Erotic thriller is a film subgenre defined as a thriller with a thematic basis in illicit romance or erotic fantasy. Most erotic thrillers contain scenes of softcore sex and nudity, but the frequency and explicitness of those scenes varies.
Though similar films appeared as early as the 1960s, erotic thrillers emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1980s, bolstered by the popular success of Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction in 1987 and a quickly expanding domestic and international market for softcore adult entertainment on cable television and home video. The genre had a classic period of growth and expansion in the 1990s, highlighted by the success of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct, but by the early 2000s declined in production and popular appeal.
The potent combination of danger and romance, catering to both male and female audiences simultaneously, was the primary selling point for erotic thriller films during their classic period. The half-naked bodies displayed on posters, newspaper ads, and video box covers were accompanied by log lines that capture the unmistakable duality of the erotic thriller film:
If you think you can handle her, you're dead wrong. —Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction
He was hired to watch. Now he's tempted to touch. —Night Eyes
Twin sisters cross the line into a deadly erotic fantasy land. —Mirror Images
In all, over 300 erotic thriller films were produced in the 1990s, which is comparable to the number of thriller films made in the noir decade of the 1940s. The total number of films in the erotic thriller genre from 1985 to 2005 may number as high as over 500. Like film noir, the genre has evolved and modernized, and new films continue to be made that are influenced by the classic style.
Defining the erotic thriller film
The erotic thriller participates in several genres and film styles at once, taking narrative and stylistic elements from each. Its greatest debt is undoubtedly to the 1940s and '50s film noir, a thriller genre exemplified by stylish crime films and mysteries that explore the dark underworld of post-World War II America.
Thriller as a film genre, however, contains subgenres other than the noir crime film and murder mystery. Any of these might provide the dramatic framework for an erotic thriller. This includes the psychological thriller (Fatal Attraction, Body Chemistry, Object of Obsession), the revenge thriller (Scorned, Improper Conduct), and suspense stories of illicit romance and sexual obsession (Erotic Boundaries, Secret Games, The Adjuster). Like thrillers, romances can also be expressed in subgenres. These are as varied as the romance novel, the soap opera, and works of gothic fantasy. Softcore sex films are often romances of some kind, and the genre has a long tradition, particularly in Europe. Directors such as Radley Metzger (Theresa and Isabelle 1968), Joseph Sarno (Inga 1968), and Just Jaeckin (Emmanuelle 1974) were influential pioneers of the softcore-romance film. Their "middlebrow sexploitation" movies put stories of female desire at the center, and helped pave the way for softcore's reemergence in the 1990s.
Since the erotic thriller is a hybrid of these genres, pinning down the exact formula for an erotic thriller can be difficult. Each film combines its subgenres differently, and can enlarge the influence of one by minimizing the others. Where a film such as Fatal Attraction contains relatively brief scenes of softcore sex and illicit romance before stockpiling psychological thriller action, films such as Secret Games and Sexual Malice invert this by foregrounding feminized romance and softcore sex with a minimum of noirish thriller plotting.
The predominating syntax that shapes these films combines romanticized, “erotic” appeal with a dangerous “thriller” narrative -- a “pleasure/danger” principle.
Though every writer on the subject encapsulates the erotic thriller film differently, the overlapping of the suspense thriller, romance, and softcore sex film is the unique domain of the erotic thriller.
The rise and fall of the erotic thriller in the direct-to-video (DTV) era
Throughout the 1980s, cable television was expanding and diversifying its appeal to adult audiences. In 1980 Cinemax (owned by HBO) launched with a 24-hour schedule. Soon after, Showtime followed suit with The Movie Channel. Fearing the negative publicity associated with traditional sexploitation these late-night, premium cable channels distanced themselves from pornography but catered to an adult market. By the mid-1980s, HBO was actively looking for or developing adult programming that could be, in the words of one HBO programmer, "spicy but not obscene".
