Italian and American genre filmmakers have a long and storied history of mutual influence. Perhaps the most storied and studied being the Italian giallo of the 70’s paving the way for the American slasher of the 80’s, which in turn began to influence the influencers. Fairly quickly too, with a film like Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982) taking inspiration from an early, gritty American urban slasher like William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). Setting aside the Italian’s infamous and at times rather liberal use of their “influences”, the Italian mockbuster a phenomenon in and of itself along with its own various subgenres such as post-nuke, sharksploitation, ect…, the American influence on Italian genre films from the 80’s going into the 90’s presents a fascinating story of international influences and market trends circling back on themselves. For instance, Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971) has long been considered to the the blueprint for the American teen summer slasher, films like Friday the 13th(1980) and its ilk. Fast forward to the next decade when Italian genre masters like Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi were at the helm of fare such as Body Count (Camping del terrore, 1986), Nightmare Beach (Welcome to Spring Break, 1989). Films that are often considered, if not American summertime slasher rip-offs, certainly intended to cater to the American market, actually lensed in the States like many Italian genre productions of the time, and shot in a style thought to be typical of American slasher films from the 80’s. Yet given the direct lineage to Bava’s aforementioned film, the later period “American” Italian genre films could be seen as the genre and its influences going full circle. A similarly fascinating series of circular patterns emerges when looking at the influence of the Italian giallo on the American erotic thriller of the 90’s.
Several of the giallo films of the 70’s could in fact be described as Italian erotic thrillers as the term “giallo” has long been an Italian catch-all for thriller styled films, many of which had a strong erotic component baked into the story. In virtually all instances where attention is actually paid to the erotic thriller, the genre’s lineage is always traced back to noir. Certainly the fatalism of noir and many classic noir tropes are present in erotic thrillers with femme fatales, fall guys and a hard-boiled crime element driving the plot of many an erotic thriller. Yet rather than merely updating noir for the 90’s, much like giallo films flipped the script on their own pulp mystery origins, the erotic thriller as it came to be defined during its golden age of the 1990’s often subverted and transposed its noir characteristics into a completely new world. A world that bore striking similarities with giallo. With noir, the previously mentioned fall guy and femme fatale characters tended to be down on their luck types or denizens of the bad side of town. A very skid row genre. By contrast giallo is often extremely opulent, with decadent characters of wealth and influence, sometimes even political influence, wearing the latest brand name fashions, shot in an equally decadent style with a modern décor backdrop. The baroque style many Italian genre specialists fused their gialli with gave the films a very heightened, exaggerated state of reality that crossed over into the surreal on occasion. The 90’s erotic thriller exists in a shockingly similar, almost mirror realm, trading Rome or the hot spots of the European jetset crowd from the giallo for the soft-focus cushy US west coast suburbs, contemporarily decorated homes who’s inhabitants were just as fashionable and indulgent as their Italian counterparts.
Just as it didn’t take long for the newly born American slasher to rub off on the Italians with the likes of Fulci’s aforementioned The New York Ripper, the Italian influence began to rub off on American genre films fairly quickly as well. Although it was released before the “erotic thriller” was even thought of as its own genre, Brian De Palma’s controversial Dressed to Kill (1980) has long been considered a critical film in the development of the erotic thriller. While Hitchcock, Psycho (1960) obviously in the case of Dressed to Kill, was De Palma’s guiding light, visually Dressed to Kill was equally if not more giallo inspired. Dario Argento in particular, with De Palma utilizing several visual signifies commonly associated with Argento and giallo as a whole, the fetishistic close-up’s of black leather gloved, razor wielding hands being the most recognizable to even those with a cursory knowledge of the genre. Hitchcock is of course also an essential part of the development of both the giallo and erotic thriller, with both the tormented and repressed characters and voyeuristic obsessions of Hitchcock’s films featuring heavily in many classic gialli while voyeurism is almost a mandatory ingredient to any erotic thriller. The same year as Dressed to Kill also saw William Friedkin’s even more controversial Cruising (1980). Featuring not only a black shining leather aesthetic, taking place within the gay leather bar scene of early 80’s New York City, Cruising was unique in challenging audience perspectives with its ideas of psychological duality in Al Pacino’s character. A rarity in American thrillers at the time, especially one with a star of Pacino’s caliber, though commonplace in giallo and as time would eventually reveal, erotic thrillers.
