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The Rise and Fall of the Erotic Thriller

By the time ‘Basic Instinct’ debuted in 1992, sex was selling in Hollywood. But less than a decade later, the bedroom doors were closed.

Dan Evans

A few years ago, filmmaker Michael Mohan set out to revive a long-extinct Hollywood species: the erotic thriller. The Ex-Sex director became fascinated with steamy classics like Body Heat, Disclosure, and Jade—tales of infidelity and revenge featuring R-rated love scenes and A-list casts. Those grown-up dramas ruled the ’80s and ’90s, only to vanish after the turn of the century. Mohan figured he wasn’t alone in mourning them. “It didn’t make sense that they went away,” he says.

For research, and for fun, Mohan began watching as many throwback thrillers as he could: everything from tawdry neo-noirs (Sea of Love) to tense relationship dramas (Indecent Proposal) to gnarly “blank-from-hell” movies (The Temp). By the time he was finished, Mohan had burned through nearly 50 titles while keeping a journal that noted their many fatal attractions and gonzo third-act twists. “The best of these films don’t leave everybody in the audience feeling the same way,” he says. “[Instead] you end up arguing with the person you love about the characters’ decisions.”

In 2021, Mohan finally released an erotic thriller of his own: Amazon’s The Voyeurs, a lush peeping-tom story of a young couple (played by Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s Justice Smith) who become obsessed with their exhibitionst neighbors. The Voyeurs has all the hallmarks of the genre—some skin, some sin, and a vengeful, no-one-saw-that-coming finale. Even the film’s theme song, a gauzy cover of Billy Idol’s ’80s hit “Eyes Without a Face,” is a nod to the silk-sheet decadence of the era that inspired it.

Still, the most shocking aspect of The Voyeurs may be that it was made at all. Sex hasn’t disappeared from theaters—there are racy moments in some of last year’s critically revered films, from Red Rocket to Titane to The Worst Person in the World. But major studios, and major stars, have all but abandoned the kinds of stylish, titillating mysteries that were once a date-night staple. The most recent semi-soft-core drama to pass the $100 million mark was 2018’s Fifty Shades Freed—and even that relatively tame film was a rarity for its time.

Such a downswing would have once been unimaginable. From 1980 to 2002—a sweaty heyday that starts with Richard Gere knocking boots in American Gigolo and ends with him knocking off his wife’s lover in Unfaithful—erotic thrillers dominated box-office charts and dinner-party conversations alike. Their sexy apex arrived 30 years ago this month with the debut of Paul Verhoeven’s masterfully sleazy Basic Instinct, a film about a troubled cop (Michael Douglas) following the bloody trail of a salacious crime novelist (Sharon Stone). Basic Instinct inspired endless spoofs, countless knockoffs, and nonstop controversy. It was the most talked-about movie of 1992—which was already a sexed-up year thanks to the release of such smart, twisty tales as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, and Poison Ivy. By then, the erotic thriller had matured into one of Hollywood’s most lusted-after genres, attracting high-end filmmakers like Verhoeven, Curtis Hanson, and even Aaron Sorkin. Their movies fed the appetites and egos of the era’s biggest box-office draws, from Bruce Willis to Demi Moore to Tom Cruise, who fumbled through an orgy in 1999’s naughty-illuminati opus Eyes Wide Shut. (Cruise’s Eyes costar and then-wife, Nicole Kidman, was already a veteran of the genre, having starred in such delightfully lurid gems as Dead Calm and Malice.) Directed by high-brow rascal Stanley Kubrick and released by the ultra-classy Warner Bros., Eyes Wide Shut—which was preceded by a hot-and-bothered trailer—seemed poised to reinvent and refine the erotic-thriller for the 2000s. Instead, it would turn out to be one of the last big-ambition erotic thrillers ever made. Not long after Eyes’ release, Hollywood shut the bedroom doors—doors that had taken years to kick down in the first place.

In the mid-’80s, a small group of moviegoers got a first glimpse at what would become one of the decade’s most notorious films: 9 ½ Weeks, about a fast-burning affair that culminates in a series of S&M-tinged sex games. Filmmakers Zalman King and Patricia Louisianna Knop spent years developing 9 ½ Weeks, eventually serving as cowriters on the script. “It was their labor of love for my entire childhood,” says their daughter Chloe King. “And when we went to the friends-and-family screening in America, more than half the people walked out. They were like, ‘This is insane.’”