In parallel, video store chains such as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video grew and dominated the video rental landscape. The first Blockbuster video store opened in Dallas, TX in 1985 with 8,000 titles. By 1995 Blockbuster owned 4,500 stores worldwide. Unlike smaller, independent video stores, these large video stores cultivated a "family friendly" image and did not stock pornography, but the need arose for them to provide adult entertainment to a large customer base of couples who watched movies together.
By the late 1980s these two new markets, together called direct-to-video, or DTV, had become a lucrative, non-theatrical alternative for producers of low-budget, R-rated films.
A film that served as a prototypical success and catalyst in this new market was Night Eyes (1990), the story of a security guard who falls in love with the married woman he is hired to both protect and electronically surveil. Directed by Jag Mundhra, produced by Ashok Amritraj, and starring Andrew Stevens and Tanya Roberts, Night Eyes made $30 million in DTV sales though it was produced for only $1 million. The film's potent combination of noirish thriller and erotic romance, and the enormous financial returns it generated in DTV sales, was a watershed moment for the erotic thriller as a non-theatrical film genre. The success of Night Eyes even prompted some filmmakers with a background in hardcore pornography to begin making movies for this lucrative new market. One of the most successful of these new ventures was Axis Films International, founded by Andrew Garroni and Walter Gernert. Garroni and Gernert partnered with director Gregory Dark, an art school graduate who stumbled into the Los Angeles pornography business through making a documentary about it, and within ten years Axis produced over 30 erotic thriller titles using a rotating stable of actors, directors, and cinematographers. Many other filmmakers and production companies quickly entered this exploding new market, and by 1994 the erotic thriller was a well-defined non-theatrical film industry.
Basic Instinct (1992) contained mild lesbian content, but established lesbianism as a theme in the erotic thriller genre. Later, in the 1990s, erotic thrillers such as Wild Side (1995) and Bound (1996) explored a lesbian relationships and contained explicit lesbian sex scenes.
By 1994 the Chicago Tribune reported that erotic thrillers—a term which, Leonard Maltin said, "didn't even exist 15 years ago"—and action films were the two most successful direct-to-video genres. Though most discussions around erotic thrillers tend to reference Hollywood films such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, the independently financed films were far more numerous. Saddled with smaller budgets and a cadre of lesser-known celebrities, they thrived by finding an audience in the expanding DTV market. These “high and low” markets for the erotic thriller overlapped but did not compete, and each fed off the other financially and artistically. The “blockbuster” erotic thrillers boosted sales for small players, who sold films to DTV markets by underscoring the similarities between their films and works by the majors. The major films often expanded upon themes, visual styles, and plot devices first developed in lower budget films, using them like a pre-emptive screening room in which new ideas were auditioned.
By the late 1990s, the very success of the erotic thriller in the DTV era helped officiate its collapse. A glut of cheaply produced "T&A films" which offered sexual spectacle and copious nudity, but little else, began to saturate the market, watering down lucrative pre-sales deals with foreign distributors and causing budgets for erotic thrillers to shrink to nearly a third or less of what they were in the early 1990s. As budgets shrank, so did actor salaries, image quality, and shooting schedules. Family films became more important in the direct-to-video market, as retailers stocked more copies of blockbuster films instead of more titles. For these reasons many of the pioneers of the erotic thriller film, such as Axis Films International and Prism, left the market in frustration or went out of business entirely.
Brian De Palma helped usher in the erotic thriller as a genre with Dressed to Kill (1980), followed by Adrian Lyne with 9 ½ Weeks (1986) and, a year later, the Hollywood blockbuster Fatal Attraction (1987). He later followed these with Lolita (1997) and Unfaithful (2002) while continuing to direct high-profile mainstream films for established Hollywood studios.
As the writer of Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993), Jade (1995), Showgirls (1995), and other successful studio pictures, Joe Eszterhas established a clear style for his erotic thrillers that rarely deviated from a successful formula. He subsequently penned sequels for both Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Actor-producer-director Andrew Stevens was instrumental in establishing the erotic thriller as a non-theatrical genre when Night Eyes (1990), the film he co-wrote and starred in, turned a one million dollar production budget into thirty million in DTV sales. Stevens subsequently either wrote, directed, or starred in many DTV erotic thrillers, including Night Eyes 2 (1991), Night Eyes 3 (1993), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), Illicit Dreams (1994), and Scorned (1994).
