Femme fatales, lurid lighting, sex, murder and betrayal! Myles McHale takes a loving look back at the Golden Age of the horny Hollywood thriller
The monochromatic poster that gazed at you from the movie theater display case. The DVD (or, for the real ones, VHS) covers at your local video store in the section marked Drama or Thriller. The movie your parents rented for the upstairs TV while you and your sibling were banished to the basement with the latest Disney sequel.
Maybe it was Sharon Stone staring ominously from behind a barebacked Michael Douglas? Maybe it was Madonna and Willem Dafoe, bodies specifically poised in chaste ecstasy? Or was it Sherilyn Fenn as Helena being put in a box, in the movie Boxing Helena?
The erotic thriller was the trashy, borderline camp type of film adults were supposed to talk about in hushed tones, equal times titillated or embarrassed. These films often mixed with the Neo-noir crime thrillers, allowing the actresses to play the alluring victims and sometimes suspects in the search for a killer. They also often doubled as a morality tale that punished the powerful women it objectified and desired. These movies templates had always existed in one way or another. In the golden age of Hollywood, they were film noir of B movies – films that ranged from high art to schlock on a regular basis. Hitchcock had set the style and tone of the earlier examples, bringing fetish and voyeurism to the surface of his elegant thrillers. And then Brian De Palma (cribbing a lot from Hitchcock movies, sometimes even to the point of loosely remaking them) turned them into sensational, if occasionally lurid and explicit, populist entertainment.
But the movie that truly drew water from the stone was Fatal Attraction, the second biggest movie of 1987, and a major shot across the bow for sexual politics in the Reagan 80s. Men in America were terrified by the story of a married family man (Michael Douglas) whose lusty weekend with a woman he just met (Glenn Close, Icon) turns into a deadly obsession when she refuses to let him go back to his wife and child without consequences. Fatal Attraction was a conversation starter when it came to morality, and hugely influential to the look and feel of the thrillers that followed. The sexual intrigue mixed with physical violence and danger was influential to an entire decade of 90’s erotic thrillers that pushed the envelope, both in content and plausibility. Several plots revolved around missing persons, mistaken identities, and key eyewitnesses or pieces of evidence – but almost all of them aped director Adrian Lyne’s smooth surfaces, neatly composed eroticism, and glossy high rises with occasionally billowing curtains.
As we look back on some of these movies through a 2020 lens, some of them have aged better than others – but most of them are still a comforting watch and have a bevy of dynamite female performers playing these mysterious women as if their careers depended on it (which it often did). These movies were the popcorn movies of their day, and if you succeeded in one your box office clout was guaranteed at least another year or two. And a couple of these ladies became bona fide movie stars after their brushes with the genre.
One of my favorites was Final Analysis (1992), starring an early 90s dream team of Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, and Uma Thurman. In the film, Basinger and Thurman play blond sisters who are both seeing Gere’s psychoanalyst character to deal with their violent childhoods, which resulted in the deaths of their parents. Along the way, we learn that Basinger is a) married to a sleazy (but almost IMPOSSIBLY sinewy and ripped) Eric Roberts, who is a shady businessman who doesn’t treat her well and b) she has an alcohol intolerance called “pathological intolerance” that causes her to have manic episodes if she imbibes. Gere notes all of this and decides to have an affair with her anyway, which makes Thurman jealous.
It all comes to a head when Basinger, in another episode due to mild alcohol exposure, kills Roberts and asks Gere to help her get acquitted. And it becomes even more complicated when Thurman starts sniffing around Gere’s office more and more, and when he finds that a key piece of evidence – the murder weapon – has been stashed in his apartment. Its a very simple plot, until it becomes completely impenetrable, but thats also when the magic of the movies washes over you and the Movie Stars finish your thinking for you.
Final Analysis is a great example of a Movie Star movie: big budget locations (its set in San Francisco and is shot spectacularly), a nonsensical but easy to follow plot, and characters that are but a vessel. I refer to the characters by the actors and Movie Stars who play them not because of convenience, but because the actors who play them absorb the characters’ archetypes into themselves – they are characters because Richard Gere and Kim Basinger play them; without those Stars’ presence they would cease to be. Their characters are ciphers, types, at best, and yet when the going of the plot becomes nonsense, they are our port in the storm – guiding us safely and soundly to the ending credits.
This magic is a hallmark of the thriller genre in particular, and we must acknowledge with the women, I suppose, since they are whom we remember most. You could tell me the title, the male lead or costar, the full storyline including whatever ridiculous plot twist is in the last reel, you could describe every inch of the improbably steamy cinematography or sleek set design, and it still wouldn’t click together if you didn’t name the actress in the movie. These are the actresses who make the whole thing work.
Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. Glenn Close in the aforementioned Fatal Attraction. Kim Basinger in Final Analysis. Madonna in Body of Evidence (sort of). And, of course, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
These were actresses, some better than others, that you cast because of their associations with who they were in the public eye, previous roles they’d played, and to bring that baggage to fill out whatever thin characters you needed them to play.
