We blame Michael Douglas. With his twin hits, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Douglas rode the crest of an 80s and 90s golden age of erotic thrillers. And as Hollywood realised that it could make a fortune out of filming actors with no trousers on, numerous other filmmakers and stars decided to make steamy genre pictures of their own – to varying degrees of success.
Join us, then, as we plumb the depths of film history to bring you our pick of the ten least sexy erotic thrillers. These are the movies which attempt to pack in all the correct genre elements – murder, distrust, sweaty bedroom scenes – but frequently misplace the chemistry. And appropriately enough, the first entry stars Michael Douglas.
10. Disclosure (1994)
Given that this is all Douglas’ fault, then, let’s kick off with him. “Sex is power” growls the poster to 1990s thriller Disclosure. Arguably the 50 Shades Of Grey of its time (although inevitably much tamer), Michael Crichton’s novel was sold off the fact that it was dealing with sexual discrimination against a man. It also had bonking in it, which meant it sold lots of copies. The movie was thus hyped to the rafters, with Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson pulled in to direct.
By the time the film came around, sex-in-jumpers maestro Michael Douglas was cast opposite Demi Moore, and we were left in no doubt we were in for hanky panky, and no small amount of it. What we got, oddly, was more a virtual reality thriller, with the ‘eroticism’ coming from an uncomfortable scene where Moore’s character forces herself onto Douglas’. Erotic it wasn’t. Uncomfortable it certainly was. It came as a bit of a relief when they got all their posh computers out instead and started seemingly re-enacting the classic British kids’ TV show, Knightmare.
Also, any hope of it being a successful date movie was thoroughly undone by the random appearance of Donald Sutherland’s tongue lurching towards the camera. Once seen, never forgotten…
9. Dressed To Kill (1980)
An erotic thriller that predated the mainstream boom triggered by Fatal Attraction, Dressed To Kill is a typically stylish film from director Brian De Palma, and features a lush score from composer Pino Donaggio. With De Palma drawing heavily on the work of Hitchcock as he so often did, Dressed To Kill is best described as a racier reworking of Psycho, with lingering murders straight out of an Italian giallo movie.
Although inspired in some scenes – particularly its acclaimed museum encounter sequence – De Palma’s voyeuristic camerawork gives the film a rather queasy, unseemly atmosphere. This means that, although it’s billed as an erotic thriller, its numerous scenes of sex and nudity are about as erotic as a fishmonger’s apron. This may have been De Palma’s intention, of course (and the film certainly gained plenty of media exposure for its controversial sex and violence), but it doesn’t make Dressed To Kill any easier to sit through. Also: Michael Caine in a dress.
8. In The Cut (2003)
Ah, the erotic thriller billed as art. It’s long been a known secret of hardened film addicts that if you want to see something a little more risque than you’re used to at the local Odeon, then you need a foreign language movie, or an art house release. All bets seem to be off if that’s the case. Enter stage left, then, Jane Campion’s In The Cut.
She’s veered towards this territory before, with striking moments of the excellent, Oscar-winning The Piano. With In The Cut, though, it’s less successful. And in lieu of rave reviews (although In The Cut certainly has its fans), its distributors were left with one simple plan: sell the nookie.
This time, it’s Hulk-in-waiting Mark Ruffalo and where’s-the-script-for-my-next-Tom-Hanks-film Meg Ryan who team up. Ruffalo is an excellent actor, Ryan’s not bad, but the pair never sizzle. Nor, really, does the thriller bit. Where In The Cut works is when it paints the picture of Ryan’s character, but even then, it’s a movie without too many fans.
7. Jade (1995)
The 90s go-to-peddler of screen naughtiness, Joe Eszterhas, added to his CV with Jade, although the end product was basically rewritten by director William Friedkin. Not that it did the original cut of the film much good. Critically derided, and rarely sexy, Jade was reportedly rescued somewhat by the unrated cut that thus far has only appeared on VHS.
