A Lost World

How many film noir movies can you name off the top of your head? Go ahead, stop reading for a moment and try to do it.

Could you name as many as three? Five? Ten? What images flash through your mind when you hear the words film noir? Men in black fedora hats…women in lace veils…strips of fading sunlight on the wall of a cluttered office…moonlit streets…an old Ford with fat wheels gliding over wet pavement…a police interrogation chamber lit by a triangle of light…?

Ask anyone to try this. Most people will remember titles such as The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944) or The Maltese Falcon (1941). Digging deeper, they might recall Touch of Evil (1958), Sunset Boulevard (1950), or even This Gun for Hire (1942). These are the films that show up on all the “best of” lists; the Hollywood movies glittering with names that evoke the glorious silvertone world of the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, Marie Windsor, Gene Tierney, Lizabeth Scott, Veronica Lake, Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd, Jane Russell, Dan Duryea. But the story of film noir is much deeper than a half-dozen films. Like the greater part of an iceberg, lurking beneath a few marquee studio pictures is a vast submarine world of low budget films made on a wing and a prayer. Most have amusingly similar titles. The Big Combo (1955). The Big Heat (1953). The Big Knife (1955). Accused of Murder (1956). An Act of Murder (1948). Dear Murderer (1947). Man in the Attic (1953). Man in the Dark (1953). Man in the Shadow (1957). Shadow of a Woman (1946). The Woman in White (1948). Woman on the Run (1950). Call Northside 777 (1948). Dial 1119 (1950). 99 River Street (1953). 711 Ocean Drive (1950). The Killers (1946). The Killing (1956). Killer’s Kiss (1955). And one of my favorite titles: Kill Me Tomorrow (1957). Michael F. Keaney’s Film Noir Guide tells us there are over 700 films in the roll-call of film noir. Easily three times that many books on the subject have been published in the past fifty years. Visit the film noir section of any academic library. It occupies shelf space from head to toe and stretches as far as your hands can reach on either side. Even if most people haven’t read these books, they are familiar with the world of film noir through the many films influenced by it. They know its stock characters, its themes, and its imaginary landscape.

What if I told you there is another, forgotten world of American film history like film noir, and its imaginary landscape occupies a similar place in our shared imagination? A world articulated by the same number of films and illuminated by its own pantheon of glamorous icons. A world of films that secretly dominated neighborhood video stores and late-night cable television for over a decade in a film cycle that surfaced and submerged without anyone, even its own practitioners, knowing how vast it had become. Unlike film noir, however, there is no dedicated section of the library for books about these films. No film festivals. No comprehensive guides. It’s a world that has been lost in time.

The 25th anniversary of Basic Instinct (1992) in 2017 prompted a few publications to take a renewed look at something called the erotic thriller, an illusive film genre that seemed to quietly emerge on the outskirts of Hollywood in the 1980s, gain momentum after the release of the controversial domestic thriller Fatal Attraction in 1987, then explode in popularity after Basic Instinct hit theaters in 1992. The Den of Geek! article “The Erotic Thrillers That Followed Basic Instinct’s Success” was the first. In no less than its Sunday print edition, The Washington Post followed suit by devoting a full page to the question: “Where Have the Erotic Thrillers Gone?”. This prompted Esquire to offer a list of “The 15 Sexiest Erotic Thrillers” and Vice‘s Broadly to launch an investigation into “The Gruesome Demise of the 90s Erotic Thriller”. Struggling to identify the signature films of this lost subgenre, the writers of these articles all referenced the same, small pool of studio pictures: Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Sea of Love (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Body of Evidence (1992), Jade (1995), Wild Things (1998),  Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Most people are familiar with these films. These are the high profile erotic thrillers on all the “best of” lists; the studio films glittering with name actors. Once in a while a dark horse like John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994) might creep in, or in an attempt to diversify the stable Jane Campion’s gorgeously tactile In the Cut (2003) will get a mention.