Glenn Close had a respected stage career and amassed critical acclaim and awards nominations in movies like The Big Chill and The World According to Garp, but Fatal Attraction was a seismic phenomenon. Her role as the jilted lover of a married family man who refuses to let him get away with his behavior (with deadly results) made her both a household name and an actress Hollywood could look to to lead large scale, adult dramas. And her association with it, the second biggest hit of 1987, carried over to her other roles – even to a younger generation: her success as Cruella deVil in the ’96 remake of 101 Dalmatians was certainly enhanced by the foreknowledge of her previous job boiling bunny rabbits.
Sharon Stone leveraged her old-school mix of glamour and smirking sexuality into a white hot career streak that supernova-ed with Basic Instinct (1992), in which she played a bisexual thriller writer who may or may not be murdering people to fuel her book plots. Director Paul Verhoeven specialized in a specific brand of ultra violence and hyper sexuality, and Stone flourished as both the aggressor of this behavior and as its victim, as well as in other voyeuristic thrillers like Sliver and Scissors. Her gravitas and acting credibility was hard for critics to ignore, even if her material wasn’t always great, and that momentum culminated in an Oscar nomination for Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
Linda Fiorentino, who’d previously made small impressions in Vision Quest and Scorsese’s After Hours, became the Oscar snub heard round the world when her magnificent performance in The Last Seduction (1994) was ruled ineligible when the movie briefly appeared on HBO prior to a theatrical run, earning a slew of Best Actress prizes from critics, and resulting in Roger Ebert of all people shaming the Academy for their stringent rules. He had a relatively good point: the Best Actress race that year (1994) was particularly weak and won by a performance (Jessica Lange in Blue Sky) that had sat on a shelf for years as its distributor went through bankrupt. Fiorentino’s role as a sexually forward, manipulative yuppie who schemes two men out of a large fortune would have been a formidable entry.
Madonna, American culture’s foremost sexual pioneer of the 80s and 90s, tried to bring her erotic charisma to the genre but failed miserably in Body of Evidence (1992). In it, her character is accused of literally “fucking a man to death” aka dialing up risky sexual behavior with her partner to incite a heart attack and score an insurance settlement. But during her affair with her lawyer, the decidedly scarecrow-like Willem Dafoe, Madonna’s feint at stirring eroticism comes off as cold and detached. Her movie and role is one of the most sexually explicit and body baring, but inspires laughter and guffaws at its bonkers premises, as if a Law & Order episode got increasingly campy and silly. It never quite ratchets up the sexual magnetism of Madonna’s music videos, which often get by with showing not telling, all in the span of 3 or 4 minutes.
And the aforementioned Miss Basinger made good on her noir-ish, Hitchcock Blonde routine by starring as call girl Lynn Bracken in the 1997 Oscar-winning prestige thriller called L.A. Confidential. Basinger is a fascinating little case study, playing femme fatale in many of her films since her debut as a Bond girl in Never Say Never Again. Erotica roles haunted her career for years, as she was the sexy siren in Barry Levinson’s The Natural (a baseball Odyssey allegory), the sexy sad girl in Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks (an erotic thriller without the thriller aspect), and the sexy photojournalist in Batman (not Tim Burton’s sexiest movie). She even was signed to star in what became a notorious, 90s Erotic Thriller misfire – 1993’s Boxing Helena – but, in trying to back out of it, was sued for almost $9 million by the studio and producers and ended up in bankruptcy. After torrential career ups and downs, L.A. Confidential brought her an Oscar, but at what cost?
While some of these movies were better than others, and almost all of them could be either good (or so bad its good) entertainment, there are darker shades of abuse here. In both Final Analysis and Fatal Attraction, it is either strongly implied or explicitly tossed off that the female characters experienced some sort of childhood abuse, heavily implied to be sexual, at the hands of their fathers. Stone’s author in Basic Instinct takes the inspiration for her murder mysteries not only from personal deaths in her life (some of which she commits), but from the stories of traumatized women who have committed violent crimes themselves – one of whom is played by Dorothy Malone, an Oscar winner from the Golden Age who specialized in playing femme fatales, and I don’t have time to get into the metaphor of Hollywood cannibalizing itself right now, my book drops next year.
In many ways, revisiting these movies is also a way to see actresses who were scarred or abandoned by Hollywood and its powerful men in their prime. Several of them were pigeonholed into femme fatale/sexpot roles and tried to break out of the ghetto of sexual thrillers: Fiorentino and Stone both have since given interviews saying their careers were not given the same weight as other actresses due to their associations with the genre and being given “difficult” reputations. Ashley Judd, who starred in a few Silence of the Lambs’ esque movies about sex crimes, is now one of the most famous faces of the Me-Too movement. Kim Basinger, both due to personal and professional issues, has largely faded from the movie business despite her winning an Oscar, universally seen as Hollywood’s crowning achievement. Madonna, a good actress when given the right script and direction, was laughed out of Hollywood time and time again.
As a result, there’s the slight hint, both diegetically and meta-textually, of revenge. In several of these movies, the woman is the wronged party and she is taking out her frustrations and trauma on the men who wronged them, their abusers, or just the plain old patriarchy. The inherent misogyny of these movies and their focus on the male gaze is sometimes overly oppressive, often fetishizing the female body but punishing the character attached if she’s more than a sexual object. It’s no surprise that a good chunk of the “evil women” in these films are career women juxtaposed with the safe wife of girlfriend at home, usually played by Anne Archer or Julianne Moore.