It’s a film that had plenty of workable ingredients, not least Friedkin himself (it’s not his best work, but it’s a little better than it’s generally given credit for). David Caruso was hot off the success of NYPD Blue, Linda Fiorentino had starred in one of the best erotic thrillers of the decade, John Dahl’s wonderful The Last Seduction, and there was a score from James Horner packed in. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, quite a bit. Over-convoluted plotting, a by-the-numbers investigation punctuated by kinky stuff, and a narrative that fails to spark as it should make Jade a disappointment. In spite of some sterling work from the excellent Fiorentino, it fails to gel. She does get to shake someone’s bonce in a quite bizarre way in the midst of a moment of, er, ‘oralness’, mind.
6. Body Of Evidence (1993)
Madonna decided to wade into the erotic thriller zeitgeist with Body Of Evidence, a film which replicated several of Basic Instinct’s story beats with none of its success. Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a woman who, not unlike Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, may or may not be a femme fatale responsible for the bedroom deaths of several wealthy older men.
Willem Dafoe’s oddly cast as Frank, the cop who’s assigned to investigate the case and ends up falling madly in lust with the predatory Rebecca. The profound lack of chemistry between Dafoe and his blank-eyed bedroom partner render the inevitable sex scenes unusually toe-curling, and in turn make the endless courtroom scenes that intersperse them almost welcome when they appear – a kinky moment involving hot candle wax is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
Like Sliver, released the same year, Body Of Evidence was nominated for numerous Razzies, and we suspect most of its (surprisingly star-laden) cast look back on the movie with a frisson of regret.
5. Sliver (1993)
Both Sharon Stone and writer Joe Eszterhas were hot property after the success of Basic Instinct, so a movie that reunited the pair of them must have sounded like box-office gold. But while Sliver didn’t do too badly at all financially, it was critically panned, and nominated for numerous Razzie awards for its acting and writing.
Based on a novel by Ira Levin, Sliver was set in a New York apartment building (the sliver of the title) in which high-flying editor Carly (Stone) finds herself in a romantic triangle with the building’s owner Zeke (William Baldwin) and a writer, Jack (Tom Berenger). As various residents begin to die, Carly begins to suspect that both men may have something to hide…
That’s the thriller element of the plot, at any rate, which doesn’t sound too bad when written down – like Die Hard with more sexual tension and fewer guns.
Unfortunately, the film fails to do anything noteworthy with the voyeuristic themes implied in the novel, the script is peppered with painfully unsexy exchanges (“Anybody ever tell you you have a nice butt?” Baldwin asks Stone), and Philip Noyce fails to direct the film with the same trashy verve that Paul Verhoeven brought to Basic Instinct.
Trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating, the already tepid sex scenes are left looking rather coy, and William Baldwin spends most of the film looking alternately sad and bored – though in fairness, the camera spends more time pointed at Baldwin’s arse than his face.
If you want more proof of Sliver’s profound lack of eroticism, here it is: UB40 provided a song for the soundtrack, and in one scene, Sharon Stone plays golf in a dressing gown. Case closed.
4. Boxing Helena (1993)
Before the mainstream penetration of the Internet (sorry, it’s not deliberate), niche fetishes were hard to talk about and explore. Even with a wealth of websites to choose from now, though, we’d wager – although obviously we’ve been too scared to look – that there are few devoted to having your limbs chopped off, and being stuck in a box by Julian Sands, then bonked from time to time.
Boxing Helena, then, a film that was infamous before a frame of footage had been shot, when Kim Basinger backed out of the film (Madonna had turned it down before her), and got hit with a big bill for doing so. History, though, suggests that Basinger got a bargain. Being all but bankrupted is a small price to pay for avoiding the car crash that followed. It’s a bizarrely intriguing, although very uncomfortable one. And it’s a car accident that provides the turning point of the film. For the first part, we learn that Julian Sands’ character is obsessed with Sherilyn Fenn’s (Helena), but it’s only when the latter is struck by a car and the former has to amputate her limbs do the two properly come together.
A mix of drama, thriller, Art Garfunkel and eroticism, Boxing Helena is, of course, one of those films that it’s easy to throw stones at. But the hard truth is that it’s simply not very good. Julian Sands is no Oscar winner on his best day, yet here, as a surgeon who amputates the limbs of his ex, he’s a bit off form. He delivers lines that may, may just have worked in the hands of others. But not his. Yikes.
