What do you think of when you see the words “erotic” and “thriller” placed together in sequence? Is it Glenn Close telling Michael Douglas “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan!”? Or is it Shannon Whirry, in lingerie, staring at herself in a mirror as she puts on makeup? The former image, taken from Fatal Attraction (1987), is now considered an iconic movie moment, while the latter, the opening to Animal Instincts (1992), forgotten, if it’s remembered at all.
Animal Instincts isn’t alone. A slew of direct-to-video movies released in the eighties and nineties under the label of the erotic thriller were met with critical and popular indifference. It’s not that they didn’t make money. DTV erotic thrillers — movies with lurid titles like Night Eyes (1990) and Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III (1994) — generated millions of dollars for independent distributors. Night Eyes allegedly made $30 million for the Armitraj Company, rivaling the returns of many theatrical releases in 1990. But these movies were the ugly stepchildren to more respectable studio films, the black sheep of the film industry. Even today they inspire misguided accusations and indictments from culture writers farming for clicks.
The irony is that DTV erotic thrillers weren’t necessarily worse than their studio counterparts. If anything, they were frequently more adventurous, more creative, more willing to break taboos and transgress moral boundaries in ways that challenged established sexual mores. So why has this era of film largely been ignored? One man has been on a journey to answer that question.
Anthony Penta is the director of We Kill For Love, an in-production documentary on the history of the DTV erotic thriller. He has spent years collecting and documenting the darkest desires of the home video market, and, in the process, he uncovered a stunning canon of work across a 15-year period. But his film isn’t concerned with mindlessly identifying, categorizing, and posting screengrabs of missing skin. It’s the history of a group of mavericks, outsiders, and public perverts who changed the rules of the video industry. Some made art, others made money, but they all created controversy. Anthony corresponded with Diabolique via email to share his thoughts on the genesis of the erotic thriller as a genre, some of his favorite films, and the status of his documentary.
How were you introduced to the genre? What was your first erotic thriller?
Like most people I arrived at the erotic thriller through the front gate — Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Jade (1995). Every so often I dive into a pool of movies — film noir, J-horror, Giallo — and try to see as much as I can. A few years ago I got the urge to see more films like Fatal Attraction but information about the genre wasn’t readily available. I spent many nights in the nineties renting movies at Blockbuster and watching late-night cable TV, so I knew there were more erotic thrillers out there than the same 12 studio pictures referenced in every “best of” list. So I simply began digging. I was propelled by a direct-to-video thriller I had seen on cable TV late at night 25 years ago. I didn’t know the title or any of the actors, but one scene always stuck in my head: A man comes home with his boss. Both men are drunk. The man’s wife is a powerfully attractive blonde. The man convinces his wife to let his boss pull her aside, into the kitchen, and molest her while he waits in another room. The scene ends on the woman’s terrified face as she lets it happen.
Within a few months, pouring through DTV erotic thrillers in an effort to find this film, I discovered many actors who were completely unknown to me. Delia Sheppard. Rochelle Swanson. Douglas Jeffery. Monique Parent. Elizabeth Sandifer. Jodie Fisher. Gary Hudson. Kira Reed. Shari Shattuck. Michele Brin. Martin Hewitt. Kathy Shower. Like a kind of theater troupe, these actors appear in many of the films. They star in some and play bit parts in others. I cross-referenced their filmographies. I bought VHS tapes and laserdiscs. I scoured clandestine file trading sites. I was on fire. I watched over 100 movies before I found the film I was looking for. The powerfully attractive blonde turned out to be Shannon Tweed, and the movie was Scorned (1993), directed by Andrew Stevens. I was recently on the podcast Get Soft for an entire episode devoted to the film. Talking about the movie with other fans was a joy!
What was the genesis of this project? Why did you decide to make a documentary about erotic thrillers?