Provocateur and former pornographer Gregory Dark (credited variously as Gregory Brown, Alexander Hippolyte, and Gregory Hippolyte) left the porn industry in the mid 1980s for more fertile artistic grounds in the erotic thriller genre. Dark joined Andrew Garroni and Walter Gernert as the in-house director for Axis Films International, a company formed to produce films that could duplicate the success of Mundhra's noirish Night Eyes. Dark's Carnal Crimes (1991), his first film with Axis, created a strong noir-romance subgenre for the erotic thriller, placing a female protagonist at the center of a romanticized story abundant with feminine imagery and softcore sex, setting the stage for many erotic thriller films to come. Dark's subsequent filmography is a connoisseur's collection of erotic thrillers in this mode, including Mirror Images (1992), Secret Games (1992), Night Rhythms (1992), Animal Instincts (1992), Body of Influence (1993), and Object of Obsession (1994). Dark eventually left the erotic thriller genre to direct music videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, among others.
Jag Mundhra, another Axis Films International collaborator and brand name in the genre, directed the hugely profitable Night Eyes (1990), and also Tropical Heat (1993), L.A. Goddess (1993), Wild Cactus (1993), Monsoon (1999), Improper Conduct (1994), and Irresistible Impulse (1996). Mundhra eventually returned to the Indian film industry.
Zalman King, one of the most famous names in softcore erotica, made what are more properly considered erotic romance films, but he put an unmistakable stamp on the genre at an early stage with his films Two Moon Junction (1988), Wild Orchid (1989), and Red Shoe Diaries (1992), which is also the title of his long-running cable television series consisting of erotic featurettes with female protagonists. Zalman King was adjacent to the erotic thriller genre but not strictly one of its practitioners. However, the DTV erotic thriller is indebted to King for two important contributions. This first is his use of a feminized, aspirational style popular with European softcore films, and the updating of that style for DTV audiences of the 1980s and 90s. The second is an early, influential combination of noirish atmosphere and illicit romance, an influence he shares with co-screenwriting partner Patricia Louisianna Knop, to whom he was married until his death in 2012.
William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Jade (1995) received widespread media attention. Likewise, Paul Verhoven’s Basic Instinct (1992) was a blockbuster, and perhaps the apotheosis of the 1990s erotic thriller. Verhoeven's controversial and critically panned Showgirls (1995), made soon after, has gained a cult following but was critically panned when released.
Canadian filmmakers Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg elevated the genre in the 1990s by producing arthouse erotic thrillers that evolved the form in new directions. Egoyan's The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994), and Chloe (2009) all trade on the audience's perception of what an erotic thriller should be, but then give them something more complex in exchange. Likewise, Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) propel the genre into the near future, where sex, obsession, and erotic desire are played out in cerebral, hypermodern settings mediated by potentially destructive technologies.
There remain many directors and producers who contributed more than one film to the genre. Mike Sedan directed many erotic thrillers, beginning with Night Fire (1994) and continuing through Erotic Boundaries (1997). Jim Wynorski directed Sins of Desire (1993), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), and Sorceress (1995). Rodney McDonald directed both Night Eyes 2 (1991) and Night Eyes 4: Fatal Passion (1996), as well as Desire (1993) and Scorned 2 (1997).