That Boxing Helena was billed as any kind of erotic film at all is troubling to start with. Granted, there’s pumpy of the rumpy nature, but the quite sinister concept is neither explored properly nor used to say anything. The film is written and directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of David, and considering how young she was when she made it, there’s a collection of interesting ideas here. Sadly, it was not one of those films made at the right time by the right people.
And here’s a true fact: not a single marriage on the planet followed for any couple that went to see Boxing Helena as a first date. Especially, especially, if he picked the movie.
3. Killing Me Softly (2002)
Well, if it’s kinky stuff you’re after, then on paper, Killing Me Softly is your film. A disrobed Heather Graham, tied up, while an equally starkers Joseph Fiennes has his way (all consensually, we should note)? But lordy, a more unconvincing and forced screen couple you’d have to do some serious searching of the shelves of Blockbuster to find. We can’t say whether the pair got on or not, but it’s almost as if their respective roles were filmed apart, and then glued back together by computer. It’s fair to say, too, that Killing Me Softly is a role beyond Heather Graham, really.
Also, bizarrely, an early sex scene is interrupted so we can see that there’s a cat watching them. The cat doesn’t look too impressed, either. The bloody thing only wanted a nap.
Sadly, not only does Killing Me Softly fail as erotica, it fails miserably as a thriller, too. And while it’s quite nicely shot in places, there’s an easy and quite tedious whodunnit thrown into the midst of all of this. To cap it all, the film then takes itself ridiculously seriously, with intense music, and lots of studious faces being pulled. Robbed of any sense of fun, intrigue or potential arousal, it exists now seemingly as that film where Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes exposed themselves a bit. For art, obviously.
2. Color Of Night (1994)
Yes, even Bruce Willis got in on the erotic thriller gold rush in the 90s, though we suspect he’d prefer it if we all just forgot it ever happened. He plays a Manhattan psychoanalyst who’s left traumatised after the death of one of his patients, and in attempting to get away from his problems in Los Angeles, winds up investigating the murder of a colleague, and embarking on a torrid relationship with a mysterious younger woman, Rose (Jane March).
As both a thriller and a piece of erotica, Color Of Night misfires hilariously. Scenes where Willis is shown lounging around in various dressing gowns and tiny white towels are oddly disquieting, and the fervour with which both he and Marsh attack their love scenes is extremely funny.
Come to think of it, the entire film is really, really weird. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “To call it absurd would be missing the point, since any shred of credibility was obviously the first thing thrown overboard.”
Nevertheless, any film that begins with a character making a gonzo leap from a building (leaving a horse shrieking in terror), and then ends with one of the most ridiculous twist endings in movie history has to be worth watching at least once. We won’t spoil it here, but we suspect most viewers will be able to guess the ending from the first 20 minutes alone.
1. Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
Sharon Stone returned for this belated sequel to her 90s hit, which relocates its action from America to London, and misplaces all traces of eroticism in the transatlantic flight. Catherine Tramell, still a bestselling novelist, loses her footballer boyfriend during a post-orgasmic car crash (complete with cinema’s most bizarre cameo: Stan Collymore). With the police sensing foul play, psychologist Dr Michael Glass (David Morrissey) is given the task of finding out just how crazy Catherine is, and naturally, much fornication ensues.
Like all the films on this list, the sex scenes in Basic Instinct 2 aren’t terribly sexy, and even the earthy chatter is awkward. Sharon Stone’s saddled with such hideous lines as “Even Oedipus didn’t see his mother coming” and “I’m devastated. I may never come again.” Brr.
In the US, Basic Instinct 2 was subtitled Risk Addiction, which sounds like someone obsessed with strategy board games – a scenario which may actually have proved sexier than the resulting film.
Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid, Cruel Intentions sequels, Poison Ivy sequels, plus numerous non-thrillers with unerotic scenes thrown in. Not included deliberately: Wild Things. We quite like Wild Things. It’s the only erotic thriller on the planet with Bill Murray in it.