As I dove further into the genre, I began assembling a list of erotic thriller films by year. At the time I was a video producer in Chicago. One day I thought I might add to my growing list of films by combing through books at the library. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema by Linda Ruth Williams. After months of trying to find information about these films, it was like reading a book about Atlantis written by someone who had actually been there. I also quickly discovered Nina K. Martin’s Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller and David Andrews’s Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in its Contexts. When my list of movies grew to 500+ I knew I had stumbled on a special problem. Film noir as we know it produced about 600 movies in 15 years, from roughly 1945-1960. But it wasn’t encapsulated into a film movement until the mid-seventies. Today you can visit any academic library and the film noir section stretches from head to toe and as far as your arms can reach on either side. We’ve discovered it’s a mostly American film movement with recurring themes and stylistic eccentricities. There are stock characters and plots recycled over and over, and also a shadowy pantheon of actors who appear in many of the films. It’s a special moment in film history and also an oblique commentary on the culture of its time. As it happens, the DTV erotic thriller is identical to noir in these ways. It had the same 15 year “classic period” (from 1985-2000) and it produced a comparable number of films. It’s an American film movement with its own tropes and stylistic eccentricities, and it has a mini-pantheon of actors specific to the genre. As the academic books and articles have revealed, the erotic thriller is a playground for cultural studies, gender studies, and film studies in general. So why is it languishing? As I thought about all the people who once worked in this genre, they seemed to me like classical sirens beckoning from some distant shore. Who will tell our story? As a professional video producer, I realized I had what I needed to respond to that call, and the time had to be now while the major figures of the genre were still available. So I moved to Los Angeles and I began looking for the lost world of the erotic thriller!
Can you take us through a brief evolution of the erotic thriller from theatrical releases like Tattoo (1981) and The Seduction (1982) in the early eighties to a primarily direct-to-video (DTV) phenomenon in the nineties? Why were so many low-budget erotic thrillers being produced?
The sudden explosion of the erotic thriller in the nineties is wedded to the rise of the home video industry. In the late eighties, cable TV, pay-per-view TV, and VHS tape rental became a lucrative, non-theatrical market for independent films. Bypassing theaters and going straight to video cut many costs. During this time, a huge enabler for what we now call softcore cinema was all the family-friendly home video stores that would not stock pornography and the new 24-hour cable television channels that would not screen it. Combined with this, American culture in the eighties was trending upscale, and women were entering the workforce in greater numbers. As couples stopped going to dingy drive-in theaters and midnight peep shows in favor of watching movies in their living rooms, the largest audience for that content — the American middle-class — preferred movies and TV shows that painted a more complimentary picture of their own lives. Tacky, guy-oriented sex romps like The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) wouldn’t cut it anymore, and neither would porn films with the naughty bits removed. The video industry didn’t know it yet, but America was asking for a new form of erotic cinema that fit within the contours of eighties culture.
As the home video revolution picked up speed, several new R-rated thriller variants emerged on the fringes of Hollywood. These films did not call themselves “erotic thrillers”, but they advanced several story templates that would endure once the genre entered its growth phase.
Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), a pervy slasher/murder mystery that imported the softcore eroticism of European arthouse cinema, set in motion a variant of the erotic thriller that modeled itself after a suspense film in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. In these films, protagonists stray unwittingly into a dark world of taboo sexuality, murderous intent, and secret identities. De Palma’s own Body Double (1984) followed in this mode, as did Michael Fruett’s Bedroom Eyes (1984) and Michael Schroeder’s Out of the Dark (1988). Several Hollywood films, such as John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) and Martin Scorsese’s delirious After Hours (1985) pursued less sexually explicit versions of the same story.
Lawrence Kasdan’s masterful Body Heat (1981), a retelling of the forties crime thriller Double Indemnity (1944), became another influential model. Body Heat proved a classic film noir movie, complete with a femme fatale, a hapless dupe, and a third act double-cross, could be a great sex thriller. Noir themes resuscitated in Body Heat, recycled in films like Hot Target (1985) and Deadly Passion (1985), cast such a powerful spell over the public imagination that to this day most people assume erotic thrillers are simply neo-noir films with an erotic upgrade, but that is not always the case. Body Heat lead directly to the Sistine Chapel of erotic thrillers in this mode, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
Thief of Hearts (1984), my own favorite erotic thriller of the eighties, introduced an erotic thriller variant that would propel the genre for many years, and that was the story of the dissatisfied housewife whose longing for emotional and sexual fulfillment leads her into danger.