Directed by Adrian Lyne, 9 ½ Weeks proved to be so red-hot that nearly two years passed between its production and its 1986 release in the U.S.—where it promptly bombed. Despite the recent success of such amorous dramas as Body Heat and American Gigolo, many Americans still felt upright about on-screen S-E-X. “We were in the Reagan era, which was a more puritanical time,” says Chloe King, who in the ’90s would go on to work on such high-profile erotica as Poison Ivy 2 and the hit cable series Red Shoe Diaries. “And because of AIDS people were frozen up and terrified.”

European audiences, however, were wild about 9 ½ Weeks—especially in France, where eager crowds lined up around entire city blocks. And it later became a huge hit on video, which allowed millions of Americans to watch with the blinds closed. Those who did got a preview of the high-sheen aesthetic that would mark many of the erotic thrillers to come, with their hazily lit love scenes, luxe-life real estate, and saxy soundtracks. (It was also the first sign that, when it came to erotic thrillers, Hollywood mostly cared about one kind of romantic pairing: white, cis, and overwhelmingly hetero.)

9 ½ Weeks was more of a grower than a shower, but Lyne’s next film—the adultery-gone-awry thriller Fatal Attraction—would be a smash from the get-go. “The thriller is back,” noted Time magazine, which featured stars Glenn Close and Michael Douglas on its cover and dubbed the film “a nightmare of the late 1980s.” The story of a dashing lawyer whose one-night fling turns deadly, Fatal Attraction was a direct reflection of the decade’s boomer-marriage meltdown, as well as its sexual anxiety. And thanks to its upscale cast, Fatal Attraction had an aura of prestige that other sex-thrillers lacked. The movie topped the box office for two months straight. “People leave saying, ‘I laughed, I got turned on by the sex scenes, and I got scared,’” Douglas said at the time. “You can’t ask for more than that.”

Fatal Attraction eventually earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and established Douglas as Hollywood’s most proudly butt-baring star. But its success didn’t make Hollywood any less jittery when it came to racy material. Instead, the mood was growing even more conservative in the late ’80s, especially when it came to anything related to sex, from televised condom ads to au naturel album covers. Filmmakers, meanwhile, had their own tsk-tsk force to contend with: the Motion Picture Association of America, which was threatening to slap the dreaded X rating on explicit films like Scandal and Wild Orchid, while giving several ultra-violent blockbusters a pass. For those accustomed to the freedoms of ’60s and ’70s moviemaking—like Alan Parker, director of 1987’s controversial Angel Heart—the atmosphere in the U.S. was downright stifling. “In most countries, sex is not something that gives you a problem,” complained Parker, who was forced to trim six seconds from a love scene to avoid an X. “This film will play uncut almost everywhere else in Europe.”

The ratings skirmish began to cool in 1990, when the MPAA introduced the still-stringent but slightly less skeevy-sounding NC-17 rating. Not that it much mattered anymore: A new decade had arrived, one that would finally allow filmmakers—and filmgoers—to indulge in their most basic instincts.

In retrospect, it’s fitting that the erotic-thrillers took off in the early ’90s. After all, that was the period that gave us our horniest president; our horniest acronym; and our horniest Dennis Franz cop-drama (at least of this writing). And though the war over indecency continued to rage, many conservatives had shifted their ire from film to hard rock and gangsta rap. In Hollywood, there was a sense that things were finally starting to loosen up a bit. Says Chloe King: “You felt like you could breathe again.”

Soon enough, nastily plotted relationship thrillers like Harrison Ford’s Presumed Innocent and Julia Roberts’s Sleeping with the Enemy were topping box-office charts. And thanks to the growth of home video and cable, even a modestly successful R-rated drama could have a big impact.

Katt Shea had made several beloved cult thrillers for producer Roger Corman when she was approached with a wild pitch for a movie: a Fatal Attraction–style domestic drama—but with teenagers. “I was like, “Oh, OK, sure,” laughs Shea. “I didn’t really take that [directive] seriously.” Instead, she and her partner, Andy Ruben, wrote Poison Ivy—a movie about a young outcast (played by Drew Barrymore) who’s taken in by a wealthy but deeply broken Los Angeles family. Poison Ivy’s marketing campaign promised copious amounts of sex and sax. But much to the chagrin of studio executives, the film turned out to be far more thoughtful, and way less titillating, than anyone had expected. Shea, who directed Poison Ivy, still isn’t comfortable with the film’s “erotic-thriller” tag: “The POV of the movie was that a house divided can very easily fall,” she says. “It was a story of a friendship between two teenage girls—and it wasn’t for teenagers.”