In a post #MeToo viewing, several of these women have been abused and condemned by society and powerful men, so there’s an almost illicit thrill that comes from seeing them get retribution after suffering for so long at the hands of men who expect to incur no repercussions. These women gain the upper hand and its often an exhilarating thrill for the audience, even if we’re meant to root against them. Linda Fiorentino is a “ball busting” business woman who gets punched in the face by husband Bill Pullman when she cracks wise – why shouldn’t she steal his drug money? Glenn Close’s publishing editor is left hanging (and possibly pregnant) by a family man who wanted a weekend fling – why shouldn’t she threaten to tell his wife and coworkers? I If Thelma and Louise was seen as a feminist film, why not Basic Instinct? Yeah, it is hard to come down on the side of a manipulative murderer, but in 2020, who’s going to come down on the side of a cop with substance abuse issues, emotional problems, and prior disciplines for shooting innocent bystanders – and is wielding his gun like a maniac?
It also can’t be ignored that several of these movies came out either at the same time or after the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings, in which all of America became witness to one woman’s sexual harassment at the hands of a superior. Although the direct link to this is 1994’s Disclosure (which is full paranoid, white cis male misogynistic fantasy-as-retaliation and barely features a real female character), the women in the thrillers that followed seemed to have a harder edge to them and more of an axe to grind with the grizzled detectives they have to work with or the stalkers that follow them. If there cannot be a direct pattern traced, its at least important to note that two of the most significant examples of sexual harassment in the workplace bookend the heyday of the erotic thriller – Thomas/Hill in 1991 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaking in 1998. Americans who fully came of age during the 1990s had sexual politics, as well as sex and politics, on the brain and it stayed with us for years to come.
Hollywood genres go through different popular cycles, and the 1990s was a decade of resurgence for quite a few workhorses that we still see today. There were the legal dramas, the buddy cop movies, a bevy of westerns, the melodrama, and several old fashioned Hollywood epics that swept up critics and audiences like it was the latest from David Lean. And yet we don’t see the erotic thriller anymore, and while it would be easy to begrudge all the superhero adaptations, Hollywood is a fickle, money driven business. If it’s a hit, you make 20 more just like it. The second it doesn’t connect with audiences, abandon ship. In truth, the movies got sillier and more tawdry, even too self aware. Movies centered on solving, say, the crimes of a killer via the donated eyes of one of his victims (Blink, 1993) or when a high society woman is moonlighting as a kinky prostitute for other prominent men (Linda Fiorentino again, unfortunately, in Jade 1995) became more punchline than pulse-pounding. Even though it knew it was funny, camp, and highly rewatch-able, Wild Things (1998) is all those things because it explicitly parodies how many of these films’ plots devolve into last minute double crosses, resurrections, and complete nonsense when you think about it. When a genre is proving this adept to parody with that straight of a face, the writing is on the wall.
Movie genres always end up bleeding into TV, where you can find plenty of cop dramas, legal procedurals, and steamy romances. Films where big stars got naked and betrayed each other for large scores of money become irrelevant when a plethora of actors are doing the same thing on HBO and some of the riskier networks like AMC and FX. With the advent of streaming giants like Hulu and Netflix, nudity, profanity, and violence are almost afterthoughts as long as the parental lock passwords are safeguarded. The one blockbuster successful erotic thriller IP I could mention here is the Fifty Shades movies, but wouldn’t you rather that I didn’t? Several of the more ludicrous and salacious plot lines that were often found in erotic thrillers have eventually made their way to the Lifetime Movie Channel, where nannies who want to steal your family or a runaway wife assumes her sister’s identity are commonplace.
Netflix has flirted with the idea of reviving the erotic thriller and Neo noir before, with their series’ Gypsy and What/If (both ironically anchored by icy blond Movie Stars like Naomi Watts and Renee Zellweger, respectively), but these shows were both a) bananas crazy bonkers and b) largely ignored by viewers. Both those actresses are inspired choices, Watts particularly since she was used perfectly by David Lynch in his genre bending thriller Mulholland Dr, which featured erotic elements blended with Neo noir. Its enough to make you hope for Adrian Lyne’s upcoming return to the genre, Dark Water, starring now real life tabloid couple Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas, to take us back to those days of perusing the Blockbuster shelves or sneaking peeks at your local Village Video – rather than struggling to toggle your Netflix search engine to include “erotic” “thriller” and “retro.”
Perhaps one day, their washed out, glistening bodies entwined in a torrid embrace will grace a DVD or Blu Ray cover, at whatever brick and mortar franchise that might still sell those things, that will intrigue some burgeoning little gay boy in 2025.
Myles McHale is a Broadway actor who has been furloughed and now has all the time in the world to indulge in his unhealthy obsessions! These include the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, decidedly NOT the Grammys, 80s/90s cult movies, and petitions to have the Fonda’s declared the new Kennedys. Follow him on Instagram – @meelays – you won’t regret it!