This thriller variant, the most aspirational and romantic of them all, is fueled by a long tradition of Gothic romance, a story type that unspools from subjective female experience and which often blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Gothic romance was popular for several hundred years, but in American film it had been languishing since its heyday in the forties when films like Rebecca (1940), Dark Waters (1944), and The Secret Beyond the Door (1947) were mainstream cinema. Films in this mode often import and disguise traditional Gothic tropes and symbols, such as remote manor houses, mirrors, evil husbands, gaslighting, and of course women walking around at night in white negligée!
Obsession thrillers had been slithering onto screens as far back as Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971), and in the eighties they became a fully realized thriller variant. Gordon Willis’s Windows (1980), which everyone hated when it was released, is a pitch-black psychological mood-piece of female sexual obsession starring Talia Shire as a woman tormented by a psychotic neighbor. The now forgotten film Tattoo (1981), a staple of late-night cable television in the eighties, starred Bruce Dern as a sensitive and possessive tattoo artist who abducts Maude Adams in order to use her body as a canvas for his final masterwork. In The Seduction (1982), dashing but not yet hunky Andrew Stevens starred as a young man obsessed with a stratospherically beautiful news anchor played by Morgan Fairchild. The obsession thriller reached its zenith with Fatal Attraction (1987), the most controversial and publicized thriller of the eighties.
Attempts to pigeon hole Fatal Attraction usually fail, as the film can be read in many ways. Adult morality play? Anti-feminist propaganda? Empowering female revenge thriller? Cultural mirror of eighties insecurity? Ultimately, Fatal Attraction‘s most significant contribution may be its title. After Fatal Attraction exploded into public view, the very words fatal and attraction, placed together, galvanized the erotic thriller as a concept in a way that hadn’t happened with Dressed to Kill or Body Heat. Death/Sex. Danger/Romance. Fear/Desire. Fatal/Attraction. After 1987, many films began using this codified title language to bait viewers, and the phrase “erotic thriller” quickly entered the public lexicon.
So by 1990, the stage was set. A new constellation of sexually provocative thriller variants had been introduced. The family-friendly video stores and 24-hour cable television channels were actively looking for upscale, R-rated content, and the independent filmmakers discovered they could bypass theaters and sell directly to this new market. Couples audiences were watching late-night TV, and though they still wanted to see erotic films, they didn’t respond well to tired, male-centric retreads of seventies-era midnight movies. All it took to light a blaze from this kindling was a single match: a film genre that could supply regulated doses of erotic content within the respectable package of a traditional story type. A story that excited both people on the sofa. A story about wealthy people in trouble. A hunky guy. A gorgeous woman. Part thriller. Part romance. Prolonged bedroom scenes that flirted with the spectacle of pornography but kept within bounds. What happened next and what was the film that started the gold rush? You’ll have to see We Kill for Love for the rest of the story!
The image of the genre is one of trashy, low-grade pulp. Many of these films were, and still are, regarded as problematic because of their sexual content. Critics have attacked the genre for negative depictions of female sexuality, graphic violence being connected to sexual desire, and misogyny. Do you feel these assessments were/are fair, or have you found the genre to be more complicated and nuanced?
The erotic thriller doesn’t have a monopoly on a volatile mixture of sex and death, and I think the academics have clearly pointed out it is just as possible to see misandry in the erotic thriller as misogyny. Accusations of violence entangled with sexuality also apply to film noir, Game of Thrones, and of course horror movies. I risk popularity with my straight male friends obsessed with superhero movies by suggesting that hyper-muscularized men in tights engaged in repetitive physical conflict with each other might be dramatizing homoerotic S&M fantasies. Just look at the posters! But to your point, most DTV erotic thrillers do have pulp origins, and the genre certainly does provocatively equate sexual desire with danger. When it does the math on this equation, however, we often see values like commitment, monogamous love, emotional strength, and intimacy winning the day.
