The Best Erotic Thrillers of All Time

These movies are suspenseful AND steamy.

erotic thrillers
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Between approximately 1980 and 2002, the erotic thriller was one of cinema's most pervasive genres. Blending elements of film noir, psychodrama, and soap opera, these star-driven spectacles represent Hollywood's peak lasciviousness, before the sexless superhero era of today sidelined movies built around steamy A-listers getting down and dirty. Hulu's Deep Water, a new infidelity drama starring former real-life couple Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, heralds the return of erotic-thriller master Adrian Lyne, who also directed Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful. Could that mean the genre will see a second life because streaming services aren't beholden to big-screen blockbuster trends? We can only hope. For now, Thrillist has compiled a list of stirring, sensual, lovably silly thrillers to whet your appetite.

michael douglas and sharon stone in basic instinct
TriStar Pictures

Basic Instinct (1992)

Has any movie ever done more for ice-based weapons? '90s bad-boy director Paul Verhoeven gave us this lurid tale of a damaged cop, played with real scumbag glee by Michael Douglas, investigating an icepick-wielding serial killer, but Sharon Stone is the real star of this show. Unlike the late-night premium-cable schlock that attempted to steal its style, this pulp classic has a sense of humor and a Hitchcockian playfulness to go along with all the nudity, violence, and cheesy one-liners.

Body of Evidence (1993) 

One of the flashpoint cultural debates about film and television centers around sex scenes, whether or not they're necessary, actually sexy, or if there are fewer of them than there used to be. Whereas the pundits in these sorts of conversations seem to agree that a sex scene should, at most, exist primarily to add something to the narrative, Body of Evidence seems to exist entirely so that we can watch Willem Dafoe and Madonna go at each other. The movie, a collection of increasingly sadomasochistic sexual encounters with a sprinkling of plot on top, concerns possible femme fatale Rebecca Carlson (Madonna), a woman on trial for allegedly murdering her wealthy lover via autoerotic asphyxiation, who immediately enters into a sexual relationship with her lawyer Frank Dulaney (Dafoe), their steamy encounters—belts, candle wax, handcuffs, you get it—performing a reverse of their power dynamic in the courtroom, Rebecca controlling the sex while playing the shrinking violet in front of the jury. Yes, the movie is bad. Yes, they're both devastatingly hot in it. You can't have everything!

lindsay lohan in the canyons
IFC Films

The Canyons (2013)

Infamously crowdfunded by director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), this erotic thriller protests the death of the movie-going experience by... testing the audience's patience. The Canyons follows a couple (played by Lindsay Lohan and controversial porn star James Deen) as their show-business dreams chip away at their souls. To compensate, they seduce and destroy every half-human left in Hollywood. The Canyons went straight to VOD in 2013 so, as the trailers trumpeted, people could enjoy it "from the privacy of your own home." Come for the sex, stay for the mesmerizing mundanity.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

In adapting the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the WB generation, writer-director Roger Kumble doesn't pull back on any of the book's nasty back-stabbing and emotional manipulation. Instead, Cruel Intentions revels in the melodramatic tawdriness of it all and features truly inspired lead performances from Sarah Michelle Gellar (using all the tricks that made her so likable on Buffy the Vampir\e Slayer as conniving mean girl Kathryn Merteuil), Ryan Phillippe (as her charmingly vacant step-brother Sebastian Valmont), and Reese Witherspoon (as the virginal Annette Hargrove). "Bittersweet Symphony" has never sounded sweeter.

nancy allen in dressed to kill
Filmways Pictures

Dressed to Kill (1980)

First and foremost, any viewing of Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill should err on the side of caution because it's one of the many films of the 20th century that perpetuated false ideas about gender and mental illness, making it extremely problematic. As an auteur of the thriller genre, though, De Palma is at the top of his game, taking cues from giallo movies to add style and eroticism to create the film (and usher in a whole decades-worth of erotic thrillers). After a sex worker named Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the murder of a sexually frustrated house wife who was indulging in an affair (Angie Dickinson), she finds herself both hunting for and hunted by the killer, making for a titillating mystery of kinky sex and suspense.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut is the best psycho-sexual odysessy that'll also resuscitate your Christmas spirit. Through Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's erotic tension, you'll see Christmas trees placed in the background of multiple scenes by notoriously meticulous director Stanley Kubrick, cementing this deeply Freudian meditation on desire a true "holiday" film. At the same time, the last scene of marital reconciliation does play out during a light-strewn shopping trip. It's the most mind-bending, brooding, orgy-filled Christmas movie ever made.

glenn close in fatal attraction
Paramount Pictures

Fatal Attraction (1987) 

In the years since its release, Fatal Attraction has been boiled (pun intended) down to its most iconic moments. The poor bunny, for instance. But when you actually give it a watch, you remember how skillful and sexy Adrian Lyne's iconic thriller is. You know the basic premise: Michael Douglas, the king of this genre, is Dan Gallagher, a lawyer with a great apartment and a kind wife (Anne Archer) and a cute daughter who are looking to move out of the city. When his brood is away, Dan meets book editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) with wild hair and a cigarette dangling from her lips. They have an innuendo-filled lunch and start an affair. But whereas Dan thinks it's a brief thing, Alex has other plans. What's remarkable is that even after you know where things are going, the chemistry between Dan and Alex is so intense you sort of get why he keeps coming back.

Fear (1996)

Fear has maintained notoriety mostly thanks to one scene: the roller coaster ride. It's easy to see why; this moment sums up how far the ridiculous erotic thriller goes to ratchet up both the eroticism and the thrills. Fear, about a 20-something guy (Mark Wahlberg) into 16-year-old Nicole (Reese Witherspoon), chronicles their relationship from infatuation to obsession. You won't be surprised to learn that things take a potentially fatal turn when Wahlberg’s David becomes increasingly possessive and abusive, battling Nicole's father (William Petersen) for dominance in her life. David's obsession and penultimate intrusion sequence are the stuff of nightmares, but they come off as comically melodramatic and ill-fitting in the flick’s noir tone—all of which makes Fear a ridiculously fun roller coaster ride.

mark ruffalo and meg ryan in in the cut
Screen Gems Pathé Distribution

In the Cut (2003)

Director Jane Campion turns the psychological thriller on its head with this thoughtful and bracing film starring Meg Ryan as a woman who gets caught up in a murder investigation in Manhattan. In a role originally developed for Nicole Kidman, who has a producing credit here, