Where have the erotic thrillers gone?

The genre ruled movies in the ’80s and ’90s, but big-bud­get fran­chises, the In­ter­net and to­day’s so­cial mores have pushed it aside.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ABBEY BEN­DER style@wash­post.com

Few cin­e­matic gen­res are as si­mul­ta­ne­ously al­lur­ing and enig­matic as the erotic thriller. A big­time mon­ey­maker in the ’80s and ’90s that largely faded out by the new mil­len­nium, the erotic thriller com­bined el­e­ments of film noir and soft­core to some­times cheesy, some­times bril­liant ef­fect. Dur­ing the genre’s hey­day, be­fore In­ter­net porn and a shift from adult drama films to­ward big­bud­get fran­chises took over the cul­ture, straight­to­video erotic thrillers lined the shelves of video stores na­tion­wide, a phe­nom­e­non de­tailed in a re­cent Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle that amus­ingly dubbed them “the sex­pend­ables.”

Last month, the lack­lus­ter, erotic thriller-in­flu­enced “Unforgettable” de­buted to lit­tle fan­fare, rais­ing a ques­tion: Where has the genre gone, and is it go­ing to be mak­ing a come­back any­time soon? While the erotic thriller is seen as low­brow and can play to gen­der stereo­types, the films’ styl­ized sheen and over-the-top per­for­mances make them fun to watch. There’s some­thing in­nately sat­is­fy­ing about see­ing a femme fa­tale en­act re­venge while the score builds or rain falls or cur­tains bil­low. It’s a cin­e­matic fan­tasy that could be writ­ten off as a guilty pleasure, though the best erotic thrillers can be ap­pre­ci­ated with­out tak­ing an ironic dis­tance.

In the genre’s hey­day, “Sin­gle White Fe­male” be­came a col­lo­qui­al­ism for de­ranged wom­an­hood, jokes about the boiled bunny in “Fa­tal At­trac­tion” abounded, and Sharon Stone’s un­crossed legs in “Ba­sic In­stinct” were a source of par­ody and genre short­hand. Would that last brazen ges­ture be­come a meme to­day? Per­haps, though the fact that our cul­ture has some­how got­ten more pu­ri­tan­i­cal and more vul­gar si­mul­ta­ne­ously would get in the way. Much cul­tural crit­i­cism now fo­cuses on la­bel­ing el­e­ments of films as prob­lem­atic (some­times too quickly) and even upon its re­lease, “Ba­sic In­stinct” was protested by gay rights groups. At the same time, the In­ter­net is flooded with far more risque dis­plays, which lessens the tit­il­la­tion fac­tor, as does the crude­ness and sex­ism that’s shown up in pol­i­tics.

The best erotic thrillers of­ten have not only cal­cu­lat­ing, glam­orous fe­male pro­tag­o­nists but also the guid­ing hand of an au­teur. Brian De Palma (“Dressed to Kill,” “Body Dou­ble,” “Femme Fa­tale”), Stan­ley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”), David Cronenberg (“Crash”) and David Lynch (“Mul­hol­land Drive”) have all el­e­vated the genre — most of its di­rec­tors are men, though there have been some no­table ex­cep­tions, like Katt Shea’s deliri­ously Oedi­pal, Drew Bar­ry­more-star­ring “Poi­son Ivy.” (The genre is of­ten de­rided for play­ing to the male gaze, a frus­trat­ing crit­i­cism that leaves out women who en­joy watch­ing femmes fa­tales.) The best ones are also well-con­structed and stylishly shot works that si­mul­ta­ne­ously elicit gawks and de­light. For a genre so pre­oc­cu­pied with in­fi­delity, a key com­po­nent of a good erotic thriller is com­mit­ment. One of the finest in the genre, John McNaughton’s “Wild Things,” suc­ceeds be­cause it is bor­der­line pre­pos­ter­ous in its il­lu­sion of sul­try Mi­ami heat and nu­bile teen girl­hood, while ul­ti­mately be­ing a pleas­ingly tart, sus­pense­ful tale of con artistry and the power of fem­i­nine wiles to scam and pro­voke.