Obviously an inadvertent reaction more than any direct influence, the controversy and cries of misogyny hurled at De Palma and Dressed to Kill was already something many of the giallo specialists had been dealing with for years, Argento and Fulci being longtime favorite targets. The sexist tag has long plagued the erotic thriller, the typical byline being that the women in erotic thrillers, much like slashers and gialli, are perpetually victimized male power fantasies. Despite the many perilous scenarios women in both giallo films and erotic thrillers may find themselves in, the reductive “male gaze” criticism of both giallo and erotic thriller female characterization ironically denies both the agency and yes, power, afforded to the female icons of the genre in the films. In spite of its giallo lineage, the American slasher has long been known to have a curious conservative attitude when it comes to sexuality. The erotic thrillers of the 90’s however, particularly the direct-to-video erotic thrillers, approached the subject like giallo, already a remarkably progressive genre in its day for its portrayals of sexually emancipated and psychologically complex women who were oftentimes the centerpieces of the films and who wielded the true power over their male co-stars. Similarly, the accusations of homophobia directed at Friedkin and Cruising would only be amplified during the erotic thriller’s greatest decade by the lobby against Paul Verhoeven and Basic Instinct (1992), perhaps the pinnacle of the genre as far as the big-budget studio erotic thrillers were concerned. While the gay, typically lesbian, elements found in many gialli and erotic thrillers could cynically be seen as an attempt at luring more viewers, both giallo films and erotic thrillers were nevertheless rather matter of fact in their portrayals of homosexuality and bi-sexuality. The sensationalism was again, a critical after-effect which treated the subject as more of a taboo than any of the films and only added, in the case of Basic Instinct, to the film’s allure and success.
As trite controversies and sensationalism followed the erotic thriller into its golden age, so too did the strong giallo influence and in some of the higher profile studio erotic thrillers as well. Basic Instinct was in Verhoeven’s mind a Americanization of his previous Dutch film The Fourth Man (De vierde man, 1983) (1), a film who’s visual design was based off Margritte and Delveaux but was highly reminiscent of giallo in spots as well. Both The Fourth Man and Basic Instinct of course also look all the way back to the master of many of the giallo masters with Hitchcockian obsessiveness and unique spins on the Hitchcock “icy blonde” trope. Although purely Verhoeven in presentation, the joltingly violent ice pick death scenes of Basic Instinct, particularly the elevator set sequence with its hooded parka wearing assailant, do feel somewhat as if restaged from an Argento or Martino film. In a way, Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammel (author pseudonym “Catherine Woolf”) of Basic Instinct could be seen as a gender reversed version of Peter Neal from Argento’s Tenebrae (1982), a famous author at the center of a murder investigation where the murders are inspired by the authors books. Extremely noticeable hat tips to Tenebrae and Argento’s Deep Red (Profondo Rosso, 1975) are present throughout Richard Rush’s infamous Color of Night (1994) as well while Friedkin, fifteen years following Cruising was even more explicit in his admiration of Argento and giallo in Jade (1995). Both screenplays for Basic Instinct and Jade, penned by Joe Eszterhas, undoubtedly the most well-known studio erotic thriller screenwriter of the 90’s, were also heavy criticized at the time for being convoluted, not spoonfeeding the details of their mysteries to the audience and leaving things open to interpretation. Like the psychological complexities of Cruising a decade before, this particular style of thriller scripting was familiar to fans of classic Italian gialli, the logic of many infamous for being quite nonsensical at times.
Much like the giallo existing in more than one form, the erotic thriller was more than just the studio films. The 90’s direct-to-video erotic thriller had no shortage of its own giallo influenced films. Several of the DTV thrillers of adult pioneer Gregory Dark, most signed as “Gregory Hippolyte”, for instance, display a strong giallo and European influence. Dark’s first erotic thriller and one of the earliest of the 90’s DTV cycle, Carnal Crimes (1991), features a twist on the bored housewife scenario involving scheming husbands and dangerous lovers highly reminiscent of Martino’s seminal giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh, 1971). Dark’s Mirror Images (1992) features a similar idea, not only taking the scheming bastard husband, another common fixture of both giallo and erotic thriller, even further but visually Mirror Images is more than giallo-esque in spots, bearing a resemblance to some of the more horror-based and surreal giallo films, the mask work by its main villain would not be a bit out of place in a classic giallo film. Dark’s Night Rhythms (1992), with its plot of a radio host framed for an on-air murder forced to do his own detective work to prove his own innocence, a classic ordinary man in over his head scenario, obviously rooted in Hitchcock, is also quite Argento as well, the every man turned detective recalling Argento’s debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970). Both Mirror Images and its 1993 sequel also feature similar twists as well as some fairly giallo-esque use of the double or doppelganger ala Fulci’s Perversion Story or “One On Top of the Other” (Una sull’altra, 1969).
