Dead Media

The easiest explanation for the erotic thriller being largely forgotten is that the films simply aren’t available anymore. Many were released only on VHS tape — raise your hand if you can play one of those — and though some made the jump from VHS to DVD, most titles have been out-of-print for decades. Of the 625+ erotic thrillers I’ve unearthed so far, perhaps a third remain on VHS or laserdisc without a DVD release. A few are lost films without IMDb entries, and these surface on eBay once in a while. There were a few photographed in Los Angeles but released only in Russia, Brazil, Poland, or Germany. Of these a few were recorded onto VHS from cable TV broadcasts in far away places. I continue to search in vain for many.

Physical media itself is quickly becoming a boutique collector’s pastime, and though a few DTV erotic thrillers from the 1990s magically appear and then just as quickly disappear on streaming services as owners dust off film cans and pay for expensive restorations, the technological landscape shifts too quickly for most to keep up. From SD to HD to 4K and beyond, each technological upgrade requires film reels to get spooled back onto scanning stations and charges are by the foot. When I spoke with Andrew Garroni, former producer at erotic thriller powerhouse Axis Films Entertainment, the metal cans containing the original Animal Instincts (1992) 35mm film negatives were stacked in a corner of the room. Yes, I’ve actually touched them — and they felt good! Garroni lamented the cost of a new 4K film scan, which some streaming services required. The best way to watch a DTV erotic thriller may still be on an actual tube television from the 1990s. The “tape heads” of today, a growing subculture of physical media fetishists who collect forgotten movies on VHS, may not have a Blu-ray player, but they will certainly own a VHS deck.

Many erotic thrillers from the DTV era were released only on VHS tape.

So obsolescence certainly helps explain why the DTV films remain unseen and therefore rarely considered. It’s also why the studio films, owned by corporations that can afford to maintain large film libraries, are still available. Yet even this technological hurdle cannot itself account for the near invisibility of a once dominant subgenre, as the rapid ascension of horror as the premiere American film subculture testifies. As horror film enthusiasts unearth countless lost films from the 1970s and 80s, no stone has been left unturned and even once obscure films like Black Christmas (1974) and Suspiria (1977) are considered mainstream fare and have been remade by Hollywood or re-released in deluxe Blu-ray editions. Our inability or unwillingness to see the erotic thriller in the same way we see horror, as a broad spectrum with many variants, appears to stem from a curious form of critical parallax. When most film writers see the erotic thriller at all, it is nearly always through the lens of film noir, which greatly reduces the size and diversity of the subgenre.

Through the Lens of Film Noir

The concept of film noir was invented in the 1940s to describe a cycle of dark, often sexy, usually nihilistic American films. The term was revived and popularized in the 1970s and today, like a hugely successful brand, it is practically a household word. Unfortunately, no one has ever been able to properly define film noir or agree on its boundaries, as the designation does not neatly place any film into now standardized genre categories such as the Western, thriller, horror, or romance. The actual films of film noir live in separate genres, and they are only capriciously united within film noir by certain themes, tropes, character types, and stylistic eccentricities. For this reason film noir has always been an oblique category. Any reasonably dark film made between 1940-1960 is eventually proclaimed a work of film noir by someone, without regard to its genre or even country of origin. The problem of defining and encapsulating film noir has compounded over the years, as new child-designations such as “neo-noir” and even “neon noir” have emerged which attempt to categorize new thrillers by pointing backwards at an already elusive parent concept.

In his often-referenced book More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore is unequivocal about the ambiguity of ever defining film noir.

There is in fact no completely satisfactory way to organize the category; and despite scores of books and essays that have been written about it, nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a “phenomenon”.

James Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, 9.

Stephen Neale is even less generous in Genre and Hollywood.

Film noir as a single phenomenon […] never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it and why the contours of the larger noir cannon in particular are so imprecise.

Stephen Neale, Genre and Hollywood, 173-174.

These warnings do not appear to stop film writers or historians from applying the term film noir (or neo-noir) as a genre-like designation to any film that has either a passing resemblance to, or contains themes, tropes, character types, or visual eccentricities that resemble those found in, real film noir — whatever that might be. The application of the term feels correct for some films, particularly for Body Heat (1981), Against All Odds (1984), and After Dark, My Sweet (1990), as these are either modern adaptations of classic crime films or were adapted from novels written by hardboiled writers. But when neo-noir is applied to films such as Fatal Attraction (1987), Bad Influence (1990), and Mulholland Drive (2001)? Surely this must be a sign these terms have become too vague to be useful.

It is true that some films we now view as early erotic thrillers were not written by people familiar with the phrase “erotic thriller” or its antecedent films, but they were familiar with film noir and the constellation of exemplary films clustered around that term. In a March 2, 1988 NPR interview with Terri Gross on the radio show Fresh Air, Bob Swaim, the director of the superlative erotic thriller Masquerade (1988) starring Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly, said “I just wanted to do classic film noir“. He is not asked to elaborate on what this means to him.

Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly in Masquerade (1988).

Some erotic thrillers are unapologetically noir-ish. A few imitate noir to the point they border on parody. But the DTV erotic thriller wave of the 1990s produced a surge of films influenced by a broad spectrum of thriller variants, and most of these were not modernized film noir. As I’ve discovered while watching hundreds, erotic thrillers pick and choose themes and tropes from a much larger patchwork of Hitchcockian suspense, Gothic romance, Soderbergh-esque therapy-confessional, European arthouse cinema, and from thriller variants such as the mystery thriller, the obsession thriller, and the psychological thriller. If we look only through the lens of film noir at the erotic thriller we are sure to see a greatly diminished picture with very few exemplary films, and it naturally follows we will favor only those films that contain the themes, tropes, and visual eccentricities we are predisposed to see. This phenomena might be comparable to those optical effects where a large field of multicolored particles is viewed through a lens. When the lens is clear, the field is a confusion of seemingly random colors. If a colored filter is applied, some particles disappear while others leap forward to form a message that was not visible before. The filter itself governs what we can and cannot see.

None of the hefty film textbooks that percolate to the surface every few years in new editions — Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film Art: An Introduction, David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, or Jon Lewis’ American Film: A History — mention the erotic thriller even once; yet film noir and neo-noir are matter-of-factly presented as film genres (this is true in both Cook and Lewis) and example films are listed. In reference to American film in the 1980s, David Cook writes:

Another adult film genre that appeared in the second half of the decade was film noir. More generally characteristic of moral confusion than a specific political condition, this film type had its first 1980s venue in the steamy and very nearly perfect Body Heat (1981) […] After a lull of several years, film noir came back into its own as “neo-noir” […]

David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th Edition, 873.

Cook cites a few studio films as examples, including Black Widow (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Masquerade (1988), and Sea of Love (1989). It is a mystery how Fatal Attraction — an upscale obsession thriller with a diffuse visual style culled from European arthouse films such as Emmanuelle (1974) and Bilitis (1977) — could be considered film noir or even neo-noir, but Cook continues:

This trend toward textbook reworkings of the dark 1940s genre continued strongly in the 1990s, when neo-noir became a major form of American film practice for first-time directors and veterans alike.

David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th Edition, 873.

In this later group Cook cites, among many others, films such as After Dark, My Sweet (1990), Bad Influence (1990), Dead Again (1991), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), Shattered (1991), and of course Basic Instinct (1992). The omission of the erotic thriller at this point in Cook’s analysis, even as a term, is puzzling given the worldwide popularity of the subgenre in the 1990s and the promotion of these films under the “erotic thriller” banner designation in newspapers, on posters, in trade-ads, and on the covers of many video boxes. Cook is certainly looking in the direction of the erotic thriller, but he doesn’t see it.

In his 2002 book Crime Films, Thomas Leitch not only references the erotic thriller he devotes an entire chapter to it. For Leitch, it was a new formation of film noir that “returned with a vengeance in 1981 with Body Heat and a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice“. This marked a “resurgence of a new cycle of neo-noirs defined alike by their borrowings and their distance from the earlier cycle”. Leitch mentions DTV erotic thriller icon Shannon Tweed in passing, but DTV erotic thrillers that clearly aren’t noir crime films — such as the Gothic romance-dominant erotic thriller Illicit Dreams (1994) starring Tweed and Andrew Stevens — are nowhere in his field of view and probably cannot be. That said, in a few stray sentences Leitch does seem near to something like a revelation.

Because the central figure of this new generation of crime films, the fatally alluring, often naked body of the female star, points both toward and away from its noir antecedents, the films are less accurately called neo-noirs than erotic thrillers.

Thomas Leitch, Crime Films, 147.

The Scarlet Letter

Leitch’s nude woman leads us precipitously to what is probably the most significant reason DTV erotic thrillers occupy an indistinct region on our cinematic map, and that is their position adjacent to (and sometimes within) a maligned film modality called softcore.

A common perception of erotic thrillers is that they exist for sex, while Hollywood films exist for story. In this way arousal becomes the index for marginalization.

Linda Ruth Williams, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, 10.

Not all DTV erotic thrillers aspired to be softcore films. Many included only as much sexual spectacle as was necessary to pass as an erotic thriller. Some films, such as Bare Witness (2002) starring Angie Everhart, actually scaled back nudity and sexual spectacle for release on DVD after screening in a more explicit form on late night cable. Other films, such as Illicit Behavior (1992), starring Joan Severance and Jack Scalia, required additional nude scenes (using body doubles) to be filmed after production wrapped in order to satisfy market demand.

Hidden Passion (2000), Sex, Secrets, and Lies 2 (2002), Dangerous Passions (2003), Undercover Sex (2003), Forbidden Passions (2006).

The MRG Entertainment erotic thrillers are treasured by fans of softcore primarily as a display case for the many attractive men and women who starred in them.

Toward the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, as the erotic thriller entered its “deflationary period” (to quote David Andrews) and a few hundred erotic thrillers were churned out for the pay-per-view video market, many were first and foremost softcore films. Considerations of story (starting with the script and extending to later stages of development) were placed downstream from this initial business plan. These softcore-dominant erotic thrillers seem to begrudgingly include only as much thriller/romance plotting as is necessary to pass for legitimate movies, and many as a matter of course proscribe scenes of sexual spectacle at regular intervals. In Dangerous Passions (2003), leathery gumshoe Walt Hodges (played capably by Randy Spears) travels from scene to scene interrogating suspects played by highly unskilled actors imported from films such as Throbin Hood (1999) and Sex Files: Alien Erotica II (2000). The young, attractive, and evidently very horny cast spends as much time pounding each other as Spears does pounding the pavement. An interesting plot point concerning a rare nickel reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window lends the film an intriguing air of detective-story mystery, but frequent, uninspired grinding is motivated throughout by little more than two people being in the same room. Many late-stage erotic thrillers like Dangerous Passions in fact imported performers, like Spears himself, from the hardcore film industry; a paracinematic migration that increased as budgets plummeted and the subgenre declined in popularity. The industrious softcore studio MRG Entertainment produced many erotic thrillers in this mode, with titles that read increasingly like parodies of the genre: Devant Vixens (2001), Insatiable Desires (2003), Forbidden Lust (2004), Insatiable Cravings (2006), etc.

It would be intuitive and tidy to believe all softcore-dominant erotic thrillers such as these were of uniformly low quality and therefore not worthy of serious consideration compared to erotic thrillers starring name actors or even the studio films, but this is surprisingly not the case. Some of the most explicit softcore-dominant erotic thrillers were directed by the subgenre’s auteurs (Gregory Dark, Tom Lazarus, Ed Holzman), written by its most talented writers (Karen Kelly, Duke Haney, David Keith Miller), photographed by brilliant cinematographers who would later go on to photograph big-budget studio films (Wally Pfister, Phedon Papamichael), or featured actors who were the subgenre’s secret weapons (among many others: Kira Reed, Catalina Larranaga, Bobby Johnson, Elizabeth Sandifer, Monique Parent, Shannon Whirry). Many beautiful, complex films that revolve around sexual desire have been obscured by those which had no other ambitions than to supply a worldwide demand for non-pornographic sexual spectacle.

Word of Mouth (1999), House of Love (2000), Voyeur Confessions (2001), The Exhibitionist Files (2002). Images from the “Lazarus Quartet”, four films written and directed by Tom Lazarus for Playboy TV.

Indeed, fully aware erotic thrillers occupied a shadow-zone between legitimate cinema and pornography in the public imagination, some DTV writers and directors smartly and self-referentially interrogated their own audiences by making surveillance and voyeurism (which we were all participating in by renting erotic thrillers on video) a central dramatic concern of their films. In The Finishing Touch (1992), hard boiled police detective Sam Stone (Michael Nadler), hot on the trail of a serial killer targeting beautiful women, drags suspect Mikael Gant (Arnold Vosloo) into police HQ and interrogates him about his overtly sexualized installation art. If we read Stone’s questions as a kind of conservative censorship that equates all sexualized spectacle with pornography, and Gant’s coldly delivered and somewhat pretentious responses as the erotic thriller distancing itself from Stone’s myopic worldview, we get something like a defense of the subgenre.

STONE: Hell of a day for a hanging, don’t you think? Oh come on, you like to play games, don’t you Mr. Gant?

GANT: What do you mean?

STONE: You’ve got us all believing that you’re some sort of “artiste”, when actually you’re just a cold blooded killer.

GANT: What am I doing here?

STONE: I’m curious about this so-called video art of yours. Tell me something, why are you so obsessed with making nudie films?

GANT: I do not make nudie films. I explore sexual icons as a means to make your society understand what it holds sacred.

STONE: I think you make these films and wack off to them.

GANT: Yes, you would. There’s a conflict within our society regarding sexual images, and it is my responsibility to expose this conflict, just as others have seen fit to stifle it.

Unfortunately, it seems Stone finally won this argument. The DTV erotic thriller has been hastily filed away under pornography and the case has been closed for many years. That today we celebrate many independent film luminaries of the 1990s while sweeping their DTV contemporaries under the rug for making sexuality the subject of their films is a great loss to American cinema. The DTV erotic thriller could have had more to say had it survived, but by the time we were ready to listen, the sky was already falling on the industry that supported it.