But some of us remember what it was like to walk the long, carpeted aisles of Blockbuster Video, and our recollection of late-night cable TV in its early days tells us there must be a significant part of the story not being told. We remember there were more of these films. Probably a lot more. The baiting, double-barreled titles were unmistakable: Illicit Behavior. Criminal Passion. Die Watching. Each was a whispered invitation to peek behind a closed bedroom door and steal a glimpse at forbidden passion, dangerous desire, secret sin. The abundance of these films was evidenced by the many bewildering sequel numbers tacked onto films we never saw the first time. Animal Instincts 2? Secret Games 3? Night Eyes 4? By the time you became aware of an erotic thriller in the 90s, it had already multiplied.

In 1995 the thriller section of every neighborhood video store was a parade of half-naked men and women in lusty embraces; yet inspecting the video box further, we often noted the silver barrel of a gun held just out of sight, or the flash of a knife pressed into the small of a back.

The VHS boxes for Perfect Strangers (1984), Deadly Passion (1985), Backfire (1987), In the Heat of Passion (1992), and The Corporate Ladder (1997). The sex/death iconography of the erotic thriller was fully in place by the mid-1980s.

The provocative tag-lines are still amusing:

“If you think you can handle her,

you’re dead wrong.”

Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry 3 (1994)

“When passions run this hot,

someone’s bound to get burned.”

Deadly Desire (1991)

“When adultery turns to obsession,

the climax may be murder.”

Deadly Embrace (1989)

If we were bold enough to rent these films, perhaps sandwiching a few between Pretty Woman (1990) and Jurassic Park (1993), we might recall they were all set in an alternate reality somewhere in Southern California: a sun-drenched landscape of designer homes, poolside resorts, and beach houses flanked by slender palm trees. There was a nightside to this world also: a neon-lit metropolis of upscale strip clubs, moonlit alleys, and arty loft apartments in urban warehouses. Deep red, hot pink, and luminous magenta were splashed on every surface, and no amount of artificial blue moonlight was too little. The stories we remember were like dark parables of mainstream society. Bored, disillusioned housewives on odysseys of sexual exploration. Bodyguards drawn into risky affairs with lonely rich women. Lust and revenge behind closed doors in corporate mid-rises. Hidden cameras and secret photos. Guns in designer handbags. These parables seemed all designed to communicate the same abstraction, told over and over in a myriad of arousing and secretive ways: desire is dangerous.

Kate Vernon and Lou Diamond Phillips in Dangerous Touch (1994).

The hazy, soft-focus contours of this nocturnal kingdom obscured more than its fictions, and behind its seemingly naive imitation of Hollywood lurked something uncanny, like store mannequins stepping off their pedestals to mimic shoppers after hours. Were these expensive-looking shadow-plays “real” movies, or a new kind of upscale, boutique pornography? The actors in these films, like the glamorous icons of film noir, occupied a mirror-pantheon erected in imitation of Hollywood’s star system. Shannon Tweed. Andrew Stevens. Shannon Whirry. Delia Sheppard. Martin Hewitt. Lisa Comshaw. Gabriella Hall. Landon Hall. Griffin Drew. Bobby Johnson. David Christensen. Monique Parent. Kira Reed. Nancy O’Brien. Douglas Jeffery. Jennifer Burton. Daniel Anderson. Rochelle Swanson. Julie Strain. Jodie Fisher. Tim Abell. Tané McClure. Lisa Boyle. Each of these names is credited at the end of over 40 films. A few in over 75. One in over 150. Throughout the 1990s they were a traveling theater troupe whose stage was late-night cable TV and the shelves of Blockbuster video. Each entered and exited that stage on queue, through the hidden doorways and dark curtained passages of the home video industry. Like mythical sirens, they clashed by night in a bioluminescent sea of adult fantasy, and their mating rituals — photographed like Playboy magazine spreads accompanied by a throbbing soul jazz reminiscent of Sade or the downtempo worldbeat of Enigma — were frequent and mesmerizing. The camera lingered on arched backs, exposed breasts, and the pre-Raphaelite beauty of a woman’s upturned and ecstatic face, her eyes closed, her mouth partly open. Entering the mysterious world of these films late at night — and it was always late at night — was like entering a shopping mall through the perfume section of a major department store. The air was so rarified it was difficult to breathe, and the act of looking imparted the pleasurably uncomfortable feeling a privacy of some kind had been violated.