Funny enough, despite the studio erotic thriller getting the most coverage when the genre is looked back upon by mainstream outlets, it’s the aesthetics of the direct-to-video thrillers, which developed out of the classic soft-focus European erotica of the 70’s and 80’s imported to premium cable that are the most referenced. Far too often unfortunately in a dismissive tone reeking of snark. The diffused look and color filters, LA suburb settings, almost dreamy, narcotic feel and of course, saxophone and synth dominated scores, all staples of the video erotic thriller. Just one year prior to really jumpstarting the erotic thriller as it would come to be known in America with Fatal Attraction (1987), itself a variation of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me (1971), Adrian Lyne set forward an aesthetic trend that became rather ubiquitous for erotica wordwide with 9 ½ Weeks (1986). As they usually were, the Italians were quick to pick upon the success of 9 ½ Weeks. Fulci was in fact one of the first Italians to make a salacious and sax heavy thrilling erotic drama in the new post-9 ½ Weeks erotic landscape with later masterwork The Devil’s Honey (Il miele del diavolo, 1986) which was released on video in North America with the very erotic thriller re-titling of “Dangerous Obsession”. Legendary Jack-of-all-genres Joe D’Amato took an influence from Lyne’s smash hit with Eleven Days, Eleven Nights (Undici giorni, undici notti, 1987) which was a bit of a hit in its own right. Two subsequent D’Amato films were later released as sequels, Dirty Love (1988) and Hot Afternoon (Pomeriggio caldo, 1989) among several other D’Amato softcore titles from around the time. Even Bruno Mattei got in on the erotica drama craze with Desire (Desideri, 1990), though curiously it took Mattei, perhaps the most famous Italian cash-in artist, until 1993 to capitalize on the “Fatal Attraction” variation title trend with Dangerous Attraction (Attrazione pericolosa, 1993).
By 1993 the erotic thriller was at the peak of its power. With the hoopla surrounding Basic Instinct still fresh in the public and film industry’s mind as well as other cause célèbre studio erotic thrillers released that year such as the Eszterhas scripted, Stone starring Sliver (1993) and the Madonna led-Body of Evidence (1993), plus the DTV erotic thriller, which was really in full swing even before Basic Instinct, was one of if not the most profitable genres in video store rentals. An all-too-ideal storm in an all-too-idea year for two of Italy’s most renowned genre veterans, Sergio Martino and Ruggero Deodato, not to ride, 1993 seeing not only two of the finest 90’s erotic thrillers but late stage gialli as well from Martino with Craving Desire (Graffiante desiderio) and Deodato with The Washing Machine (Vortice mortale). Of all Italian directors to take the erotic thriller and bring it all back home to giallo, so to speak, Martino would be one of the most qualified with his early thrillers like the previously mentioned The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh as well as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, 1972) again laying many narrative templates and tropes that the erotic thriller would make its own in the 90’s. A genre chameleon, like many of his contemporaries Martino weathered the many changes the Italian film industry experienced as the 80’s died down. Switching between work for Italian TV and genre films aimed at the American video market, Martino was well familiar with the look and feel of erotica come the early 90’s, his The Smile of the Fox (Spiando Marina, 1992) seemingly designed with late night cable airings in mind. Martino even returned to his giallo roots, reuniting with Edwige Fenech for the mini-series Private Crimes (Delitti privati, 1993) just prior to fusing his giallo past with the erotic thriller present in Craving Desire.
Along with Martino merging aspects of his previous work with the erotica du jour, Craving Desire, released theatrically in Italy, is also a hybrid film in its combination of various aspects from both the American studio and DTV erotic thrillers. Certainly the set-up harkens back to patient zero for the theatrical American erotic thriller, with an attraction of a fatal variety, also at the heart of many a DTV erotic thriller, driving the plot forward. Luigi (American soap star Ron Nummi), like most archetypal erotic thriller leading men, seemingly has everything going for him with a new promotion at his successful real estate job and soon set to marry his fiancee Cinzia. Luigi is taken for a surprise however when his young cousin Sonia (Vittoria Belvedere) arrives at his door after the two having been recently reunited since their childhood days while Luigi was attending family matters. Claiming to have no place to go, Luigi agrees to let Sonia stay. After barely containing their mutual attraction, Luigi and Sonia soon embark on a passionate affair, Luigi even ending his engagement to Cinzia. At first bringing excitement into Luigi’s life, the affair takes a turn when Sonia’s idea of fun begins to include breaking the law, her behavior growing more erratic and as Luigi eventually discovers, dangerous.
