The erotic thriller genre used to be a major force at the multiplex, with beloved sleazy hits like Dressed to Kill, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct turning audiences on with their sensuality, and punishing them for being turned on with brutal violence. But over the last 15 years the genre seemed to disappear from theaters, slinking back into the confines of Straight-to-TV movies. Whither goest the erotic thriller, anyway?
Maybe it’s come back. This weekend’s release of The Boy Next Door promises all the sexy thrills of the genre’s heyday in a slick, popcorn package, and we hope it’s great and we hope it makes a bundle so erotic thrillers can come back in force. So with that on our minds, we asked ourselves: What’s The Best Erotic Thriller Ever, anyway?
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We asked our three film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to pick and defend just one single film that rises to the top of the genre. Check out their picks and then vote for your own favorites at the bottom of the page to determine which erotic thriller really should be the victor.
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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Body Heat (1981)
Ah yes, the erotic thriller. I was a teenager in the early 1990s, when the genre was at its peak, and I recall certain erotic thrillers with a halcyon fondness. This, despite the fact that the almost the entire genre is composed of trash. Appealing, appealing trash. In the pre-internet days, before porn was readily available to all human beings, erotic thrillers fulfilled a deep, prurient need. You may not be able to find adult features at Blockbuster, but you could always rent a film like Gator Bait or Stormswept (to cite two of my favorites). Any “unrated” film that starred Shannon Tweed, was directed by Zalman King (the Wild Orchid guy), or featured a scathing, in-depth look at the lives of sex therapists, and you’d be in good hands. It might also help if you can find something European, which were sure to be breast-casual. These were the bread and butter of the American erotic thriller fan.
The best erotic thrillers, however, should perhaps transcend their trashiness, and perhaps directly relate to the genre that it is descended from: film noir. As such, I will select an erotic thriller that has one foot in each genre: Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 classic Body Heat. The story of Body Heat has been seen in countless noirs to come before it: A femme fatale (Kathleen Turner) begins having an affair with a befuddled lawyer (William Hurt) only to eventually convince him to murder her husband. Body Heat, however, is less about the plot and more about the sex that is necessary to make a man commit murder. The film is copiously benuded (a word I just made up), and the raw, steamy sexuality on display tips the film awfully close to outright pornography. But far sultrier, steamier, sexier. There is a scene where Turner leads Hurt to bed, dragging him by a particular part of his anatomy. You might want to smash through a glass patio door yourself to get to this woman.
Brian Formo’s Pick: The 4th Man (1983)
Warning: the best erotic thriller ever features an arousing scene, almost immediately followed by a scene where a penis is snipped off in a nightmare. Paul Verhoeven’s final Dutch film — before cozily moving on to Hollywood big-budget subversiveness with RoboCop and Total Recall — was The 4th Man. It’s the best erotic thriller ever because it shows sex as both tantalizing and devouring, but also too fleeting and physiological to actually inform an identity. Ideas make-up your identity, not what’s between your legs.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Wild Things (1998)
There was a time when pornography was a lot harder to get a hold of, and the only prurience teenagers could get a hold of were R-rated erotic thrillers and Cinemax, which were basically synonymous in the 1990s. The majority of erotic thrillers were sensual but also came with a heaping helping of shame, dramatizing how the uncontrollable lusts of the protagonists made them easy prey for the genre’s villains. And while sex may always have a hint of shame to it, my favorite erotic thriller is almost devoid of that niggling emotion. Wild Things is about sex, temptation and amorality, but unlike more popular erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction or Body Heat, every character was probably on the fast track to Hell before the story even started.
Which is not to say that Wild Things was unpopular. Critics unexpectedly took to director John McNaughton’s ripe blend of Grade-A prurience and twisty-turny thrills. Wild Things has a spectacularly complicated plot with a series of increasingly ludicrous twists (all of which actually make sense by the end). It starts when a high school guidance counselor (Matt Dillon) is accused of raping two teenaged students (Neve Campbell and Denise Richards). The trial is a scandal, but something isn’t right, and the investigation begins in earnest, revealing shocking trysts, conspiracies and deadly altercations.
McNaughton’s film is so dramatically extreme that the underlying themes of immoral sexuality and the evils of women are hard to take entirely seriously, leaving the impression that Wild Things is as much a satire of erotic thrillers as it is a proper entry into the genre. But it’s not quite self-aware enough to go all the way into comedy. It’s just smart, finely acted and sexy as anybody’s business, presuming of course that anybody’s business is poolside three-ways. It captures the illicit thrill of the erotic thriller genre but doesn’t pander to conventional moralizing or conservative social norms. It’s got all the thrills and all the eroticism you want from the genre, in a demonically sleazy package, and as such I suppose it must be the best of the bunch.