About 20 years ago I was a regular customer at my local video store and they always had these catalogues for their customers with all the upcoming releases together with a synopsis of the movie’s plot and a picture of the video cover. I picked up a copy on a regular basis and never threw them away. So I was just browsing some of them and when you do that you see a certain trend pretty clear; There seem to be all sorts of waves in what is popular at the moment; like all kinds of dinosaur horror movies coming out in 1993/1994 right after Jurassic Park or the tons of slashers that were released after Scream. What also grabbed my attention was that there was a steady stream of movies that would be described best as erotic thrillers, a genre that seems to have died somewhere in the late 90s. Nowadays a movie is rarely released that fits into that genre. These waves are normal and certain genres seem to go into hibernation for extended periods of time; in the late 90s it was slashers which were popular, in the 00s torture porn. Last couple of years the slasher made a moderate comeback with Scream 4 and the remakes of Halloween, Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street so that is clearly an example of a genre that has peaks in its popularity. But the erotic thriller is a totally different story as it has seems to have died entirely. I wonder why.
Let’s take a look at the origins of this curious sub genre. It sprouted from the “film noir” genre which was popular back in the 1940s and 50s. One of the key aspects of this genre was the inclusion of a femme fatale, which Wikipedia describes as “a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.” The femme fatales in the film noir gave the movie a sexual tension when nudity on screen was still a no-go. To illustrate the moral of the time; there was a code for movies enforced by the Hays Office who had a list of decency rules and made directors cut their movie when it broke those rules. Under this code nudity was forbidden and this ban was not lifted until 1964.
Nowadays the MPAA does the same but they don’t force you to cut your movie, they just give your movie an R or even an NC-17 rating after which the studio decides the director should cut the movie because it will cost them ticket sales otherwise. One of the most famous controversies of the Hays Code at that time dealt with The Outlaw, a western starring the curvaceous Jane Russell. Not only did they make director Howard Hughes cut more than 37 scenes which overemphasized her breasts, they were also against the movie poster which showed her laying in a hay stack sporting a nice cleavage. Ironically scantily clad women on posters or video covers would become almost mandatory for the erotic thriller… and a whole variety of other movies like teen sex comedies and exploitation movies.
Over the next couple of decades progress was made in terms of technology as well as a shift in morality. Bans on nudity were lifted and movies went from black and white to color. The 70s brought us the exploitation genre which was simply an excuse to display (female) nudity on screen. I see no other reason why “women in prison” movies were made other than the shower scenes and the cat fights. This decade belongs to Pam Grier, who started out in these prison films and went on displaying just as much skin in the blaxploitation genre.
The 70s also made the porno movie big, perhaps even mainstream for a moment. Deep Throat will spring to mind immediately, but since porn is something you watch alone or with your partner it’s no surprise that it never went beyond that. At the end of the 70s the exploitation genre in its purest form dissolved into other genres, mostly because the story lines in exploitation films weren’t deeper than that of the average porno movie so it was a genre which became boring quickly. At that point the summer blockbuster was introduced with Jaws and Star Wars. Why pay money to see badly acting girls fight each other when for the same amount you could see a well acted special effects filled movie?
Movies like “I Spit On Your Grave” even took the exploitation genre too far; trying to draw crowds in with a titillating poster while the movies features a woman being raped about 45 minutes by three men. Critics were outraged and movies like this bombed.
Horror movies and screwball comedies followed the way paved by exploitation movies and began inserting nudity. Porky’s will bring back fond memories anybody who was in his teens in the 80s and 90s, and so will Phoebe Cates in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Every slasher made in the 80s had at least one or two very hot women among the cast who had an obligatory nude scene before ending up dead at the hands of a maniac killer, compare that to the controversial Texas Chainsaw Massacre or original Halloween which feature no nudity at all. The thriller genre was also enriched with the nudity aspect building upon film noir elements to have femme fatales in movies seduce the flawed male protagonist. The erotic thriller was born.