All film genres have exploitable elements. Slasher films have blood effects. Action movies have explosions. The erotic thriller has sexuality. Exploitable elements are the immovable objects on the game board of genre filmmaking, and anyone who makes a genre picture must include them if they want their film to get seen. The best writers and directors accept this, and they figure out ways to integrate exploitable elements within the story in ways that make them feel necessary, and hopefully also in ways that don’t offend our ethics. Given the diversity of artists and audiences involved, that’s not easy to do. In our culture, sexuality is very closely aligned to the female body. One producer interviewed in Linda Ruth Williams’s book had a simple and instructive formula for an erotic thriller. What makes a movie erotic? It’s a movie that foregrounds the female body. What’s the most efficient way to foreground the female body for most of a movie? Use a female protagonist. It was in this way many male writers and directors of DTV erotic thrillers became the unwitting purveyors of the most compelling feminized romance fiction of the nineties! If you are only seeing negative depictions of female sexuality in erotic thrillers you are not looking deeply enough. Directors like Gregory Dark, Kat Shea, Lawrence Lanoff, Oley Sassone, and others saw what was required of the genre, and they figured out ways to up-level the game by making beautiful films that used the “raw ingredients” of the genre in artful ways. Films like The Finishing Touch (1992), Animal Instincts (1992), and Playback (1996) smartly implicate us as viewers of these films by pointing out how we are all exercising voyeuristic desires by watching these movies on VHS tape in the privacy of our homes. These films do this in clever ways no other films of the ninties would even think to do. I know I’m right because I’ve seen the last five seconds of Animal Instincts.
Film scholars like Nina Martin argue that DTV erotic thrillers used a combination of pulp storylines and softcore pornography to market to female audiences, in contrast to hardcore porn of the era which was marketed to men; similarly, there was often a contrast between theatrical erotic thrillers, which owe much to the tradition of film noir, and DTV releases, which more closely resembled Gothic fiction or paperback romance novels. Have you found any similar distinctions in how, or to whom, DTV erotic thrillers were marketed?
One of the most beautiful aspects of the erotic thriller is how the best films skillfully interweave male-centered thriller stories, female-centered Gothic romances, and the provocative element of what academics call “inexplicit sexual spectacle” but what you and I call softcore. Who responds to these elements, and why, is still a bit of a mystery.
It’s unfortunately the case that for 25 years, an elusive group of predominantly male softcore enthusiasts have dominated discussion around erotic thrillers in callously worded film reviews and online discussion forums. These men focus on sexual spectacle and evaluate the films on that basis alone, often dragging the female icons of the genre through the mud and alienating everyone else. Mr. Skin’s Skincyclopedia: The A-Z Guide of Finding Your Favorite Actresses Naked, a massive reference book which actually must have been a chore to compile, is proof of the size and scope of this group, and a clear indicator of its values. The fallout from this has been that many people associated with the erotic thriller genre have distanced themselves from it over the years. Since the erotic thriller does not have a large, protective fan base like film noir, horror, or science fiction, it’s like a sitting duck for abuse. That said, it’s pretty obvious many late-stage DTV erotic thrillers must have been catering to the specific tastes of this group, so it’s understandable if some people assume the entire audience must be horny straight guys. But I don’t know if there is any real data on that, and it’s certainly the case that softcore TV shows of the nineties like Red Shoe Diaries had large female audiences, and probably also many gay fans of both genders. Also, many of the 600+ erotic thrillers out there are more romantic and aspirational than they are sexually provocative, so if these films were made by men for male tastes, we’d better re-evaluate what men really like!
It’s a rule of thumb studio erotic thrillers, with the exception of the neo-Gothic Sliver (1993), are man-in-crisis narratives in the tradition of film noir and Hitchcock. The DTV films are much more diverse, and often use female-centric templates like Gothic romance, melodrama, or European arthouse cinema. Women in these films are frequently shown to explore sexual desire in punishment-free and judgement-free ways, even if their desires get them into trouble for awhile. Were the DTV films more equitable and progressive than Hollywood films? Should we take the DTV erotic thriller seriously as an exploration of female sexual desire? What other films of the nineties covered the same territory? Kira Reed, the erotic thriller icon who was also a producer for Playboy TV, suggested to me that Playboy’s “TV for 2”, an attempt to garner more female viewers, was part of an ongoing campaign to satisfy couples audiences who watched late-night TV together. There is ample evidence to prove she is right. If you look at the Playboy funded erotic thrillers, especially those produced by Mystique, most are quite balanced and full of smart, professional women, and although the “body count” in these films is sometimes sky-high, so are the romantic aspirations! Anyway, I think the success of the recent 50 Shades films proves women have been interested in aspirational softcore all along, so despite a preponderance of male discussion online, women are having fun, too.
