Introducing ‘Dead Sexy’: A Fortnightly Column about Erotic Thrillers

“I never feel guilty about enjoying films that are generally dismissed as trash.” – Slavoj Žižek

You can picture the scene. A darkened bedroom; slivers of moonlight penetrate through the blinds, casting horizontal shadows across a dumbstruck, excited man. Perhaps a single lampshade is providing a low, neon glow. There’s a woman: sexy but mostly terrifying, rouged cheeks, possibly a gun or knife strapped to her taut thigh. There might be a garter belt, or a trench coat, or assless chaps. Or maybe nothing at all. By the end of the encounter, someone is probably dead.

Erotic thrillers have significantly declined in popularity since their 80s-90s heyday. Slightly more respectable than straight pornography, the genre enjoyed a monumental rise in these two decades, aided along by the advent of 24-hour television, VHS and videotape rental stores. By 1994, the Chicago Tribune reported that the erotic thriller was the second most popular movie genre after action in the direct-to-video market. But, with the rise of DVDs, the moralistic nature of the emerging Millennial generation, and the new evolution of the far more ‘serious’ epic genre, erotic thrillers fell drastically out of favour. Attempts in the last fifteen years have very rarely made any kind of critical or cultural impact.

The genre also has a bad rep—especially among women. There’s often a femme fatale, a woman who gets murdered, violent and improbable sex, voyeurism, and a impudent sheen of tackiness enveloping the whole thing. Most erotic thrillers are poorly rated among critics and the public alike, dismissed to be played on 2am television slots for jerk-off dudes, eager to see a flash of tit and the sheen of a gun. You think of erotic thrillers and you think of that scene in Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs, or how Meg Ryan shattered her squeaky clean persona by getting naked in In The Cut, or Nomi Malone’s exorcism-esque orgasm in Showgirls (which, incidentally, enjoyed fabulous VHS sales). 

Yet, often, I feel like erotic thrillers are far more profound than they let on. Beneath the surface of mesh, heavy breathing and horndog men, directors and writers are often poking fun at what audiences find sexy. Where in rom-coms the romantic climax is often a chaste kiss, or in romantic dramas where the atmosphere can be staid, colourless and depressing, erotic thrillers exist as a way for women to have it all. They can hypnotize a man or woman with their sexual prowess, they can be the surprise killer at the end of the film, they can be a myriad of campy, kinky personas, real and unreal. Take a generous pinch of film noir (increasingly interchangeable with generic thriller, suspense or crime); a sprinkling of softcore sex (again, some films run fast and loose with the term ‘soft’); and, finally, romance. Voilà: one erotic thriller, steaming fresh and post-coital. It creates an electric, plot-filled, emotion-driven, and sometimes funny atmosphere that is never boring and is full of fascinating tropes to analyse.

In my fortnightly column ‘Dead Sexy’, I’ll be choosing a different erotic thriller and taking a closer look at its themes, stars, directors, production history and critical reception, from Body Double to Bound, Cruising to Crash. Along the way, I’ll be deep-diving into the genre’s fall from grace, its indebtedness to 1940s noir and Hitchcock, general trends in declining sex scenes in movies, and issues surrounding the representation of female desire on screen.

Buckle in and get ready for a fun ride—not Crash-style, I hope—and check back in this weekend for the very first film. Want me to look into a particular film? Be sure to let me know.

Words by Steph Green

Related articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *