20 of Horniest Erotic Thrillers Ever Made

20 of Horniest Erotic Thrillers Ever Made

Whatever happened to the erotic thriller? There’s something of a bell curve to the distribution of the sexy programmer, rising with the relaxing of the production code in the late 1960s, topping out in the ‘80s with prestige fare like Fatal Attraction, and tailing off by the mid-2000s, and the dominance of franchise culture. Today’s box office values big-budget, four-quadrant blockbusters, making marketing of films about adult sexuality nearly impossible.

Streaming has opened a window for movies that resemble the erotic thrillers of yore, but the kind they used to make — feature lurid hooks and big stars — remain decidedly absent from theatres. (Adrian Lyne’s return to the director’s chair for the Ben Affleck/Ana de Armas Hulu thriller Deep Water, which was intended for theatres pre-pandemic, was a welcome — if largely critically reviled — throwback.)

Yes, there’s plenty to criticise, even in the best examples of the form. The sex is often more titillating than realistic; the movies have also almost always been written and directed by men and emphasised on male perspectives, and many of the women who starred in them didn’t have the best time of it (consider Sharon Stone’s oft-repeated accusations that an iconic nude scene in Basic Instinct involved a bit of trickery from director Paul Verhoven).

And yet, it remains curious the way sex seems to have largely vanished from mainstream, theatrically released films. So without further foreplay, let’s celebrate some of the best — or at least the most interesting — examples of a type of movie that they just don’t make anymore.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Any erotic thriller worth its salt pays at least some tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, film noir, or both, and director Brian de Palma set the tone with Dressed to Kill, a juicy mystery involving a sex worker (Nancy Allen) who witnesses a murder and becomes both the prime suspect, and also the killer’s probable next victim. The style is absolutely delicious, and there’s a reason it started a new trend; the blend of classic tropes and overt sex is almost too hot to handle. Without spoiling too much, though, it very much comes from an era in film when queer representation was limited to absolutely batshit killers, and so loses some points for falling back on lazy (and overused, even in 1980) stereotypes.

Body Double (1984)

Far less successful than his earlier Dressed to Kill, Brian de Palma’s Body Double is, in many ways, a better film, upping the sex and violence while also simplifying the plot and narrowing the focus. Craig Wasson plays Scully, a failed actor housesitting in the Hollywood Hills. Bored, and looking through the house’s telescope, he spies a beautiful woman and then, of course, witnesses her murder. He winds up a suspect in the case, getting caught up in the world of Hollywood porn when he seeks the help of an adult film actress Holly (played by Melanie Griffith in a career-making role) to solve it. There’s nothing particularly sympathetic about Scully — he’s alternately a dupe or a bad decision maker — and that’s as it should be. As with the best classic noir, we’re not cheering for Scully; we’re witnessing his long fall.

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

The movie that helped to propel director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful, and 2022’s Deep Water) to fame was also co-written by Zalman King of Red Shoe Diaries fame. In that, it represents a team-up of erotic thriller royalty that’s still mostly effective because of the performances from an early-career Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. Very much the Fifty Shades of Grey of its era (except with actual heat), Rourke plays a Wall Street trader who leads Basinger’s art gallery assistant down an increasingly kinky road.

Rourke, by then at a much different place in his career, starred in a direct-to-video sequel in 1997, but kept away from 1998’s similarly low-rent prequel. Which is all to say that you could spend a fair bit of time in the steamy 9 1/2 Weeks-verse if you are so inclined.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Elements of Fatal Attraction aren’t nearly as appealing today as they were three decades ago, but it remains a taut, suspenseful thriller that brought its adult sexuality (including a memorably awkward bit involving the kitchen sink) all the way to the Oscars; though it didn’t win anything, the movie was nominated in all the top categories. Glenn Close (as femme fatale Alex) is clearly having the time of her life playing an unhinged woman who absolutely loses her shit over married Dan (Michael Douglas). The setup has a strong whiff of “women, amirite?,” but the screenplay is smart enough to recognise that Dan isn’t the hero either, and the two generate real heat.

No Way Out (1987)

There’s a lot of Hitchcock in the more overtly sexual thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, reflecting the full expression of the master’s more subdued eroticism (Hitch himself seemed eager, at the end of his career, to explore filmmaking with more freedom in movies like Frenzy). Neo-noir No Way Out certainly doesn’t hit the heights of the films that inspired it, but does make a lot out of a twisty-turny plot involving a love triangle between Kevin Costner, Sean Young, and Gene Hackman(!) and a murder for which Costner is the chief investigator…and also the prime suspect. It’s not the hottest movie of the era, but there’s real chemistry at work, as Costner’s all-American charm plays well against Young at her early-career peak — and before Hollywood misogyny shoved her aside.