New Line Cinema

Of course, that made the movie only more intriguing: In a genre that so often dealt with the hang-ups and meltdowns of middle-aged boomers, Poison Ivy switched the focus to their Gen X kids. It made a scene, landing premieres at both Sundance and the Museum of Modern Art, and earning plenty of press attention upon its release. And while Poison Ivy’s box-office impact was modest, the film thrived in video stores, where fans were renting more than 100 million cassettes a week. When distributor New Line Cinema added a few extra “unrated” minutes to Poison Ivy’s VHS version, it became a must-watch for curious teenagers across the country—many of whom were no doubt bummed to learn the film’s big nude scene focused on Barrymore’s 50-something costar Tom Skerritt.

Poison Ivy would go on to spawn an entire straight-to-video franchise and become one of the era’s most respected risqué dramas (it’s currently streaming on Criterion Channel). But it was Basic Instinct that turned out to be the flick of the century—at least in terms of commercially potent, taboo-breaking adult thrillers. Basic was notorious from the moment the public got wind of Joe Eszterhas’s script, which had sold to Carolco Pictures for a then-record $3 million. Once word leaked that Stone’s bisexual novelist might also be an ice pick–wielding murderer, the film’s shoot was met with protests from members of groups like Queer Nation and ACT-UP. And journalists swapped tales of battles between Eszterhas and Verhoeven over the film’s content.

But even the filmmakers were shocked by how big of a deal Basic Instinct turned out to be. As explicit as the modern erotic thriller had become, Basic Instinct combined full-gore violence and full-bore sex in ways that left audiences spun. “It was an intellectual thriller with an edge, and it was a little more daring than the others,” says Basic coproducer Mario Kassar. ”The American audience was not used to it. It shocked them.” And the outrage over Stone’s infamous nude scene—which the actress later said was filmed under misleading circumstances—kept the movie in the news cycle for months: “They talked about that scene on TV every day,” says Kassar. “They promoted the movie for me.”

Basic Instinct conquered the box office for nearly three months, and landed on the list of 1992’s highest-grossing movies—just ahead of Hanson’s nasty-nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Those films’ success confirmed to studio execs that erotic thrillers were a must-have investment: They were cheaper than sci-fi or action tentpoles, and their opening-weekend notoriety paid off months later when they arrived on video and TV.

Producers soon began knocking out thrillers at a feverish pitch. In the early ’90s, writer-director Alan Shaprio was a TV veteran looking to make his first feature when he noticed all the fuss over The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. The “blank-from-hell” revenge-flick formula was in demand, and Shapiro saw a quick path to a green light. “I was just being a complete whore, and thinking of getting something made,” Shapiro remembers. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you write something about that girl who had a crush on you?’”

He got to work on a script about a magazine writer who moves into a guesthouse, where he’s pursued by the host family’s teenage daughter—based, Shapiro says, on real events. The screenplay was sold immediately, and sped into production with Cary Elwes and a pre-Clueless Alicia Silverstone. “From the moment my wife said, ‘Why don’t you write something about that girl?’ to it being released in something like 1,500 theaters—that was less than a year,” Shapiro says.

The Crush made its budget back in its first week—another hit entry in what was turning out to be a golden era. They came quickly during those years, with pulpy titles promising all sorts of cheap thrills: Never Talk to Strangers, Bound, Color of Night, The Last Seduction. And with the MPAA (mostly) leaving studios alone, the filmmakers working in the post–Basic Instinct era were free to amp up the on-screen action. For a while there, even the posters got pervy. “We were breaking barriers and taking risks,” says filmmaker Anne Goursaud, who directed Alyssa Milano in 1995’s risque home-video hit Embrace of the Vampire. “And we were trying to embarrass the bourgeoisie.”

For a genre that prided itself on last-minute shocks, the demise of the hit erotic-thriller was oddly anticlimactic. The slowdown began after 2002, a year that saw a rush of sensual dramas like Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale and the notoriously awful Heather Graham–Joseph Fiennes sexcapade Killing Me Softly. But only one of them, the Lyne-directed Unfaithful, managed to woo mainstream moviegoers, while also earning an Academy Award nomination for Diane Lane. Soon enough, the erotic thriller became just another disappearing grown-up genre.

Their undoing was thanks to a series of cultural events—some decidedly seismic, some all too human. The global victories of the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had convinced execs to prioritize family-friendly blockbusters over sexy dramas (some of which, like 1995’s Jade and Showgirls, had turned out to be costly box-office failures). Meanwhile, many of the movie stars who’d made these erotic thrillers so attention-worthy were aging out of them: You knew it was the end of an era when Michael Douglas appeared in 1998’s soapy A Perfect Murder and, for once, didn’t take off his pants.

