What Happened to the American Erotic Thriller Genre?

By AFP | 8:12 am, October 19, 2016

Three decades ago “Fatal Attraction” heralded the age of the erotic thriller — crime potboilers featuring leading men swapping suggestive dialogue and bodily fluids with bewitching but murderous femme fatales.

Movies like “Basic Instinct” and “Sliver” enjoyed acclaim and big box office receipts during the 1990s, but within a few years the genre had died out, usurped by a new wave of smarter thrillers that swapped female flesh for sophisticated scriptwriting.

But while the American appetite for erotic thrillers is at an all-time low, the genre is burgeoning abroad, with France’s “Stranger by the Lake” and “Blue is the Warmest Color” (both 2013), Italy’s “I Am Love” (2009) and China’s “Lust, Caution” (2007) all proving critical and box office hits.

South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who first came to the notice of the West with his cult, neo-noir revenge movie “Oldboy” (2003), is hoping to tempt US fans of the genre back into the theater with his own foreign-language celebration of sex and intrigue.

Due for release in the US on Friday, “The Handmaiden” tells the story of a Japanese heiress in 1930s occupied Korea and her affair with a Korean woman hired to be her maid — but secretly plotting to con her out of her fortune.

The Handmaiden. Source: Youtube


Adapted from the award-winning Sarah Waters novel “Fingersmith,” the narrative is driven not just by its many lurid plot twists but also scenes of explicit, meticulously choreographed lesbian sex.

It captivated South Koreans in June, attracting a record 1.8 million cinemagoers, and has since amassed a respectable $32 million and has been sold to 175 countries.

It received mainly glowing reviews after showing at the Cannes Film Festival but some critics bemoaned Park’s penchant for stylized excess and shock tactics.

Park says he holds in high regard many American erotic thrillers from the 1990s, including “Basic Instinct” and lesbian mafia story “Bound” (1996), directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski three years before they made “The Matrix.”

Acrobatic Sex

“But it wasn’t a question of me saying I’m sad to see this genre dying out and wanted to bring it back. There was nothing like that going on,” Park told AFP during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

“When I set out to make this film it was purely a function of me being drawn to the source material.”

Historians trace the roots of the US erotic thriller to the early 1970s, when the runaway success of adult movie “Deep Throat” emboldened conventional filmmakers to push the boundaries on sexual content in movies such as “Last Tango in Paris.”

American director Brian De Palma took erotica out of the arthouse and into the mainstream with 1980’s “Dressed To Kill,” starring Michael Caine, and followed it up seven years later with the steamy “Body Double.”

But it was another film released in 1987 — Adrian Lyne’s manic slasher “Fatal Attraction” — that defined the genre, packing out theaters, getting multiple Oscar nominations and enriching the English language with the term “bunny boiler.”

Fatal Attraction. Source: Youtube

Paul Verhoeven’s sleazy but sexy whodunnit “Basic Instinct” took the erotic thriller downmarket in 1992 but became one of the biggest hits of the decade, grossing $353 million worldwide.

The movie — about a novelist who stabs her victims with an ice pick while engaged in acrobatic sex acts — famously featured an interrogation scene in which Sharon Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs to reveal she isn’t wearing any underwear.

“If ‘Fatal Attraction’ was the erotic thriller genre’s ‘Jaws,’ then ‘Basic Instinct’ was its ‘Star Wars,'” writes Ryan Lambie of the film reviews website Den of Geek.

Conservative Values

The film led an upsurge of erotic thrillers, with cult hit “Poison Ivy,” Stone’s next film “Sliver,” Madonna’s “Body of Evidence” and “Disclosure,” all cashing in on the public’s appetite for sex and death.

But a succession of lower quality erotic thrillers bombed at the box office as apathy for the genre set in.

In 1996, Wes Craven’s smart, self-referential slasher movie “Scream” opened the floodgates for a slew of ironic, postmodern thrillers, often with big stars but almost no nudity.

Audiences had come to expect more from their serial killers than bodice-ripping bonking by the time the much delayed critical and box office disaster “Basic Instinct 2” came out in 2006.

Some analysts have blamed the rise of internet pornography for stripping erotic thrillers of their mystique while others claim a resurgence in conservative values following the election of US President George W Bush in 2001 finished off the genre.

Shawn Robbins, a senior analyst at, believes the erotic thriller died out simply because the world moved on, as it always does.

“I think this is largely due to a cyclical shift in cultural tastes, especially among thriller and horror fans,” he told AFP.

“Certain genres tend to follow — or set — trends for a certain era, and in recent years those have gravitated toward more supernatural and psychological scare tactics.”

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