Every genre has its rules, or conventions if you will, and with erotic thrillers that is the same. Every erotic thriller has at least two people in the leads since the, mostly male, protagonist needs an, mostly female, antagonist for him to get involved with. Sometimes there is a love-triangle while other movies feature a homosexual relationship between the leads. Mostly between two women, as two gay men aren’t known for drawing in big box office numbers. The always sexy antagonist is most of the times a master of seduction and manipulation and has the protagonist fall for her. She’s able to have someone kill for her, or is self able to kill.
There are a couple of recurring plots in the erotic thriller genre, one being the cop investigating a murder where a beautiful woman is the main suspect and he gets involved with her, the other is the love affair in which the woman becomes obsessed with the protagonist and goes all psycho turning the last act of the movie in to a slasher. Basic Instinct and Sea Of Love both feature the cop/suspect-plot while Fatal Attraction and Single White Female go for the psycho-plot, the latter even throwing in a dash of lesbianism as both leads are female.
The appeal of the erotic thriller is not that hard to see. When the only alternative was porn in cinemas it was convenient for people to go to a movie for the story, the mystery and as a bonus to get some steamy onscreen action. The introduction of the video cassette in the early 80s only boosted that. It was possible to get hardcore pornography on tape but it was easier, especially for the younger crowd, to walk out of the video store with Body Heat, Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct. The success of the early movies turned people like Kathleen Turner into A-list stars so erotic thrillers also became popular with already famous actors who were not afraid to shed some clothing like Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. The video cassette paved the way for a whole stream of direct-to-video releases with simple thriller plots and covers which feature a sexy woman. The erotic thrillers were always placed between the regular thrillers, so your eye-catching cover would always attract more attention than porno which was stuffed away in the back. Bedroom Eyes (1984), The Drifter (1988), Lisa (1990) and Strangers (1991) are just a few titles nobody will probably remember. They linger around in the world of midnight cable movies which you stumble upon while surfing channels, a place that seems to be made for erotic thrillers.
So what killed the erotic thriller?
Looking at its period of popularity and decline in the late 90s there are a couple of possible explanations. First of all: politics. Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven, also known for putting lots of nudity in his Dutch movies in the 70s and even showing a gay blow job in 1980’s “Spetters”, said: “Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States. Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.”
He’s right in a way, and this was when Bill Clinton was under heavy attack due to his relationship with Monica Lewinksy. So there is something to be said about a country that is in shock about the president having sex with an intern. I don’t see these people go out and watch a movie about a lesbian love-triangle.
The MPAA also hates sex, and the MPAA is the Hays Code of today, so if they hate sex a movie about it automatically is given an R or NC-17 rating meaning only adults can watch it. For studios that is a big chunk out of the possible ticket sales so the studio demands a recut and want the movie toned down. Take away sex from an erotic thriller and all you have left is just a thriller.
Last but certainly not least there is the internet. Is it a coincidence that the downfall of the erotic thriller basically aligns with the rise of the internet? I’ve already stated that the erotic thriller in a way was a substitute for porn, but with the internet in every home people now have easy and anonymous access to porn. Considering people do watch erotic thrillers for the steamy sex scenes and not just for the story, why would these people nowadays watch an erotic thriller for some softcore moments when the hardcore is just a mouse click away?
Since a genre is an inanimate object it can’t actually die of course, and erotic thrillers remain to be made to this day. In 2009 Chloe was released starring Jullianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried, but there aren’t many high profile releases like it and even Chloe didn’t make that much money. If IMDB numbers are correct it even made a loss. People don’t drive out in masses to a movie just because it has some lesbian sex scene featuring Seyfried, while they did went out to see Sharon Stone get cross examined in Basic Instinct back in 1992. Nowadays the erotic thriller barely lives on in the world of direct-to-video releases with the Wild Things franchise and the occasional project for glamour models like Kelly Brooke who had some thrills and a lot of erotic moments in 2005’s “Three” (also released as Survival Island). Compared to the 80s and 90s it certainly isn’t what it once was anymore, but as other genres have proved: one solid hit movie and an entire genre could be resurrected, until it dies again.