The rise and fall of the erotic thriller

Once full of big-star actors and capable of pulling in huge audiences, the erotic thriller’s fortunes faded by the end of the 90s. Ryan charts the genre’s rise and fall…

Between 1987 and 1993, Michael Douglas was the undisputed, bare-bottomed prince of the erotic thriller. With the one-two box-office punch of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Douglas inadvertently sparked a brief, halcyon age of thrillers featuring lusty glances, rustling sheets and heaving bare bosoms. But by the end of the 90s, the American erotic thriller, in popular terms, was effectively spent. So what happened?

The erotic thriller’s roots can be traced back to early detective fiction, but its appearance in cinema was only made possible when the Hays Code died in the 1960s. Thereafter, erotic movies such as Blowup (1966) and Last Tango In Paris (1972) pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in mainstream movies – and by the mid-70s, you no longer had to head to a sleazy fleapit to watch a movie containing lots of bare flesh.

The arrival of Deep Throat (1972), meanwhile, ushered in an age of porno chic, where respected critics and cool celebrities like Jack Nicholson were suddenly talking in evangelical terms about the aesthetic power of hardcore sex movies – at the very least, people were openly admitting to watching and enjoying porn, which was something of a paradigm shift in an age before the Internet placed all manner of filth in the palm of one’s hand, so to speak.

The problem with films like Blowup, Last Tango In Paris and Japan’s In The Realm Of The Senses, from a Hollywood point of view, was that they were artistic films made by directors with posh-sounding names like Antonioni, Bertolucci and Oshima. These kinds of movies were fine for the arthouse crowd, but their intellectual musings (not to mention Marlon Brando’s arse butter requests) alienated them from mainstream audiences, and therefore the kind of ticket sales that have executives rubbing their trouser creases in anticipation.

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It took a director with trashier, sleazier sensibilities to truly launch the erotic thriller, and Brian De Palma’s 1980 film Dressed To Kill was like Hitchcock’s Psycho crossed with a smutty airport novel. An infusion of faintly ridiculous Dario Argento-style murders and lingering shots of naked ladies, Dressed To Kill was tailor-made to provoke mild outrage.

Dressed To Kill’

s violence against women was met with harsh criticism from feminist groups, while the revelation that a body double was used in its opening sequence (a stand-in for veteran actress Angie Dickinson) apparently left some viewers feeling angry and somehow slighted.

Fulfilling the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity – particularly when you’re selling something full of sex and violence – Dressed To Kill was a hit, even though its most enduring image is that of Michael Caine in a skirt and full makeup.

Other thrillers followed, each with their own varied dash of sexiness, from the acclaimed neo-noir Body Heat (1981) to De Palma’s Body Double (1987), which attempted to shake up the same sex-and-violence cocktail as Dressed To Kill, but with less financial success.

In terms of box-office, 1987 was the erotic thriller’s year zero. Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, made for a relative snip at just $14 million, rapidly became a pop-culture phenomenon, earning the respects of critics and the Academy, as well as tumescent ticket sales.

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Michael Douglas starred as Dan, a wealthy, happily married chap who embarks on what he expects to be a brief, gymnastic weekend affair with high-flying editor, Alex (Glenn Close). Unfortunately for Dan and his family pets, Alex sees their tryst as more than just a fling, and as Dan makes repeated attempts to distance his mistress from his cosy family life, her obsession grows and violence escalates.

Fatal Attraction famously introduced the term ‘bunny boiler’– an amusing yet off-hand term that arose from the film’s mid-point shift from believable drama to histrionic slasher thriller. Glenn Close’s portrayal of mental instability is exceptionally wrought (and deserving of her Best Actress Oscar nomination), which could easily forgotten as the plot has her flip over the edge into full-on, knife-wielding mania.

The original ending, which saw Alex commit suicide and effectively frame Dan for her murder, tested badly in early screenings, so a more action-packed conclusion was shot in which Alex is gunned down by Dan’s wife, Beth (Anne Archer), leaving the family to live happily ever after.

Audiences, it seemed, were more interested in a more simplistic portrayal of women on the rampage, and with its new ending, Fatal Attraction could be marketed as a more saleable erotic thriller rather than a murky relationship drama – in the process, director Adrian Lyne had inadvertently created an entire new subgenre.

It’s worth pausing here to give a passing mention to Sea Of Love, a thriller starring Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin. Released in 1989, it was a sizeable hit, helped by the smouldering tension between its two leads and a quite amusing final twist that appears to have inspired the writers of the romantic comedy thriller, So I Married An Axe Murderer.

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At any rate, Sea Of Love isn’t one of Pacino’s most commonly-discussed movies these days – probably because it was stuck between the zeitgeist-grabbing Fatal Attraction, and Paul Verhoeven’s equally hyped Basic Instinct. The same could also be said of several other thrillers released between 1987 and 1992, including the excellent Angel Heart, with its pitch-black infusion of horror, and the Richard Gere/Kim Basinger flick Final Analysis; neither film did well at the box-office.

If Fatal Attraction was the erotic thriller genre’s Jaws, then Basic Instinct was its Star Wars. Entirely lacking that earlier film’s attempts at characterisation or emotional complexity, Basic Instinct made a star out of its icy femme fatale Sharon Stone, and took almost $353 million on a $49 million budget.