There tends to be a critical distinction between “good” erotic thrillers, films like Dressed to Kill (1980) and Fatal Attraction (1987), and “bad” ones, most often the DTV titles. This distinction appears to break down almost exclusively between films directed by well-known Hollywood directors and that received theatrical releases and those created for the DTV market. Is there any particular reason why DTV erotic thrillers were written off as trash?
Parallels to film noir and slasher horror are probably the best way to answer the high vs. low aspect of the erotic thriller. Every film genre has some collection of high-profile films where the abundance of talent on display armors them against criticism. Often the studio pictures are applauded for good reason — they’re powerful films, and of course they’ve invested a lot of time and money to ensure that. However, genre aficionados always wind up discovering and treasuring the low budget films made by passionate mavericks. These films are usually considered the heart-and-soul of the genre by fans for justifiable reasons, but they are also maligned by the public for understandable reasons. Low-budget mavericks can’t compete with Hollywood when it comes to production value. Their movies are made in 1/4 the time on 1/10th the budget. So they have to either out-innovate the studios by devising entirely new plots, character types, and story tropes (which they often do!) or they have to stockpile exploitable genre elements like explosions, gore effects, CGI sharks, or, in the case of erotic thrillers, scenes of sexual spectacle. It’s a tragedy of film history that many beautiful, innovative, low-budget genre films are difficult to discern in a field of similar films that merely stockpile exploitable elements, or the exploitable elements loaded into many good B-movies for market resilience blind critics to the more beautiful or innovative qualities those films have. Our front-line reviewers are never any help here — they dismiss a Gregory Dark or Edward Holzman film as “trash” cinema without having to give it a fair hearing simply because they refuse to look passed the sexual spectacle. I also think many reviewers unwittingly contribute to our cultural ghettoizing of erotic art by unconsciously adopting the formula nude=pornography=trash. See Bram Dijkstra’s massive art book Naked: The Nude in America for more on that subject. To look beneath the surface of any film genre and find moments of strange beauty, we have to set our cultural biases aside and become like those explorers in Tarkovsky’s marvelous sci-fi film Stalker (1979). We are all looking for that magical bunker in the heart of a remote wilderness. We all want to step outside ourselves. I’m happy to say that bunker exists in the DTV erotic thriller, and I’ve been there! Don’t listen to the critics or read online reviews. Watch erotic thrillers and find that bunker for yourself.
Following up on that, some of the most successful franchises like Night Eyes (1990) and Poison Ivy (1992) were created by people who are almost completely unknown today. Why weren’t directors like Jag Mundhra and Katt Shea given more opportunities outside the DTV market?
I’m happy to report Kat Shea — the director of Stripped to Kill (1987), Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989), and Poison Ivy (1992), just directed Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019), which is a pretty high-profile picture! Nick Valellonga, the writer/director of the erotic thrillers A Brilliant Disguise (1994) and The Corporate Ladder (1997), just wrote The Green Book (2018), a film that won the Academy Award for best picture in 2019. So, high-level opportunities do happen for those who are still slugging it out in Hollywood! But to generalize your point a bit: Was association with this genre, especially the DTV erotic thriller, a scarlet letter for those involved? I ask this question of every interview subject. You’ll just have to see my movie for the responses, which I think only the practitioners should give. I can say that like following footprints in the sand that suddenly disappear, the filmographies of many people involved with the erotic thriller ended in 1999. A lack of more commercial opportunities for the actors and directors is the biggest conundrum, though I discover all the time how many are still out there succeeding in new and interesting ways. As an example, Monique Parent, the star of Mirror Mirror III (1995), Dark Secrets (1996), Vicious Kiss (1995), Love Me Twice (1996), and many other films and TV shows throughout the nineties and aughts, has a YouTube channel called Unique Monique that is hugely successful, and she occasionally even stars in national TV commercials! The light at the end of this tunnel may be that quality genre pictures are being found and treasured by fans, and hopefully the icons of this beautiful genre will have street cred long after this year’s marquee names have faded.
What’s the timeline for your project? When can we expect to see We Kill for Love?
I’m halfway there. I’ll be interviewing for the rest of 2019 and editing through 2020, so look for us in 2021. Follow our Facebook page for production updates! Documentaries take a while, especially when you have to track down the people of a lost world. Anyone have Joe Eszterhas’s email address? Drop us a line: [email protected]com.