Superficially, Craving Desire essentially has all the visual and sonic signifiers of the DTV/late night cable thrillers of the time. Yet for all its designations for the American market, Craving Desire is still a uniquely Italian film. With some uniquely Italian pieces of design to be spied, making the film a bit of a visual hybrid as well. More importantly however, and the most uniquely Italian thing regarding Craving Desire is its attitude. Transgressive and subversive as some of the American 90’s erotic thrillers were, not even the most daring of the video thrillers approached the subject of incest, a topic Martino had previously explored, albeit a much different fashion, in the erotic drama Cugini carnali (High School Girl, 1974). Martino takes Craving Desire further in other areas as well, arguably steering the film into horror territory, drawing upon another genre he’d traversed in the past in the final third of the film with some surprise cannibalism. The general idea of the dangerous affair may be rooted in Fatal Attraction, however Craving Desire has more in common with Kristine Peterson’s Body Chemistry (1990) and Gregory Dark’s Body of Influence (1993), two lower budget American erotic thrillers, that, like Craving Desire, took the idea into much more darker and psychologically ambitious territory. Like Peterson and Dark’s films, there’s a far greater sense of risk and consequence to Luigi and Sonia’s affair with Sonia, like Lisa Pescia’s Dr. Archer to Mark Singer in Body Chemistry and Shannon Whirry’s split personality of Laura/Lana to Nick Cassavettes in Body of Influence, pushing Luigi to his limits. Like Singer and Cassavettes, being the archetypal erotic thriller male also makes Nummi’s Luigi the archetypal dupe, ultimately led to personal and professional ruin.
Belvedere’s Sonia, the source of Luigi’s ruin, is naturally the axis on which Craving Desire rotates. Along with the general theme, it’s Belvedere’s performance that really recalls Dark’s Body of Influence. Although the duel personality of Shannon Whirry in Dark’s film and the psychology of Sonia in Martino’s is drastically different, both films present particularly fascinating examples of erotic thriller power dynamics and the supposedly “together” professional man brought down by the “sick”, “crazy” or “unstable” woman. Belevedere hits many of the same notes as Whirry, from the innocent, almost sad and lost puppy dog Sonia early in the film to full-on dominant psycho sex maniac later in the film and various nuances in between. Martino’s multiple giallo-esque reveals, revelations and twists as it relates to Sonia’s background does perhaps settle for some fairly stereotypical thriller reasoning, though Belvedere nonetheless makes Sonia one of the most memorable erotic thriller antagonists, her leather clad look late in the film resembling Emmanuelle Seigner in Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992). Even with some of Sonia’s more familiar personality traits, Martino is also playing around a bit with other stock erotic thriller characterizations, making Cinzia not a put upon wife but rather an insufferable nagging fiance, Sonia warning Luigi of Cinzia with the hilarious line “You can’t marry someone who gets into bed and says call a plumber.” Martino further subverts the gendered politics obsessed critics for the finale, making Italian erotica icon Serena Grandi the savior of the film, another woman proven infinitely more capable and powerful than Luigi.
While Martino was a prime candidate to direct an erotic thriller, Ruggero Deodato might seem a peculiar choice to the Italian genre novice. Responsible for two of the most infamous Italian horrors, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), Deodato’s most infamous and grisly titles are just two films far-too-often cherry picked from a very diverse and at times curious body of work. Deodato was uniquely qualified to helm an erotic thriller, his very first foray into thriller waters Waves of Lust (Ondata di piacere, 1975) was in fact an erotic thriller, owing more to Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) than the influences behind the thrillers his fellow countrymen were shooting at the time. Deodato was able to navigate the changes the in Italian film industry, especially genre film production, during the mid-to-late 80’s a bit better than most, his films throughout the 80’s all securing theatrical distribution, Deodato not turning to occasional TV work until 1989. Like Martino, Deodato was plenty familiar with the glossy aesthetic expectations of erotic content of the time, Deodato shooting his bizarre possessed telephone line horror film Dial: Help (1988) starring Charlotte Lewis in a style looking and feeling like the living embodiment of late 80’s Euro chic.