There have been a few erotic thrillers in re­cent years. Last fall, South Korean provo­ca­teur Park Chan-wook’s “The Hand­maiden” was a twisty tale of de­cep­tion and les­bian­ism, and a strong ar­gu­ment for the genre’s rel­e­vance out­side of the United States. De Palma’s last film, 2012’s “Pas­sion,” was a glossy and mur­der­ous tale of two women that didn’t make nearly the im­pact that his con­tri­bu­tions to the genre in the ’80s did. The film grossed only a frac­tion of its bud­get, and crit­ics called it a bland re­tread of his ear­lier work.

Pro­ducer-turned-direc­tor Denise Di Novi’s “Unforgettable” used just enough erotic thriller el­e­ments to make it frus­trat­ing that it didn’t fully em­body the genre. Rosario Daw­son stars as Ju­lia Banks, a calmly el­e­gant woman en­gaged to David Con­nover (Ge­off Stults), a man who just hap­pens to have a de­ranged ex-wife, Tessa (Katherine Heigl), who, you guessed it, comes back to wreak havoc. The film does de­serve some credit. It’s both di­rected and co-writ­ten by women. Daw­son is an ap­peal­ing per­former, and it’s no­table to see a woman of color star­ring in an over­whelm­ingly white genre. “Unforgettable” also makes some clever up­dates to the erotic thriller mold. Ju­lia works for a Face­book-like startup, and Tessa, in some of the film’s most ex­ag­ger­ated (and there­fore, fol­low­ing the rules of the genre, best) scenes, uses tech­nol­ogy to stalk and im­per­son­ate Ju­lia, hack­ing into her phone and so­cial me­dia ac­counts. There’s even a scene where Tessa vapes while cy­ber­stalk­ing Ju­lia, a bit of vis­ual sto­ry­telling that places this film ex­plic­itly in the 2010s.

Still, while Heigl makes for a pass­able de­vi­ous blonde, at times her ice queen de­liv­ery, in­stead of be­ing campy, merely makes her seem like a wooden per­former. And then there’s Stults, who doesn’t merit the at­ten­tion given to him by the two women — if “Unforgettable” gets any­thing about the genre right, it’s the fact that the women are al­ways more fun to watch than the men.

Much of the film ref­er­ences the ’90s: It’s dif­fi­cult to watch “Unforgettable” with­out be­ing re­minded of “Sin­gle White Fe­male.” A scene where Tessa buys a dress that Ju­lia tried on pre­vi­ously re­calls the ear­lier film’s in­fa­mous scene of fe­male psy­chosis ex­pressed through one woman ex­actly match­ing her hair­cut to another. The de­noue­ment — a fight to the death — is also sim­i­lar. And as of this month, the film has made only around $10 mil­lion, on a mod­est-for-Hol­ly­wood $12 mil­lion bud­get. “Sin­gle White Fe­male,” on the other hand, opened at No. 2 at the box of­fice, mak­ing more in its open­ing weekend alone than “Unforgettable” has so far even in 1992 dol­lars and go­ing on to make nearly $50 mil­lion. Au­di­ences just aren’t buy­ing erotic thrillers the way they used to.

If any­thing, “Unforgettable” leaves fans of the genre dream­ing of a day when erotic thrillers might fully burst back onto the scene — es­pe­cially for those of us who lack for both eroti­cism and thrills in our daily lives.

WASH­ING­TON POST IL­LUS­TRA­TION

KAREN BAL­LARD/WARNER BROS. PIC­TURES

Rosario Daw­son and Ge­off Stults play an en­gaged cou­ple threat­ened by his un­hinged exwife in the dra­matic thriller “Unforgettable,” re­leased last month. The film in­cor­po­rates many el­e­ments of the erotic thriller genre, one rarely seen on the­ater screens in this decade.

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