last Seduction in 1994. Inverting the formula found in most thrillers, Linda Fiorentina’s femme fatale is the central character rather than a distant enigma.

Fiorentina plays Bridget, a New Yorker who makes off with a large slab of her husband’s drug money and spends the rest of the film alternately seducing and running psychological rings around the rest of the male cast. Bill Pullman plays the husband while a young Peter Berg (later of Friday Night Lights and Battleship directorial fame) plays a schmoe who falls for Bridget’s subtle manipulation.

Riveting from beginning to end, The Last Seduction is raunchy, superbly acted and engrossing from beginning to end. And key to it all is Fiorentino – a sorely underused actress who brings all her talent to bear on a mesmerisingly smart, scary character. As erotic thrillers go, The Last Seduction is one of the few that manages to transcend the inherent pulpiness of its genre. It’s a classic of its kind.

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Knock Knock is out on the 26th June in the UK.

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