Like films of the classic Hollywood era, the erotic thriller has its female icons. The most famous among them is Shannon Tweed, the Playboy bunny turned actor, who starred in over fifteen erotic thrillers between 1985 and 2000, including Night Eyes 3 (1993), Indecent Behavior (1993), Scorned (1994), Illicit Dreams (1994), The Dark Dancer (1995), and Forbidden Sins (1999). Tweed married famous Kiss frontman Gene Simmons and went on to a successful career in reality television. Kathy Shower, also from the pages of Playboy magazine, starred in Wild Cactus (1993), L.A. Goddess (1993), and also Erotic Boundaries (1997), among other films and television shows. Fashion model Joan Severance, equal to Shannon Tweed in the number of erotic thriller films in which she starred, was the centerpiece of Write to Kill (1991), Lake Consequence (1993), Criminal Passion (1994), In Dark Places (1997), and many others. Kira Reed starred in The Price of Desire (1997), Madam Savant (1997), Losing Control (1998), Forbidden Highway (2001), and co-starred in many other films. Danish fashion model and Parisian burlesque artist Delia Sheppard put an unmistakable mark on the genre by appearing in many films and starring in Mirror Images (1992). Jodie Fisher starred in Intimate Obsession (1992), Body of Influence 2 (1996), Sheer Passion (1998), and Dead by Dawn (1998). Tané McClure is a key player in many erotic thrillers, including Target for Seduction (1995), Sexual Impulse (1997), Scorned 2 (1997), and Illicit Dreams 2 (1998). Fiery redhead Angie Everhart was a supporting player in the big budget Jade (1995), then starred in Another Nine & a Half Weeks (1997), Sexual Predator (2001), Heart of Stone (2001), Bare Witness (2002), and Wicked Minds (2003). Julie Strain starred in Carnal Crimes (1991), Sorceress (1995), and Lethal Seduction (1997). Tanya Roberts, originally one of “Charlie’s Angels”, was in Night Eyes (1990) and Sins of Desire (1993). Rochelle Swanson entered the genre through the TV series Silk Stalkings, starring in Night Fire (1994), Secret Games 3 (1994), and Mutual Needs (1997), with appearances in Illicit Dreams (1994), Dead On (1994), Indecent Behavior II (1994), and Sorceress (1995). Shauna O'Brien is featured in Over the Wire (1996), Deadlock: A Passion for Murder (1997), Striking Resemblance (1997), and many other erotic thrillers and erotic dramas. Monique Parent is a veteran of the genre, appearing in many films, including Sins of Desire (1993), Body of Influence (1993), Sexual Outlaws (1993), and Midnight Confessions (1994), with starring roles in Vicious Kiss (1995), Love Me Twice (1996), and Dark Secrets (1997). Lee Anne Beaman was active in the genre throughout the 1990s, appearing in many films and starring in both The Other Woman (1992) and Irresistible Impulse (1996). Linda Fiorentino starred in Jade (1995), and also smaller films like The Last Seduction (1994) and Bodily Harm (1995). Finally, no list of female erotic thriller icons would be complete without Shannon Whirry, who starred in Animal Instincts (1992), Body of Influence (1993), Mirror Images 2 (1993), Lady in Waiting (1994), Animal Instincts 2 (1994), Private Obsession (1995), and Playback (1996).
Of the male icons, Michael Douglas is the most recognizable, having starred in the studio pictures Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and Disclosure (1994). Andrew Stevens was more active in DTV films, starring in Night Eyes (1990), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), and Scorned (1994), as well as writing, producing, and directing other DTV erotic thrillers. Doug Jeffery starred or was featured in many mid-1990s erotic thrillers, including The Other Man (1994), Animal Instincts 2 (1994), Indecent Behavior 3 (1995), Killing for Love (1995), Irresistible Impulse (1996), and Mischievous (1996). In just five years Martin Hewitt starred in Carnal Crimes (1991), Secret Games (1992), Night Rhythms (1992), Secret Games II: The Escort (1993), and Night Fire (1994). Jan-Michael Vincent, star of the television show Airwolf, was featured in Animal Instincts (1992), Sins of Desire (1993), Indecent Behavior (1993), and a few others. Jeff Fahey starred in Impulse (1990), Sketch Artist (1992), Woman of Desire (1994), and Temptation (1994), among many other films in the action and thriller genres. John O’Hurley, famous for his role as Elaine's boss “J. Peterman” on the TV show Seinfeld, was in both Night Eyes 2 (1991) and Mirror Images (1992). Finally, Gary Hudson appeared in three erotic thrillers released in 1993 (Indecent Behavior, Sexual Intent, Wild Cactus) before moving on to work in other genres.
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