“Who do I have to fuck and kill to get a good erotic thriller?” Soraya Roberts asks in her 5.24.19 Longreads article “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” (link below).
While that may be one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time, I suspect that Roberts could bed or murder anyone she likes, but it wouldn’t help. Only a time machine dialed back two decades or more could locate a good erotic thriller. The genre – if it truly was one – has been retired, or at least placed on hiatus while the business and our culture sort things out.
Soraya Roberts’ piece points to high profile big screen films from the 1980’s through 1990’s, bracketed by Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat (1981) and Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct (1992) which trace their lineage back to the mid-twentieth century noir and proto-noir films that sidestepped cops & robbers in order to zero in on more intimate tales of jealousy, lust, greed and desire. Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity would be the obvious reference, but John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Roadhouse, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of The Past, and Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning come to mind.
Roberts’ article quotes Linda Ruth Williams’ 2005 The Erotic Thriller In Contemporary Cinema for a definition of the genre: “Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex”, and that’s about as good a definition as I can think of. If I read “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” correctly, Roberts assumes that cultural changes doomed the genre. Woman-as-sex-object simply doesn’t cut it in a #MeToo era. But she rightly wonders why empowered women taking control of their own sexuality while concurrently asserting themselves in screenwriting, producing and directing haven’t given birth to a new breed of neo-noirish erotic thrillers? And thus, her article’s opening question: Where are the erotic thrillers for today?
This may be where Soraya Roberts and I part company…well, to a degree. She labels a handful of sexy big screen films as ‘erotic thrillers’. But for every one of those, there were dozens (if not more) made in the same era, but viewed on TV screens, not at the multiplex. Erotic thrillers as a very recognizable film genre peculiar to the 1980’s and 1990’s (with some stragglers creeping into the early 2000’s, perhaps) were primarily a direct-to-video VHS tape and then DVD phenomenon, rented at Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, regional chains and local mom-n-pops. They were produced on shoestring budgets at near assembly line speed and efficiency without costly location shoots, elaborate sets, CGI effects, large casts or big-name stars. Armed with a decent script, an earnest crew and a talented director-wannabe, it didn’t take much more than a knife, a firearm with blanks, some stage blood and a rent-a-prop squad car to get the cameras rolling. Wardrobe? It could almost be borrowed right out of the actors’ own closets, perhaps with a quick side trip to a shopping mall lingerie chain store.
Most were dreadful. Some very few were actually quite good and stand the test of time (well…almost). And in this, the ‘real’ erotic thrillers (not the much smaller number of big screen A-List productions from the same era) mimicked the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp magazine and postwar paperback original marketplaces. They were hastily produced, easily accessed and packaged in garish, sexy covers, with more and more needed every month to fill the video rental chain shelves’ ravenous appetites. The genre, if it was one, doesn’t trace its lineage back to James M. Cain so much as Spicy Detective pulp magazine stories, trashy Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt 1950’s crime novels and the few vintage sleaze PBO’s that actually had plots.
I don’t think evolving attitudes had anything to do with the erotic thrillers’ little death. The swift blink-and-they’re-gone decline of the movie rental store did. Redbox DVD kiosks and streaming services seem largely disinterested in keeping the genre alive, and what even Soraya Roberts acknowledges as ‘one handed watching’ is more easily accomplished (if one is so inclined) with free online porn, story be damned.
My own experience with the 1980’s – 1990’s erotic thrillers is limited to what I’ve come across in used bookstores’ close-out bins. Note: Not sale shelves. Close-out bins. And not used VHS tapes. (I mean, who has a VCR? Are they still sold at Best Buy, shelved between 8-track tape players and rotary dial phones?) Many 1980’s – 1990’s ‘classics’ have been repackaged and dumped into outlets as $1.99 – $2.99 brand new and sealed DVD’s. Can’t miss them: Look for a photo montage with a pistol and some spiky heels. Have I bought some? Sure have, even if feeling a little squirmy bringing one up to the cashier, depending on the DVD case cover art. And yes, I’ve been disappointed by some, but pleasantly surprised by others, concluding that Shannon Tweed, Joan Severance, Kari Wuhrer, Shannon Whirry and an entire Hollywood subculture of nimble-fingered writers and hard-working crews scrambled from one studio or location to another in a round-the-clock production schedule, so many of the scripts, costumes, sets and wardrobes (or lack thereof) fully interchangeable from one film to another.
Mainstream cinema is a little timid about sex right now. Streaming and cable may be less squeamish, perhaps, but sex and crime mixed together into a neo-noirish cinematic cocktail seems to make everyone uneasy. Instead, we get sparkling vampires dreamed up by a Mormon, dreary faux S&M that’s more effective than Melatonin gummies at lulling you to sleep, totally de-sexed Lifetime Channel thrillers and sex-ified CW tween-TV series. The erotic thriller as a big screen mainstream release or a slew of low-budget online/cable movies has been sanitized, diluted or outright abandoned.
But the dark impulses that propelled James M. Cain novels to the screen in the 1940’s and the more explicitly depicted drives that found their way onto tape, disk and cable in the 1980’s and 1990’s still linger. Hollywood and the culture at large may need to reassess, purge some outmoded and frankly repellant voyeuristic dismissiveness and ultimately discover a new vocabulary for the 21stcentury. Then maybe Soraya Roberts won’t have to fuck or kill anyone just to get a good erotic thriller again.
Link to Soraya Roberts’ Longreads.com article: