Footprints in the Sand

In 2001, the Canadian journal CineAction published Douglas Keesey’s article “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller as a Film Genre”. A professor of film and modern literature at California Polytechnic State University, Keesey’s plea for the subgenre as a necessary zone of formal study was impassioned and direct.

When these kinds of films first started appearing in the late eighties, they were often dismissed by critics as mere imitations designed to cash in on the surprising success of Fatal Attraction (1987). But it soon became clear that something more important was happening. […] As the erotic thriller extends generic lines in new directions and intertwines formerly separate strands […] the birth of a new genre from older forms is a social-historical event as much as it is a moment in film-aesthetic history.

Douglas Keesey, “They Kill for Love: Defining the Erotic Thriller”, CineAction, no. 56 (2001): 46.

Though Keesey’s article reads like the herald of a new film genre, it was in fact a eulogy. Like following footprints in the sand that suddenly disappear, the careers of many erotic thriller writers, directors, and actors come to a sudden end in the early 2000s. Though most did not know it at the time, their destiny was written in the shifting sands of home video.

The graph below is compiled from my own database of the 625+ erotic thrillers made between 1980 and 2005.

We can see the erotic thriller percolating in the 1980s but it never reaches a boiling point. Though films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), The Seduction (1982), Body Double (1984), and Thief of Hearts (1984) would prove to be influential a decade later, they were not animating the subgenre into a full-blown industry. Without the unexpected international success of Fatal Attraction in 1987, it is unlikely the erotic thriller would have progressed for very long as anything other than a boutique film type. The industry jolt that followed Fatal Attraction was significant, and marks the year of its release as the beginning of the classic era of the erotic thriller.

After 1987, erotic thriller production ramped steadily upwards, then a sudden gold rush began after the low-budget erotic thrillers Night Eyes (1990) and Inner Sanctum (1991) made millions in worldwide home video sales without theatrical releases. The subgenre crested in 1994 with over 70 films — more than one a week. These were: Animal Instincts 2, Beyond Suspicion, Bitter Vengeance, Blindfold: Acts of Obsession, Blood Run, Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction, Body Shot, A Brilliant Disguise, Bulletproof Heart, Caroline at Midnight, China Moon, Concealed Weapon, Criminal Passion Dangerous Heart, Dangerous Touch, Dark Side of Genius,  Dark Tide, Dead On, Deadly Eyes, Deceptions II: Edge of Deception, Disclosure, Discretion Assured, Double Cross, Double Exposure, Ebbtide, Every Breath, Exotica, Fleshtone, Flinch, Hard Drive, Hard Vice, Illicit Dreams, Improper Conduct, In the Heat of Passion 2: Unfaithful, Indecent Behavior 2, Inner Sanctum 2, Judicial Consent, Killer Looks, Killing Jar, A Kiss Goodnight, Lady in Waiting, The Last Seduction, Lipstick Camera, Love Is a Gun, Midnight Confessions, Midnight Tease, Mind Twister, Night Fire, Object of Obsession, The Other Man, A Passion to Kill, Playmaker, Poisoned Kiss, Possessed by the Night, Saturday Night Special, Save Me, Scorned, Secret Games 3, Sensation, Sexual Outlaws, Shattered Image, Silk Degrees, The Soft Kill, Stranger by Night, Suite 16, Taxi Dancers, Temptation, Tollbooth, Tryst, Turn of the Blade, Unveiled, and Woman of Desire.

After this banner year we see a mostly continuous downhill slide, with only five or six films released a decade later in 2004. Though no single film can be considered the final erotic thriller of the classic era, there is probably no better film to reference in this regard than Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

David Morrissey and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 (2006).

If any movie cemented a feeling the erotic thriller had finally run its course it was this unfairly maligned sequel. In the March 28, 2006 Village Voice, David Limm wrote: “The original Basic Instinct was both a manifestation and a critique of sex panic, an effortless distillation of a late-’80s/early-’90s zeitgeist: the end of second-wave feminism, the peaking of AIDS anxieties, the dawn of the Clinton years. Stale and corny, Basic Instinct 2 isn’t even accidentally relevant.” It had been 26 years since the release of the first modern erotic thriller, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), and the subgenre was beginning to show its age.

Though Limm saw Basic Instinct 2 as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future leading the erotic thriller to its own cinematic tombstone, the film is rarely cited as a reason for the sudden demise of the subgenre. Today, the most common reason given for the erotic thriller’s sudden disappearance in the early 2000s, repeated endlessly in online reviews and rehashed in numerous articles on the subject, is the internet.

The Internet Did Not Kill the Erotic Thriller

The logic of this often-repeated argument is that the erotic thriller was displaced by a more efficient, more private method of piping naughty images into our homes, and that was online via dial-up modems. Once we could do that, this argument proposes, there was no need for erotic thrillers anymore. There are two problems with this claim.

The first is the counter-factual conflation of erotic thriller audiences with porn audiences. They were never identical. When anyone claims the internet killed the erotic thriller, what they really mean is internet porn killed the erotic thriller. It follows from this that female nudity and simulated sex must have been all erotic thrillers were worth, and that horny straight guys (the dominant, but by no means exclusive, consumers of online porn) must have been the only audience that mattered to the success of the films. We know this is false. DTV erotic thrillers (and the many softcore dramas made for late night television in the 1990s) show a remarkable and deliberate balance of gendered perspectives because the cable companies and family-friendly videos stores that purchased them had been militating against guy-oriented sex films from the outset. Summarizing an observation in David Mair’s book Inside HBO, David Andrews wrote:

In the words of HBO programmer Brigitte Potter, Cinemax was looking for content that was “spicy, but not obscene”. This new ethos, driven by a woman at the top of its programming hierarchy, was a clear message that HBO would not be subsidizing lowbrow, guy-oriented films associated with grind houses and drive-ins.

David Andrews, Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in Its Contexts, 84.

The erotic thriller was an upscale film product designed to appeal to both men and women, particularly married couples who liked Fatal Attraction and wanted to see more films in that vein. This is what accounted for its tremendous success. The erotic thriller flirted with but simultaneously distanced itself from porn, entwining aspirational feminine romances and masculine thrillers around scenes of staged physical intimacy that mirrored the fight scenes in action films. Claiming that internet porn displaced this hybrid film type amputates half the reason for its existence in the first place, and also willfully ignores the market influence of women who were sitting right there on the couch, paying half the cable TV bill.

The second problem with this argument is that it simply overestimates the capabilities of the internet in the early 2000s and the average consumer’s ability to use the internet at the time.

If we look at graphs of internet adoption and connection speeds over time and compare these to our graph of erotic thrillers by year, we can see that by 1999, as the erotic thriller was rapidly on its way to extinction, only 40% of American adults 18+ used the internet, and of all homes connecting, 90% of those used a 56k or slower modem, with half using 28.8k or 33.6k modems. A single full-screen image at this speed often crawled down the screen one line at a time. It goes without saying the postage-stamp sized videos to be found were short, blurry, and sounded worse than AM radio. The dominant consumer group who rented erotic thrillers at this time didn’t even know how to use the internet well enough to find pornography.In the early 2000s, for most consumers other than a sophisticated group of advanced computer hobbyists who patrolled Usenet news groups, pornography online had not yet arrived. Though certain profitable porn websites were emerging, there was nothing happening on the internet in the early 2000s that could seriously compete with home video. It wasn’t until well beyond 2006, with the widespread adoption of broadband cable and the rise of modern search engines such as Google, that online pornography became easier to find for the average consumer. By then, as Basic Instinct 2 was screening in theaters, the home video industry was already capsizing and it was taking the erotic thriller with it.

The Collapse of the Video Industry

In a strange reversal of common business sense, a desire on the part of video store owners to satisfy customers officiated the collapse of their own industry. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, video stores unwittingly hammered nails into their own coffins by inventing ever more efficient ways to give customers what they wanted. Not doing this was exactly what filled video store shelves with new movies. An industry driven by dissatisfied customers seems counter-intuitive, but it was a phenomenon documented by industry analyst Thomas K. Arnold in the pages of Video Store magazine. Arnold called it deliberate consumer dissatisfaction, and it went like this: When new videos were moved out of genre sections such as THRILLER, HORROR, and COMEDY to a special NEW RELEASE wall, many customers stopped browsing the main floor to grab nearby genre films that looked similar to the Hollywood films they came into the store to rent. Over a decade, this put the squeeze on independent film distributors, whose business model was to stock those genre sections with a Fatal Passion (1995), Fatal Seduction (1997), Fatal Pursuit (1998), and Fatal Desire (2003) in response to every Fatal Attraction (1987); or a Body of Influence (1993), Body Shot (1993), or Body Language (1995) for every Body of Evidence (1993).

When Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video rose to prominence, they inflated the new release wall to grotesque proportions, wrapping it around the outer perimeter of every store. They filled that perimeter with studio films, purchasing 25, 50, or 100 copies of each movie. This economy-of-scale takeover of limited shelf space was called “copy depth”. Consumers loved it because the Hollywood movies they wanted were guaranteed to be available. Independents hated it because it muscled them out of competition. DVDs came along soon afterward, and though this format was glamorized as “the disc that saved Hollywood”, it was not a boon for independent film distributors. Since DVDs were priced at roughly 1/4 the cost of VHS tapes, distributors suddenly found their sales reduced by 75%. Even worse, consumers began building home film libraries. This rerouting of disposable income away from rentals toward purchases caused a big drop in sales for sexy independent genres like the erotic thriller. No one wanted their neighbors to stop by and see a copy of Indecent Behavior 2 (1994) sitting on the shelf next to Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World (1998), much less a copy of Naked Obsession (1990) or Forbidden Lust (2004). Erotic thrillers were designed to be rented and returned. DVD libraries were aspirational. When in the early 2000s the studios inked deals with Walmart and Target to bypass video stores and sell DVDs directly to consumers (“sell-through”) they signed the death warrant on the video rental industry. In 2010 both Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video declared bankruptcy.

An abandoned Blockbuster in Chino, CA. 2018. Photo by the author.

The erotic thriller hid itself under the protective canopy of this industry. Its VHS tapes infiltrated video store shelves like palace thieves. When the industry began to dry up, the DTV erotic thriller had nowhere to go but to the increasingly crowded slots of late-night cable television, which shifted focus onto reality series drama and upscale in-house productions. By this time the erotic thriller had been a dominant genre for 20 years and a force perhaps even more debilitating than the collapse of the video industry had begun to weigh it down: market saturation and audience fatigue.

Most popular film genres, especially B-movie subgenres, work in cycles. Early boons lead to a gold rush, followed by a flood of similar product, a tailspin of reduced profit due to market saturation, then audience fatigue. When I spoke with director Rogelio Lobato, he claimed when he set out to make his independent erotic thriller Depraved (1996) the producers were assured by distributors they would see a return on their investment several times over, especially if they cast star Barbara Niven as a femme fatale. By the time Depraved was completed, there were so many erotic thrillers flooding the market from which those same distributors could choose, Depraved was lucky to make back less than half its budget. Shortfalls like this cleaned out many film investors and drove them away from the subgenre. Veteran director Fred Olen Ray remembered the sad fate of many films and first-time filmmakers with a dull gleam in his eye when I spoke with him about the final days of the erotic thriller. Like an old sea captain recounting dangerous journeys in faraway lands, he said: “…and then they all got washed out of the business. They got washed right out”.

Anthony Guzman, Seidy Lopez, and Barbara Niven in Depraved (1996).

Back to Basic Instincts

In 2021 it was announced Basic Instinct (1992) would be re-released in a deluxe 4K Blu-ray edition by StudioCanal, and at the same time reports of new erotic thrillers from genre stalwarts Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven began circulating. Repeating the same thesis advanced during the 25th anniversary of Basic Instinct, a 2020 BBC Culture article with the title “Basic Instinct defined the erotic thriller – and killed it” quotes a podcaster who proclaims Basic Instinct to be the “Sine Qua Non” of the erotic thriller, as if the subgenre would not exist without this one film. Appraisals of studio erotic thrillers being either the wellspring from which all erotic thrillers emerged or the final nail in the subgenre’s coffin are nothing new, but they are exactly what the academic books and articles of the early 2000s should have corrected.

How influential was Basic Instinct? Would we even know about the erotic thriller without it?

We can check by once again looking at our graph of erotic thrillers released from 1980-2005. By 1991, a year before Basic Instinct, over 110 erotic thrillers had been released, and the designation erotic thriller had begun to appear on video boxes. A random sampling of erotic thrillers from this early period — Head On (1980), The Seduction (1982), Bedroom Eyes (1984), Perfect Strangers (1984), They’re Playing With Fire (1984), Deadly Passion (1985), Hot Target (1985), If Looks Could Kill (1986), Passion Flower (1986), Lady Beware (1987), Stripped to Kill (1987), Call Me (1988), Dangerous Love (1988), The Drifter (1980), Party Line (1988), Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988), Dangerous Obsession (1989), Two to Tango (1989), Body Chemistry (1990), Dangerous Passion (1990), Deceptions (1990), Genuine Risk (1990), Naked Obsession (1990), Night Eyes (1990), Play Murder for Me (1990), Carnal Crimes (1991), Inner Sanctum (1991), A Kiss Before Dying (1991), Lower Level (1991) — clearly shows the subgenre emerging without reference to Basic Instinct.

By the early 1990s, DTV erotic thrillers were making millions of dollars in worldwide sales and screenwriters had begun churning out erotic thriller scripts that combined tropes across a broad spectrum; always looking backwards at film noir, at successful thrillers of any era, and at European cinema. In 1992, the same year Basic Instinct was released in theaters, 43 DTV erotic thrillers were released on home video — nearly one every week. A cover story in the business section of the Wall Street Journal in July of 1992 ran with the headline “B Films Can Earn A-Plus as Video Hits”. The article singles out Fred Olen Ray’s 1991 DTV erotic thriller Inner Sanctum:

Vision International points to its “Inner Sanctum,” a steamy movie described on its box as “an electrifying journey into the deepest realm of sexual obsession.” For a week in January, “Inner Sanctum” was the No. 1 film in terms of number of rentals per copy, according to Video Store magazine — and that was after being in stores for more than four months. It beat A films such as “What About Bob?” and “Backdraft.”

King, Thomas R . Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. 28 (July 1992): B1.

Would the erotic thriller have continued its market ascendency without Basic Instinct?

It absolutely would have. Though the upward curve might not have been as steep, by 1992 the erotic thriller was powering forward as the dominant home video genre. Had Basic Instinct never been made, it is almost certain the many references to it in trade ads and on video boxes would have been replaced by references to other studio films, such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Heat (1981), Body Double (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), Slam Dance (1987), Masquerade (1988), and Sea of Love (1989).

Though its final act is mired in ambiguity, Basic Instinct was a superlative and powerfully made erotic thriller, a strong motivator for rentals and sales, and it clearly drove the production curve (and popularity) of the subgenre higher. It was not, however, the alpha and omega of the erotic thriller as is frequently claimed. Its themes, plot tropes, and character types were already present in numerous DTV erotic thrillers that preceded it. Ultimately, a more useful perspective, informed by watching more than simply a dozen studio erotic thrillers, is to view DTV erotic thrillers not as low-budget knock-offs of Basic Instinct, but to view Basic Instinct as a big-budget knock-off of the DTVs. This is in fact what the academic writers have been telling us all along.

Although Indecent Proposal may look like the game Scruples with a budget, it’s source is a maligned straight-to-video genre which is big business at many a local store. […] Video erotic thrillers are equally the disavowed but influential underbelly of the current spate of sexy blockbusters.

Linda Ruth Williams. “Erotic Thrillers and Rude Women”, Sight & Sound, Volume 3(7), (July 1993): 12.

Eric Roberts and Kari Wuhrer in Sensation (1994).

Today, the lost world of the DTV erotic thriller occupies an unseen and unacknowledged presence in American film, yet it is one which exerts an undeniable influence. Everyone knows it is there and feels its energy, but very few people have actually bought a ticket to the jungle, fired up a light aircraft, and set out to find this elusive subgenre in the fog. That jungle is still there, but its lost tribe of artisans and icons have all but vanished. Its once beautiful monuments have crumbled, and its art — recorded on long strips of magnetic tape — has deteriorated into warbling static. Forgotten and remaindered, the DTV erotic thriller waits for media archaeologists of the future to rediscover is youthful beauty and read its fading hieroglyphs. Despite a few great academic books on the subject and a legion of new film writers, the DTV erotic thriller remains a lost kingdom on our film-historical map; a once dominant film subgenre languishing beneath a curious blank spot marked obscured by clouds.