Basic Instinct was written by Joe Eszterhas, who rather cheekily, you might say, reworked the plot of his own less successful Jagged Edge (1985). Like Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct is a whodunit with a suspect list with only one name on it: in this case, randy crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Stone) who may or not have stabbed to death a rock star during the final throes of coitus.

Michael Douglas plays Nick Curran, a hot-blooded cop with an unfortunate taste in V-neck sweaters. His investigations into the Tramell case inevitably end in the suspect’s bedroom, where director Paul Verhoeven regales the viewer with a series of hyper-stylised sex scenes that look like sweaty aerobics videos.

Assorted sequences of violence and intrigue are splashed across the screen, but these were of secondary importance to Basic Instinct’s graphic set-pieces – one, involving Catherine Tramell and a surprising absence of underwear, was repeatedly freezeframed and lampooned for years afterwards.

Some critics were unimpressed by Verhoeven’s sensationalistic mix of icy violence and sultry carnality, and the film was harshly criticised by gay rights activists for its content, but like Dressed To Kill years earlier, the controversy merely added to the box-office hysteria.

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What’s more, Basic Instinct taught Hollywood producers an important lesson: to make a hit movie, all you needed was a thriller script, a suggestive title, and a couple of actors with full gym membership and a willingness to take their clothes off.

There followed an explosion of thrillers, which all contained sex or nudity to some extent. These ranged from the low-budget – Poison Ivy, starring Drew Barrymore, and Blown Away, starring Corey Haim and Nicole Egert – to the high-profile, such as Single White Female.

As movie and television producers fell all over themselves in the rush to get their own erotic thrillers onto the large and small screen, even princess of pop Madonna decided to get in on the act.

A mix of courtroom drama and bedroom drama, Body Of Evidence was released in 1993 to almost universal derision. Bizarrely pairing Madonna’s femme fatale S&M enthusiast with Willem Dafoe’s hapless lawyer, the movie wasn’t the rousing success its producers had surely intended. Nor, for that matter, was William Friedkin’s Jade (1995) or the queasy Boxing Helena, which became more famous for its public legal battles concerning Kim Basinger.

In the months after Basic Instinct, only Sliver (1993) came anywhere close to replicating the earlier movie’s success, largely because lead actress Sharon Stone was still a major star – from a critical perspective, the film fared little better than Body Of Evidence.

As the 90s wore on, the erotic thrillers kept coming. Most were awful – particularly Bruce Willis’ disastrous Color Of Night (1994), in which he played a psychoanalyst with psychosomatic colour blindness, and engaged in screaming swimming pool sex with Jane Marsh, an actress half his age.

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Fittingly, Michael Douglas starred in the second most successful erotic thriller of the 90s – Barry Levinson’s Disclosure (1994), based on a novel by Michael Crichton. Its mixture of star-filled cast (which paired Demi Moore with Douglas, with Donald Sutherland in a memorable supporting role) and hot-topic premise (the sexual harassment of men in the workplace) saw it head straight to the top of the box-office, where it earned $214 million.

Just as Douglas’ “Greed is good” line from Wall Street summed up the 80s, so Disclosure’s “Sex is power” tagline captured the 90s preoccupation with sexual politics. Outside the erotic thriller genre, Indecent Proposal (directed by Adrian Lyne) was a huge hit. Many feminists weren’t impressed by what they saw as Indecent Proposal’s regressive premise – “I’ll give you a million dollars for a night with your wife” – but the movie made around $266 million in any case.

After 1994, audience apathy towards erotic thrillers began to set in. This would explain why even some of the better-made erotic thrillers (The Last Seduction, Bound, Crash and Wild Things, for example) were ignored by cinema-goers.

The erotic thriller limped on into the 21st century, but movies such as Unfaithful (2002) and In The Cut (2003) did tepid business. The subgenre’s death knell came in 2006 with the belated sequel, Basic Instinct 2. In development hell for years, the resulting film reintroduced Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell; older, now dwelling in London, and still as dangerous as ever.

The film was little short of a disaster. Not only did it lack the trashy spark of the original, Basic Instinct 2 was also missing Verhoeven’s sly streak of humour. David Morrissey replaced Michael Douglas as Tramell’s bedroom partner and potential victim, and he seemed ill at ease with the task; his glum, terse performance aptly summed up the dourness of the film as a whole. With Basic Instinct 2, it seemed that even filmmakers had lost interest in erotic thrillers – audiences had, at any rate, if the movie’s flaccid box-office performance is anything to go by.

In the wake of Basic Instinct 2’s failure, various culprits were fingered as the reason for the erotic thriller’s apparent loss of steam. Some blamed the Internet, with the ready availability of pornography robbing the genre of its mystique. Some even blamed the Republicans.

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Interviewed for a Hollywood Reporter article in 2006, Paul Verhoeven said, “We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.”

In reality, we suspect it was the quality of the movies following Basic Instinct that ultimately undid the erotic thriller, and not George W Bush. Most of the writers who tackled the genre after 1992 were shockingly unimaginative, and seemed content to trot out the same stock whodunit or woman-on-the-rampage plots with little in the way of flair or irony.

Of course, genres are constantly coming in and out of fashion, and it’s possible that, like disaster movies, westerns and musicals, the erotic thriller will again have its day. With the kinkily erotic novel 50 Shades Of Grey currently being made into a movie following its huge success in paperback form, it’s just possible that the erotic thriller will also rise again in due course.