Angel Heart (1987)

Mickey Rourke plays private dick Harry Angel, under contract from Robert De Niro’s Louis Cypher to track down an iconic singer who has disappeared. Not only do Angel’s leads keep turning up dead, but he crosses paths with Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), daughter of the singer, with whom he has enjoys some memorably rough sex. There’s a ton of style and eroticism on display, as well as a questionable voodoo aesthetic, but the film is memorable for its blend of tones and for the performances, particularly those of Bonet and Rourke.

Bad Influence (1990)

The female characters in this Curtis Hanson film are almost entirely incidental, if you couldn’t tell from the poster, which features Rob Lowe, James Spader, and a nondescript woman whose face we don’t see. Nebbishy Michael (James Spader) starts palling around with more experienced Alex (Rob Lowe), going on adventures involving sex, drugs, and light crime. Which is all fine and fun, until Michael realises thrill-loving Alex is 100% going to get him killed. The movie loses points for a lack of substantive female presence (and for being a creepy choice for a comeback following Lowe’s teenage sex tape scandal), but stands out by focusing its sexual chemistry around the two mismatched leading men.

Poison Ivy (1992)

Journey back to 1992, an era when a filmmaker so inclined could make an erotic thriller starring America’s reigning sweetheart, Drew Barrymore; Roseanne’s Sara Gilbert; Tom Skerritt, and one-time Angel Cheryl Ladd. Rich, private-schooled Gilbert starts hanging out with Barrymore’s Ivy, a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks, which turns out to be a bad idea when Ivy makes a play for her friend’s dad that ends in murder. It’s all fairly unsavoury, but redeemed by its commitment to sleaziness, and by the not-merely-subtextual sparks between Gilbert and Barrymore. Several direct-to-video and made-for-TV sequels followed.

Basic Instinct (1992)

A genuine pop-culture phenomenon as much for its controversies as for its quality, Basic Instinct nabbed a couple of Academy Award nominations as well as plenty of appreciation for Sharon Stone’s career-making performance. Director Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls) knows all about elevating lurid material to the level of art, or at least camp, so the movie works even though its central mystery doesn’t make much sense. Michael Douglas plays a police detective investigating a murder who gets caught up in a torrid, occasionally kinky affair with the prime suspect Catherine Tramell (Stone). The bisexual serial killer angle was already a tired trope by the time of the movie’s release, but there’s no question that Catherine Trammell is a memorable (and, I suppose, sex positive) villain. Stone participated in the big-budget, entirely forgettable 2006 sequel.

Single White Female (1992)

The elevator pitch is solid enough that the term “single white female” remains in the pop culture lexicon — Allie (Bridget Fonda), searching for a roommate, takes in Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who becomes so obsessed with her new landlord that she wants to become her. On those terms, it’s effective, though it’s a bit more troubling than you might remember: Hedy was the latest and possibly greatest in a long line of unhinged, murderous lesbians (a gay sex scene is shot like we’re suddenly in a horror movie). The movie also suggests, as so many movies still do, that female friends are always one step away from killing each other. Still, it’s stylishly made, surprisingly funny, and features two great central performances.

Indecent Proposal (1993)

Another one that found a weird place in the early ‘90s pop-culture zeitgeist, this Adrian Lyne drama asks what would happen if Robert Redford made a play for your spouse, backing up his offer to the tune of a cool $US1 ($1) million. In a 2022 world of greater fluidity in relationships, the answer would be either more or less complicated; in 1993 it was scandalous.

The Last Seduction (1994)

Linda Fiorentino plays one of the all-time great femmes fatale in this film about a woman looking to get out of her unhappy marriage. First convincing her husband (Bill Pullman) to sell cocaine (as one does), she creates sort of a pyramid scheme of seductions, with the goal of eventually circling back around to someone murdering her husband. Fiorentino’s character is so good, and so well-written, that we’re rooting for her the whole time.

