Undressing The Erotic Thriller

How many of us could resist a movie poster or trailer that entices potential viewers with erotic phrases such as “Passion, Power, Greed and Death” or “Red Hot Passion Can Lead to Cold-Blooded Murder”. Films that link desire and pain together have existed in one form or another since the industry began. However, they were originally low budget films that were panned and ridiculed by traditional critics. The Hollywood mainstream elite used to dismiss films that blended horror and sex as pornographic and accused the studios of selling out to the “almighty dollar. Journalists called these movies “tits and terror” films. When these films first became noticed, the codes of censorship limited the boundaries of the entanglement between overt sex and violence. But audiences slowly began to be mesmerized by thrillers in the 1950’s with the influx of European films that had few rules and plenty of erotica. As Hollywood executives realized that huge successes could be attained by depicting love scenes as “hotter and steamier” with a mix of thrilling danger, a new direction arose to the forefront. Prior to the official classification of films as erotic thrillers that ultimately attracted big Hollywood stars, there were many suspense thrillers that contained erotic undertones. These hits made major box office revenues and contributed to the worldwide fame of many actors. In 1954, “Double Indemnity” starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, broke all records for its portrayal of passion, greed and murder. In the end these two lovers and partners in crime, shoot each other in their last embrace that lingered with audiences for years. This film is still considered to be one of the most famous thrillers and a classic for any film buff who enjoys suspense, passion and intrigue. After watching it, who could forget the macabre character of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the classic thriller “Psycho” made in 1960? Alfred Hitchcock’s depiction of greed, voyeurism and shockingly graphic murder, is believed to be the mother of all psychologically based erotic thrillers. Lust and hate were intertwined brilliantly as it climaxed in a chilling murder scene with piercing violins playing. This film was extremely shocking for its time. It also had a profound effect on women, in particular. Generations of women were afraid to take a shower while they were alone. “Psycho” broke all the conventional rules by allowing its star (Janet Leigh) to be dressed only in her bra and slip in an opening scene after a daytime tryst in a dingy hotel room. Hitchcock brilliantly manipulated the audience with various camera shots that blended voyeurism with dark secrets and mayhem. Horror was also blended with previously taboo subjects such as transvetism and incest. In another one of Hitchcock’s greatest thrillers “Rear Window” (1954) Jimmy Stewart, temporarily confined to a wheelchair derives pleasure by becoming a “peeping tom” with binoculars, who spies on his neighbors (particularly the dancer who wiggles her behind and the nude sunbathers on the roof) while we also view his high society girlfriend’s (Grace Kelly) pearls nestled in her provocative cleavage. What ensues as he witnesses a murder is an intriguing, suspenseful rollercoaster ride. These films allowed a whole generation of stars and directors a chance to walk on the wild side in ways they had not previously attempted. In the 1980’s, the Hollywood mainstream blended the categories of film noir, mystery, horror and erotica together. As a result, the label “erotic thriller” became officially recognized by audiences and critics alike as a new genre in film. This new mix modified the older genres and re-created them to deal with more modern relationship issues. Though the industry tried to maintain a safe distance from pornography in erotic thrillers, the two definitely have ingredients in common. Not so coincidentally, the inception of the erotic thriller as its own genre coincided with the advent of video porn. It was also during this time that the VCR arrived, that allowed people to watch films privately in their own homes. Both “Deep Throat” and “the Last Tango in Paris” (Marlon Brando, 1972) came out in theaters the same year. These two landmark motion pictures changed the way sex was viewed in the theater forever. They allowed Middle America to openly experience semi-pornographic movies instead of viewing them in secret. Both of these genres included story lines that have sex scenes as the focal point of the plot. Audiences loved watching illicit pleasures linked with danger and they related intimately with these stories. As the desire for erotic thrillers reached an almost passionate mania, Hollywood fanned the flames of that desire. The number of plots with similar themes increased dramatically and movie makers escalated the number of film sequences that depicted powerfully erotic scenes. Around the same time, other stars stepped up to the plate in films that linked sex and danger. One such success was “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977) with Diane Keaton and a very young Richard Gere about a professional woman who cruises bars for abusive men and is ultimately brutally killed by a man she picks up. The film garnered three Oscar nominations and furthered the popularity of sexually related thrillers. Hollywood certainly became experts at inflaming our deepest erotic thoughts and emotions mixed with danger. They creatively meshed plots that aroused desires and entangled them with our most primal fears. All of these earlier films paved the way for the erotic thriller blockbusters that became America’s favorite erotic nightmares. The cinematic gems “Fatal Attraction” (1987) and “Basic Instinct” (1992) were among the most lucrative box office triumphs of all time. “Fatal Attraction” has been referred to as “the perfect erotic thriller hinging on sexual obsession and ending in murder”. “Basic Instinct” set the stage for “A-list” stars to depict full frontal nudity. Michael Douglas starring in both films became the leading man of erotic thrillers. He earned a huge $14 million for “Fatal Attraction” in this tale of a man who blinded by desire, finds out the real meaning of lethal sex. As a result of his huge success in both these blockbusters he set the stage for himself and other stars to become franchises unto themselves. As a result of the huge success of this film, so came the copycat movies meant to capitalize on it, that totaled over 10 films in the next 10 years. The titles included “Fatal Pursuit”, “Fatal Passion”, “Fatal Instinct” and “Fatal Image” all of whom represented Hollywood’s capability for exploitation. Though no movie has arisen to compare to the above films in recent years, there have been several good ones including “Unfaithful” (2002, starring Richard Gere). As the title implies, it demonstrates again to audiences the fateful result of mixing sex and danger. With a slight twist, this movie marked a transition from simple erotic thrillers to more complex erotic melodramas. In “Original Sin” (2002) starring Angelina Jolie, she teases the audience in the opening scene (showing only her lips) with the line, “This is not a love story but a story about love and its power to heal or destroy”. Her husband (Antonio Banderas) willingly drank poison as a result of his obsession for his murderous wife. In a surprise ending, we see him alive continuing to do her bidding uttering the words, “No matter the price, you cannot walk away from love.” These perhaps are the best words to sum up the erotic thriller. And as we continue to be drawn to these intricate story lines that entwine our erotic desires with thrilling suspense, there will always be another enthralling blockbuster for us to breathlessly embrace.