DE PALMA QUOTED FROM 2013 IN ADAM WHITE'S 'URGENT RETURN OF THE EROTIC THRILLER' ARTICLE
Adam White's article about "the grand, urgent return of the erotic thriller" for the Independent, and his note that "they were glamorous, obscene and always seemed to star Michael Douglas," has me remembering the days in 2002 when it always seemed like Michael Douglas was showing up at screenings and parties for Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale.
In the article, White quotes De Palma from the Passion days of 2013:
At the beginning of Amazon Prime’s new erotic thriller The Voyeurs, a pair of mildly repressed twentysomethings watch their neighbours romp away on their kitchen island across the street. “They want us to look!” cries the guy, as his girlfriend feigns discomfort. In truth, she’s guiltily aroused, desperately wanting to perv but unsure if she should. The couple are characters in a sweaty, stylised, and overwhelmingly ludicrous movie. They are also everyone who has ever watched an erotic thriller. That most polarising of film genres lay dormant for years, its saxophone scores unheard, those phallic murder weapons collecting dust. Now it’s back, in all its maddening, barenaked glory. Hopefully, anyway.
We’ve been here before. With the launch of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015, there were rumbles that a cottage industry of adults-only dramas would be unfurled upon the world, resurrecting a style of filmmaking unseen since Michael Douglas stopped taking his clothes off in movies. Instead, the trilogy of book adaptations petered out, and mainstream American cinema maintained its oddly sexless status quo. Eroticism, love-making, even romantic intimacy are big-screen anomalies in 2021. And while we’ve generally convinced ourselves that we’re far more progressive and sexually open than we used to be, at least in the public sphere, cinema is nowhere near as straight-up sexy as it was 25 years ago.
The cinema of the late Eighties and early Nineties was dominated by powerful stars who oozed sex and chaos. There were genre titans Douglas and Sharon Stone, who tangled with one another in 1992’s Basic Instinct, then separately sowed sexual carnage in less-remembered thrillers in the aftermath, such as Disclosure (1994) and Sliver (1993). Linda Fiorentino, Richard Gere, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger – the last two of whom slathered each other in jelly and assorted meats in Nine ½ Weeks (1986) – were perennial erotica stars, and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a Demi Moore topless scene. The erotic thriller – from the highs of Fatal Attraction (1988) and Crash (1996) to the barrel-scraping (yet fun!) lows of Body of Evidence (1993) and Jade (1995) – turned mortal actors into prurient myth, or figures burned into the eternal fantasies of millions.
In their heyday, erotic thrillers cut together sex and murder with socio-political symbolism. They were secretly about inadequate males terrified by third-wave feminism in the office and in the bedroom. They were about fear of kink, of bisexuality, of unbridled lust. They were about Aids. It’s no coincidence that tales of sexual carnivores rampaging through America trailed a disease so often reduced to one clear message: have sex and die.
For the most part, erotic thrillers echoed that kind of wrong-headed moralising. Female agency was a catch-22, they insisted. Give women an ounce of power, and they’re inclined to take your job, wreck your home and try to kill you. The best of the genre, though, understood the pleasure of watching a female character intentionally destroy everything she touches. Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction (1994) and even the maligned Showgirls (1995) are all anchored by sociopathic women dismantling worlds set up to hurt them. They revel in glamour and violence, reduce libidinous men to weak-minded boys, and get away with murder. The films they’re in are absolutely dubious in nature – no genre that melted together noir, horror and pornography could ever not be – but they allowed for a feminine, sexual and moral complexity almost entirely absent from American filmmaking in the decades since.
There are any number of reasons why the mainstream erotic thriller went limp towards the end of the Nineties. The easy availability of internet porn meant randy adults didn’t need to pay £15 to see simulated sex with tasteful lighting. And when the president is receiving oral sex from an intern and scandalising every household in America, James Spader – of Crash, Dream Lover and Sex, Lies and Videotape – being horny and devious seemed suddenly quaint.
“It’s kind of a lost art,” Brian De Palma – director of Body Double (1984) and Dressed to Kill (1987) – told The Guardian in 2013. “I don’t think anybody’s interested in it any more … They say [my films] are ‘erotic European trash’. I’m like, ‘What are they talking about? These women look fantastic. I spent a lot of time making them look as stylish as possible!’”
We also seemed to lose our vocabulary when it came to big-screen sex appeal. If today’s stars are often accused of being oddly chaste on-screen, it’s only because we prefer them that way. Somewhere along the line, to acknowledge a movie star’s beauty became slightly dubious, or diminishing of their talent. Many factors are to blame: lascivious profiles of female movie stars seemingly written by 12-year-old boys; women on the red carpet demanding to be “asked more” than who they’re wearing, as if fashion, image and aesthetics are inherently vacuous; a Hollywood climate justly striving to be far less exploitative and dysfunctional than it was pre-#MeToo, but ultimately flattening or altogether erasing sex as a whole. Take the recent Jungle Cruise, an adventure romp modelled almost entirely after 1999’s The Mummy. But while Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz oozed carnality and sexual chemistry together, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt bore all the erotic frisson of distant cousins.