Many DTV erotic thrillers feature women on aspirational journeys to “the dark side of desire”. In Desire (1993), desire is literally a perfume used by a killer to mark each victim.

It was in fond remembrance of this lost world that one of the articles published in 2017 did something new and unexpected for the first time. Donald Liebenson’s Vanity Fair HWD article “The Sexpendables: How Basic Instinct Birthed a Schlocky, Sexy Cottage Industry” marked the first time any major publication had stooped to reference a few of the numerous but now forgotten late night thrillers such as Night Eyes (1990), Body Chemistry (1990), and Animal Instincts (1992), in the same breath as a lofty studio film like Basic Instinct (1992). This was a door in popular writing that, for nearly 25 years, had remained firmly shut. No enthusiast of these films could be anything but thunderstruck to find a picture of Animal Instincts star Shannon Whirry on the same page as a picture of Sharon Stone. It was as if the streams had finally crossed, the poles had switched from minus to plus, and there was at last, miraculously and for the first time, some official recognition these lost, low-budget erotic thrillers were not just a few direct-to-video knockoffs designed to cash in on the success of Basic Instinct, but a wave of innovative B-movies Hollywood would later exploit for its blockbuster successes. Was this article a sign the tide was turning? Was this lost film subgenre, treasured only by a secretive and diffuse tribe of late night film aficionados, finally getting some long overdue recognition?

The answer is an unequivocal maybe. It’s possible as a new generation looks back on the pre-Internet, pre-ironic world of the 1990s, the unapologetically sincere late-night films of the era are acquiring a certain nostalgic luster. A running joke on the 2016 Netflix comedy series Love (2016-2018) was nerdy lead character Gus Cruikshank’s fascination with the erotic thriller as a lost film movement, and his determination to make one of his own despite the doubts of his hipster friends. For a show obsessed with the awkward sexual inhibitions of its millennial characters, the yearning for hot, uninhibited adult romance is easy to understand. In the first season, Gus tries to explain what an erotic thriller is to his would-be girlfriend Mickey:

GUS: Have you ever heard of, um, erotic thrillers?

MICKEY: Like, horror porn?

GUS: No, more like Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct or, like, Brian De Palma movies. You know, people loved those movies and they made a whole bunch of ’em, but now they don’t anymore.

MICKEY: Yeah, I guess now with the internet, you don’t have to go to a movie theater to see boobs.

GUS: I think that’s part of it, yeah. Plus, you know, Michael Douglas is like 200 years old now.

MICKEY: So, well, if you ever make one of those, I will go see it in the theater. Those movies are great.

How many, we wonder, is a whole bunch of em?

Media Archaeology

As it turns out, it’s a historically significant number. As I’ve discovered while producing a documentary on the subject and attempting to find every verifiable erotic thriller made during the now classic period of the subgenre, it’s a number far greater than even the producers, writers, and directors of these films thought possible. When in 2019 I spoke with B-movie director Fred Olen Ray (the director of a dozen erotic thrillers throughout the 1990s) at his home in Studio City, Los Angeles, I asked him how many erotic thrillers he thought were made from 1980-2005? “A few hundred, tops” was his guess. When I told him I had found over 625, he laughed out loud in disbelief. In sheer size alone, the erotic thriller surely demands consideration as one of the largest, specifically American film movements of the 20th century. So why does the bulk of it, like an ancient city, remain unexcavated?

Like most archaeologists, my labors began in a library. In 2015 I had a brainwave and thought if I could find a few academic books about 1990s thrillers, these might collaterally include a few erotic thrillers I could add to a list of films to watch. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found an entire book on the subject. Finding The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (2005), written by UK academic Linda Ruth Williams, was like finding a book about the lost city of Atlantis written by someone who had actually been there. This led me to a second book, Nina K. Martin’s 2007 Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller. Martin took a more feminist and psychoanalytic look at the subgenre. David Andrews devotes a sizable portion of his 2006 book Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in its Contexts to a discussion of erotic thrillers as they relate to the “paracinematic” world of the American softcore industry. Besides these, I discovered a handful of academic articles scattered across many obscure or now extinct journals, such as Douglas Keesey’s 2001 CineAction article “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre” and Robert Eberwein’s 1998 article “The Erotic Thriller” for Post Script. For me these five sources were like a map to hidden treasure. When I emerged from the library I had a list of about 250 films to start my search. What I didn’t have at the time was a clear definition of the very thing I was searching for.

Genre definitions are not easy to come by, and as anyone studies genre film can testify, there is cross-pollination and hybridization within and across genres. There are Westerns that look like science fiction films. Science fiction films that look like thrillers. The vessel can sometimes be confused with its contents. Given the success of erotic thrillers on home video, many television romance-thrillers later sold on VHS baited customers with provocative titles, lusty imagery on video boxes, or erotic thriller code words such as “seductive” and “steamy” in provocative trade ads. These kinds of semi or faux erotic thrillers became more common on video store shelves as female actors who were already name brands on TV or in film moonlighted in this shadow-subgenre to add spice to their filmographies. Most posed as sexy thrillers without committing to the central abstraction of the subgenre, and few included scenes of sexual spectacle. More often than not, the staged pictures on the cover of many video boxes were more explicit than what was to be found inside.

The trade ads for the Through Naked Eyes (1983), Naked Lie (1989), and French Silk (1994).

In order to cleanly separate real erotic thrillers from these and other imitative variants, in 2015 I developed a simple working definition, synthesized from the academic literature and my own viewing of many films. First and foremost, an erotic thriller must be a thriller. Thrillers come in easily recognizable variants: the mystery thriller, the detective thriller, the obsession thriller, the suspense thriller, the revenge thriller, etc. There are many exemplary films clustered around these designations and identifying them is not difficult. Second, it must be one in which its psychosexual element — some formation of dangerous desire, illicit romance, or erotic fantasy — is central to the plot and the prime motivator of dramatic action. Finally, it must have scenes of sexual spectacle that justify its PG-13 or R rating, and which in turn justify the application of the term erotic. Erotic thrillers are thriller films, but they must also pass muster as erotic films. Though the frequency and amount of sexual spectacle varies widely across films (thus a few are rated PG-13 but most are either R or simply unrated) this necessary genre element — like a monster in a monster movie or improbable surveillance technology in a spy thriller — is expected by all fans.

This working definition helped me isolate the erotic thriller from a wide spectrum of films. The first two rules unequivocally separated erotic thrillers from the many garden-variety suspense thrillers, dark dramas, action films, and slashers I found that happened to contain a bit of nudity or simulated sex but were not centrally concerned with the abstraction desire is dangerous. The third rule separated erotic thrillers from a huge swath of timid romance thrillers that traded in that abstraction without delivering sexual spectacle.

The term “erotic thriller” began to circulate in the 1980s to describe this new thriller variant. By the early 1990s the phrase was being used in trade ads to appeal to video stores and on video boxes to bait customers. These films were manufactured as fast (and toward the late 1990s, faster) than the worldwide direct-to-video, or DTV, market could keep up. This market, which included in-store video rentals, cable television, and pay-per-view movies in hotels, was hungry for R-rated content but intolerant of traditional X-rated films, even those cut down to an R rating. This was the video vacuum the erotic thriller filled. It supplied regulated doses of erotic content within the upscale package of a traditional film genre. As the many trade ads from the era testify, it was one of the top-selling video products of the 1990s.

The double-page trade ad for Gregory Dark’s Animal Instincts 2 (1994), starring erotic thriller icon Shannon Whirry.

To find something as close as possible to the complete set I cross-referenced actor filmographies. I tracked down VHS tapes, laserdiscs, and DVDs. I scoured clandestine file trading sites. Like a game of magnetic refrigerator poetry, a few words generate hundreds of titles:

PASSION: Crimes of Passion (1984), Deadly Passion (1985), Passion Flower (1986), Mortal Passions (1989), In the Heat of Passion (1992), In a Moment of Passion (1993), Criminal Passion (1994), Fatal Passion (1995), Deadlock: a Passion for Murder (1997), Dark Passion (1998), Sheer Passion (1998), When Passions Collide (1997), Hidden Passion (2000), Passion’s Obsession (2000), Passion Crimes (2001), Tropical Passions (2002), Dangerous Passions (2003), Trail of Passion (2003), Passionate Deceptions (2005).

KILL: Dressed to Kill (1980), If Looks Could Kill (1986), Stripped to Kill (1987), Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls (1989), Easy Kill (1990), Kill Me Again (1989), Kiss Me a Killer (1991), Write to Kill (1991), Ladykiller (1992), Through the Eyes of a Killer (1992), Killer Looks (1994), Killing Jar (1994), The Soft Kill (1994), Killing for Love (1995), Killer Instinct (1991), The Killer Inside (1996), Killing Me Softly (2002).

OBSESSION: Dangerous Obsession (1989), Twisted Obsession (1989), Deadly Obsession (1989), Dark Obsession (1990), Intimate Obsession (1992), Naked Obsession (1992), Hidden Obsession (1993), Tortured Obsession (1993), Beyond Obsession (1994), Blindfold: Acts of Obsession (1994), Double Obsession (1994) , Killing Obsession (1994), Shadow of Obsession (1994), Desperate Obsession (1995), Private Obsession (1995), Evil Obsession (1996), Object of Obsession (1998), Sinful Obsession (1999), Passion’s Obsession (2000), Sex, Lies, and Obsession (2001), Dark Obsession (2002), Deviant Obsession (2002).

SEX: Sexual Response (1992), Sexual Intent (1993), Sexual Outlaws (1994), Sex and the Other Man (1995), Sexual Roulette (1996), Sex, Secrets, and Betrayals (2000), Sexual Intrigue (2000), Dead Sexy (2001), Sexual Predator (2001), Stolen Sex Tapes (2001), The Sex Spa (2003).

DEATH: Deadly Passion (1985), Deadly Desire (1991), Deadly Surveillance (1991), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1991), Dance With Death (1992), Death Dancers (1993), Dead On (1994), Deadly Eyes (1994), Dark and Deadly (1995), Deadly Past (1995), Deadly Sins (1995), Dead Heart (1996), Dead Tides (1996), Deadly Charades (1996), Deadlock: A Passion for Murder (1997), Kiss of Death (1997), Dead by Dawn (1998), Interlocked: Thrilled to Death (1998), Dead Sexy (2001), Deadly Betrayal (2003).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. When my list of films grew to 400, then 500, then over 600, I knew I was onto something. Given the massive size of the subgenre and its steady production over a 20 year period, I had to look back and wonder why the same studio pictures — Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Sea of Love (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Body of Evidence (1992), Jade (1995), Wild Things (1998),  Eyes Wide Shut (1999), In the Cut (2003) — were referenced over and over in articles about the erotic thriller, as if this small collection defined its scope and possibilities? As I’ve come to realize, a phalanx of technological and cultural barriers still prevents the broad spectrum of the erotic thriller from being viewed as a cohesive American film movement, and the result is most film historians and film writers evaluate the erotic thriller against a narrow spectrum of studio erotic thrillers which are significantly less diverse than the DTV films.