TriStar Pictures

Yet the main reason for the end of the erotic thriller is obvious: Sex was migrating to the small screen, whether it was on late-night cable hits like Red Shoe Diaries, the rising number of porn sites, or DVD hits like the erotic drama Trois. And a new generation of performers were embracing risque material without any of those Reagan-era hang-ups: By the early ’00s, pulse-racing, pleasure-chasing music videos like Britney Spears’s “Slave 4 U” or Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” or D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” were displaying celebrity skin on MTV. The idea of watching major stars get intimate in a glossy Hollywood drama suddenly seemed archaic—why pay $8 to wade through an hour and a half of foreplay-heavy plot when you could see D’Angelo’s abs for free?

Every once in a while, a mature drama like 2003’s Swimming Pool would wind up making a splash. But for the most part, as more at-home thrills became available, audiences abandoned the traditional erotic drama—as did some of the filmmakers who’d once made them so popular. Goursaud began her career as an editor, having collaborated on multiple features with Francis Ford Coppola, including 1992’s salacious vampire saga Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the ’90s, she transitioned to working on a trio of erotic dramas, including Poison Ivy 2 and Another 9 ½ Weeks. But at the end of the decade, it was clear the genre was running out of steam—and she was running out of interest. With nudity everywhere, she says, ”there was nobody left to embarrass.”

In recent years, the few erotic thrillers that have made it to theaters are usually high-profile book adaptations, like the Fifty Shades series or 2014’s Addicted. But the overwhelming absence of the genre has helped fuel a quiet surge of nostalgia. It’s a longing felt most keenly among moviegoers who came of age in the ’90s, a time when movies like Malice or Sleeping With the Enemy were essential viewing—the tapes one snuck into the VCR after their parents conked out for the night. Consider the ’90s-set hit Yellowjackets, in which a young character rhapsodizes over Willis’s nude scene in Color of Night. Or Hulu’s Emmy-nominated Pen15, which features an episode in which several young characters’ hormones go haywire after a group viewing of Wild Things.

There are even a few new grown-up thrillers sneaking their way onto streamers, which grants filmmakers more leeway when it comes to portraying sex (and gives audiences more privacy while watching it). Mohan has a series of follow-ups to Voyeurs in the works. And last year’s Deadly Illusions—about a mystery novelist (Kristin Davis) who becomes fixated on a seductive babysitter—wound up at the top of Netflix’s most-watched charts. Then there’s the recent indie hit The Beta Test, in which a spiteful showbiz agent finds his life falling apart after a quick fling (it played in theaters last fall, and arrived on Hulu last month). The Beta Test has just enough kink and menace to remind you of a murky late-’90s thriller like Eyes Wide Shut—which was part of the fun of making it. “We hadn’t seen the kinds of movies that are fun and sexy, and that basically grease the wheels of a date,” says Beta Test codirector and cowriter Jim Cummings. “Movies have become sanitized, because we’re not making them for people in their mid-20s to their late-50s anymore.”

For that to change, filmmakers will also have to convince a suddenly-shy Hollywood to loosen up. At a time when shows like Euphoria and Pam & Tommy are living up to their TV-MA ratings, and when Top 40 radio is teaching us all-new triple-X acronyms, mainstream film has never been more chaste. Witness the much-heralded lovemaking scene in Eternals, the first of its kind in a Marvel movie: a sequence of muted missionary that lasts less than 60 seconds. Sex is everywhere you look, except the multiplexes. Nowadays, says Mohan, “it takes guts to be a director and say, ‘Hey, I think we should make a movie that has strong sexual undertones.’ But it takes even more guts to say it as a studio executive.”

King, whose parents helped cofound the adult-drama boom three decades ago, knows the industry’s nervousness all too well. A few years ago, she was hired by a major film company to help kick-start the next wave of erotic-thriller movies. She wrote a pair of scripts, both of which were fast-tracked to production. Then, just as things were heating up, the projects were unexpectedly squashed, a result of skittishness about on-screen sex in light of the #MeToo movement. “I got word they weren’t moving forward [with one film] because—how did they put it?—because ‘You can’t depict a woman who uses her body to get ahead,’” says King. “We’re at a point where you can’t depict a really strong female character who happens to be sexual and free. … We’re at war with ourselves.”

King hasn’t given up hope that the steamy thriller will return. After all, a new generation with its own attitudes about sex and sexuality are ready for their own hard-R dramas—which will likely be more progressive, and maybe more provocative, than the ones that ruled Hollywood so many years ago. “People want these movies, and they want them done right,” she says. And if there’s one thing the erotic-thriller has taught us over the decades, it’s that there’s always room for an unexpected comeback.

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.

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