Bound (1996)

The movie that introduced the world to the Wachowskis came along at exactly the right moment: independent films were starting to have an impact on mainstream audiences, and queer content was beginning to nudge its way into movies made for wide release. It doesn’t hurt that Bound is incredibly sexy — and a clever, Billy Wilder-inspired neo-noir. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly are one of cinema’s all-time power couples; where the erotic thriller genre would tend toward lesbian exploitation, the presence of feminist sex educator Susie Bright and the two not-yet-out trans women behind the camera dodge those tropes almost entirely.

Wild Things (1998)

Depending on the viewer, Wild Things is either complete trash, or a glorious ode to trash. The plot kicks off with an uncomfortable bit about a false rape allegation, but continues on with a seemingly endless string of turnabouts and red herrings involving a trio comprised of Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, and Denise Richards. Hardly a scene goes by during which there isn’t some new revelation, building out a love triangle that becomes a love quadrangle (at least) with the addition of Kevin Bacon, who offers up some memorable, and rare-for-the-genre, male nudity.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

“Adultness” is almost a defining quality of erotic films, which is why Cruel Intentions plays almost as much as an underage parody of the genre as it does a thriller in its own right. It’s also a teenage take on the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, already adapted as Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont — which is all to say there’s a lot to unpack here. Or perhaps you’re better just enjoying this cult classic as the juicy, intentionally trashy bit of fun that it is. Reese Witherspoon plays Annette, who intends to stay “pure” until her marriage, which…good luck in the face of the horny, scheming pair played by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe.

Trois (2000)

What we think of as the erotic thriller genre is overwhelmingly white. Major studios, who had already shown little interest in making films about and marketed for Black people, were clearly even less interested in dealing with sexuality among POC characters. That reticence is a big part of the reason Trois stands out, even though it doesn’t subvert genre tropes in any other way. But it’s also a juicy drama in its own right, about a man who talks his wife into joining him in a threesome, only to discover their choice of a third wasn’t smart. It did respectable business as an independent film, and very well among Black audiences. It spawned two less successful, but generally sweatier, sequels.

Unfaithful (2002)

Just as director Adrian Lyne ushered in the genre’s heyday, he popped by to see it off with Unfaithful, a thriller with a setup that’s made clear from the title: Diane Lane plays a bored wife to Richard Gere, by chance meeting a man who she winds up having an affair with. Annnnndddd cue the inevitable murder. It’s middling on the whole, but worth it for Lane’s Academy Award-nominated performance.

Swimming Pool (2003)

Popular detective novel writer Sarah Morton (the always great Charlotte Rampling) is struggling with her current novel, and decides to take a small vacation for some peace and quiet — just to clear the cobwebs — at her editor’s summer place. There, she meets the uninhibited Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), daughter of the editor, and the two form a connection; Sarah’s initially repulsed, but then fascinated by the younger woman’s sexual freedom. Until the inevitable murder complicates things even further. The film’s sexuality had to be stripped down for its original American release, but it is now widely available in the original French version.

Stranger By the Lake (2013)

Erotic thrillers peaked in the ‘90s, and had largely died out (beyond the direct-to-video market) around the turn of the century, so much so that this 2013 French film plays like an homage to an older form, in much the same way that some of the better thrillers of the ‘80s paid tribute to film noir. Here, Pierre Deladonchamps plays Franck, a regular visitor to a nude beach and the surrounding woods, both popular cruising spots. Franck begins a passionate relationship (meaning: lots of sex in the woods) with Michel (Christophe Paou), who Franck later spots drowning someone in the lake. As the investigation into that event heats up, Franck finds himself struggling to give up a good thing, even in the face of murder. As with the lead in any good erotic thrillers, the better the sex, the more Franck will risk.

Deep Water (2022)

Given the return of director Adrian Lyne (9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal) to the director’s chair after an absence of two decades, it’s worth checking up on the genre in 2022. We’re pretty decisively out of the theatres at this point, as studios much prefer big-budget, broad-audience movies rather than anything that would exclude kids and teens. Ben Affleck is probably a rough equivalent in star power and sex appeal to the male leads of yore, and Ana de Armas is a good choice as a co-lead, even if the casting does remind us that age gaps in these movies will always favour the idea of an older man with a significantly younger woman. Here, Affleck’s Vic agrees to overlook his wife’s string of affairs in order to preserve his marriage, but then becomes the prime suspect when her lovers start turning up dead. It’s a solid setup (taken from a Patricia Highsmith novel) that doesn’t quite connect. Still, maybe it’ll serve as a warm-up for an erotic revival. Theatres are probably out, but streaming services have more leeway to make with the sexy.

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