There’s a reason why the old adage “nice guys finish last” rings true on a profound level. Human nature is conditioned to seek what’s exciting, dangerous, spontaneous, or want what they cannot have. Thus, we develop a fixation on the bad boys, the irresistible hot chick, the seductive mistress, the married man, the rebels, or forbidden love. These are staple archetypes of characters that are commonly seen in erotic thrillers.
Despite being labeled and associated with pornography due to its excessive display of nudity and explicit sexual activity, erotic thrillers have so much more than what meets the eye. What is it with this genre that makes audiences tick and come back for more?
Understanding the Erotic Thriller Genre
Erotic thrillers are regarded as a unique subgenre of thriller films that perfectly combines promiscuous sex, nudity, love, suspense, crime, and violence. Its roots can be traced back as early as the ‘60s, but only fully came into the spotlight in the late ‘80s when Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) started a trend and brought audiences into the unchartered world of softcore adult entertainment.
“The erotic thriller’s early ‘80s rise to its mid-‘90s fall overlapped directly with the plague years of AIDS. While few of the genre’s entries, if any, addressed AIDS directly as a source of terror, it cannot be a mere coincidence that the deadliness of sex was being explored onscreen during a time when sex itself had been bestowed a newly deadly reputation in real life,” via Jezebel.
The success of this film and the unexpected positive reaction of audiences towards this distinctive genre inspired storytellers to hop on the train and take advantage of the hype. In 1992, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, starring award-winning actors Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, revolutionized this genre to a whole new level. In fact, an estimated 500 erotic thrillers were made in those years.
The defining characteristic of erotic thrillers is the appeal of a dangerous, thrilling, and unpredictable kind of love and mystery that we crave, but there are also deeper and powerful messages, themes, and relevant social issues that are embedded within the narrative that makes this genre significant and alluring.
At the heart of every erotic thriller is a femme fatale figure who exemplifies power, sexuality, and exposes the weaknesses of men when it comes to their lustful desires towards women. While most women in films are either horribly stereotyped or submissive to their male counterparts, erotic thrillers put them front and center, oftentimes empowering women and shaping their characters as the perfect dream girl: intelligent, beautiful, sexy, successful, and strong. However, one thing worth criticizing about doing so is depicting powerful women as this manipulative, cunning, and threatening plaything, while men are portrayed as the poor victims despite being the ones who provoked and initiated the wrongdoing.
At the heart of every erotic thriller is a femme fatale figure who exemplifies power, sexuality, and exposes the weaknesses of men
Erotic thrillers also explore themes of deception, revenge, infidelity, and obsession that oftentimes lead to murder. Therefore, most films in this genre almost always involve the search for truth and justice. For instance, Michael Douglas’ character on Basic Instinct (1992) is a detective who is investigating the murder of a rock star who was stabbed during sex by a mysterious woman. In his search for justice, it led him to his only suspect, Sharon Stone’s character, who is the bisexual girlfriend of the victim and a famous crime novelist.
As we know what went on in the story, the detective and writer fall for each other and get entangled in a sexual relationship. In the end, we find the murder weapon used to kill the rock star under the bed while she and the detective were having sexual intercourse, implying that she was the murderer and that she won’t stop persecuting her lovers. But in a twist of fate, she doesn’t push through with killing the detective after finding out that he respects her opinion of herself as a liberated woman who doesn’t want kids nor marriage, signifying a kind of understanding and respect that some women expect of men in our society. This particular erotic film cleverly explores gender role reversals, sexual orientation, and gender expectations.
While the popularity of erotic thrillers started to decline in the 2000s, it somehow always found a way to slip into mainstream media. In the past decade alone, films such as Nymphomaniac (2013), Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), A Simple Favor (2018), and The Voyeurs (2021) have created a huge buzz not just among enthusiasts of this genre but also to the average moviegoer.
Whether we like it or not, the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise was a huge success, making approximately $570 million at the box office. It was originally based on the book that went on to become a best-selling novel, selling more than 165 million copies worldwide. Audiences commonly indulge in these sensual, passionate, and thrilling films during Valentine’s Day, which is why Hollywood continues to take advantage of this time of the year to produce such stories to satisfy audiences’ cravings.
Erotic thrillers will never be a dying breed. While it may not be the majority’s cup of tea, we can’t deny the fact that once it’s right in front of us, it’s hard to look away. In perspective, it gives us a glimpse of the repercussions of our darkest fantasies, may it be having an affair with, or as, a married man, plotting revenge on abusive partners, dominating men, obsession with lust, and experimenting on homosexuality.
The hope for this genre is to deviate from the typical heterosexual tropes and create more narratives that explore relevant social issues as well as highlighting contemporary LGBTQ+ stories to ensure proper representation and inclusion. With the proliferation of streaming platforms, erotic thrillers are surely here to stay and will only continue increasing their value and currency in today’s entertainment landscape.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.