Some of the best erotic movies are also dark and controversial. For example, Lust, Caution (2007) is a historical drama that dives into taboo subjects and stars Helen Mirren.
Even progressive-minded zoomers will admit that cinematic sex isn’t as popular as it used to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring.
Fatal Attraction (1986)
In 1987, when Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction premiered, it was the biggest movie of the year. It also changed movies forever — and launched Glenn Close’s illustrious career. Its story of an affair between an editor (Michael Douglas) and his office crush was a cultural touchstone, launching endless conversations about women’s roles in the workplace, gender politics, and feminism.
Though based on a short film (also written by Dearden) called Diversion, the Fatal Attraction script received extensive rewrites from director Lyne and co-writer Nicholas Meyer to fit into a feature-length runtime. Ultimately, the result is a sophisticated drama that avoids going over the top with histrionics and delivers a number of smoldering sex scenes and fleshed-out family members.
Its moralistic family-first messaging is a bit outdated, but for the time, it struck a chord with audiences. Its message was clear: a woman who strayed from her virtuous nuclear family could be ruined for good, and the morally upright husband would triumph over his whore. (Though the movie doesn’t go as far as Joseph Ruben’s adroit 1987 The Stepfather, which prods where Fatal Attraction panders.)
Basic Instinct (1990)
In a nightclub, detective Nick Curran follows a murder suspect—crime novelist and ice-blonde femme fatale Catherine Tramell—like a moth to a flame. Despite ominous warning signs, her sexual allure for him is undeniable.
Writer Joe Eszterhas, who had previously penned family films, comedies, and romances, sold the Basic Instinct script for a jaw-dropping $3 million. He worked fast, writing the film in just 13 days.
Director Paul Verhoeven, of Total Recall and RoboCop fame, pushed the limits of what was considered permissible for a mainstream Hollywood movie with this thriller. Among other things, the film featured more red herrings than a New York deli and brazenly exploited the viewer’s baser instincts.
But for all its shock value and the sexy, glamorous appeal of its stars, the most significant thing about Basic Instinct is that it catapulted Sharon Stone to global superstardom. Although her performance was nothing to shout about, she had the elusive charisma that can elevate a one-dimensional part into a cultural icon. It would be years before a leading lady could command the screen like she did.
The Last Seduction (1993)
The Last Seduction arrived right as the erotic thriller was starting to die, and like many of its predecessors it’s a guilty pleasure of kinky sex and mind-bending twists. This edgy little gem stars Linda Fiorentino, who was already an established film star when it was made but was still pretty much unknown to mainstream audiences.
In the movie, she plays a femme fatale who lures her husband (Bill Pullman) into a scheme to steal his own fortune, and it’s her cold-blooded charm that carries the film. Fiorentino is a bit of a cold fish herself but she’s also the smartest character in the movie, always ten steps ahead of everyone else.
This movie is also important because it was directed by Adrian Lyne, a director who helped create the genre and usher in a decade-plus of erotic thrillers. Lyne’s work is a bit of a black mark, though, as it treats sex as something that only exists in perfume commercials and magazine shoots, rather than as something sweaty, passionate, and real. Hulu’s new infidelity drama Deep Water looks to be bringing the erotic thriller back, so hopefully its success will signal that these sexy, smart films are here to stay.
365 Days (2020)
Among the many non-English movies that make waves on Netflix, few have created quite the stir as 365 Days (aka 365 dni), a steamy Polish thriller/drama based on a series of books. While Fifty Shades of Grey is notorious for its graphic content, 365 Days goes even further by including literal kidnapping and threats of violence in the erotic scenes.
The film stars Michele Morrone as Massimo, a Sicilian mobster who kidnaps his love interest, Laura. After a year of torment, she finally agrees to marry him, but her happiness is short-lived when he begins a campaign of psychological manipulation to break down her resistance.
The movie has received a lot of attention, not because it’s good, but because it’s controversial. Some critics have called for a boycott of the film, accusing it of glorifying sex slavery and encouraging viewers to confuse abuse with love. Others have launched a petition asking Netflix to remove the movie from its streaming service because it passes off abusive relationships as “steamy and sexy” to impressionable teens. The petition has so far garnered more than 7 million signatures.
Diane Lane and Richard Gere’s Edward and Connie appear to be in a stable, happy marriage for the first few scenes of Unfaithful. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t suggest some sort of trouble, but Lane herself once explained that she preferred a script that offered no obvious source of discontent or agitation; she wanted to elicit an organic crisis in Boomer marriage rather than a perverse indecent proposal.
Like Fatal Attraction before it, Unfaithful is a glassy, pellucid film of suburban New Yorkers in love with each other – though this time the romance is less sexy than the previous film’s, and the classical erotic thriller’s reliance on the male gaze as an object of obsessive preoccupation becomes a signifier of its own lateness. Here the hand rather than the phallus serves as a point of sensuous contact, queering the film towards Michel Foucault’s notion of full-body, post-penetrative sex free from conventional gendered distinctions.
The fusion of sight and touch translates the lush tableaux of the classical erotic thriller into moments of sublime tactile communion, but it also signals the genre’s inability to shore up its resources against the incipient era of digital dispersal. Lyne would later provide the elegy for this phase of the long 1990s with his melancholy, moody Deep Water.