Even more European in appearance in spite of its American inspiration, though not another sleek household appliance horror in the vein of Dial: Help, title notwithstanding, The Washing Machine also plays more like a giallo hijacked by a mad erotic thriller. Whereas Craving Desire put a taboo twist on the Fatal Attraction premise, The Washing Machine opts for the obviously Basic Instinct-inspired idea of a detective falling for his potential culprit. Or rather three culprits, after inspector Alexander Stacev is called to the home shared by sisters Ludmilla, Vida and Maria after Ludmilla claims to have discovered the body of Yuri, Vida’s pimp boyfriend, chopped up in the washing machine in the dead of night. When Alexander arrives on the scene however, there is no body to be found nor any evidence that any crime has taken place. Dismissing Ludmilla’s story as a drunken hallucination, Alexander concludes no body, no case. The sisters see it differently and begin to follow and pester Alexander everywhere, each sister eventually individually seducing him, their mindgames further confusing the “mystery” of Yuri’s “vanishing”. “Mystery” and “vanishing” in quotations as despite the films more familiar crime-based giallo plotline, The Washing Machine is the furthest thing from a standard giallo/mystery. Not really functioning like a mystery until late in the film, Deodato instead opts to have the sisters send Alex on a series of wild goose chases, the question of Yuri’s disappearance or even death vanishing at least figuratively from the story. Even with Deodato’s emphasizing of eroticism over mystery, The Washing Machine is also the furthest thing from a standard erotic thriller.
Like Craving Desire, The Washing Machine is also a case of the Italian’s singular sensibilities strangely becoming more prominent when attempting a a film with an American influence. Unlike the rather downbeat, psychosexual dramatic approach Martino took with Craving Desire, for The Washing Machine Deodato opted for a tone that feels more like an absurdist comedy as the situations orchestrated by the sisters for Alexander grow more off-kilter than the premise of Dial: Help. While the sex scene taking place against a staircase Alexander is handcuffed to wouldn’t feel out of place in any American erotic thriller, the sisters’ various other methods of seduction make The Washing Machine an oddity even by Italian standards. Particularly hilarious are the scenarios arranged by the sisters involving their professions, the films “erotic” centerpiece being a passionate encounter between Alexander and Maria in museum surrounded by a group of blind visitors Maria was chaperoning. Deodato gives Ludmilla, a percussionist, an especially memorable moment of tossing a bowl of salad into Alexander’s crotch after bashing cymbals outside his apartment door, the sisters’ games eventually giving Alexander his own great line rivaling Sonia’s quip about calling a plumber, pleading to his inconsequential girlfriend “I don’t have a lover. I have three, and each is more deranged than the next! They’re sucking the life out of me!” As much as the film could be seen as Deodato possibly parodying the overheated sensuality of the genre, there’s still a strange earnestness to The Washing Machine, Deodato even delivering some violent and surprise horror shock moments, making it all the more compelling and certainly a stand-alone title for erotic thrillers, Italian or American.
Although genre film production in Italy never fully “died” as it has often been proclaimed, the industry was again, a vastly different landscape than when Martino and Deodato had their most commercial success with many Italian genre films, horror or erotic, from the the late 80’s and 90’s being regulated to TV with increasingly lower budgets. Both Craving Desire and The Washing Machine do in a way represent the last of an era for giallo as well as for the country’s genre veterans, both films being the last of Martino’s and Deodato’s to receive theatrical distribution before both went into semi-retirement for the later half of the 90’s save for the occasional television job. The erotic thriller in the States on the other hand kept going strong, if only for a few more years. In some ways what happened to Italian genre film happened to the American erotic thriller as the 90’s began to wane. Following John McNaughton’s Wild Things (1998), the studio erotic thriller essentially ceased to exist as the American film industry experienced its own unfortunate overhauling of priorities. Likewise the video erotic thriller was gradually put out of existence by evolving technologies and the death of the video rental market. Like the later Italian films, the funds became more scant and cable and potentially DVD became the films ultimate destination. While the 90’s erotic thriller is slowly experiencing somewhat of a critical renaissance, the genre as a whole remains woefully undervalued. 90’s Italian genre film by contrast, has yet to receive even a fraction of the same re-evaluation, with even the work of the some of the more famous names outright dismissed. Two of the best films from this marginalized time in Italian film, both Craving Desire and The Washing Machine were the logical and inevitable endpoints, the American erotic thriller influences completing an erotic cycle with a giallo preset.
1. Verhoeven’s episode of the HBO horror anthology series The Hitchiker, “Last Scene” (1986) also features traces of giallo.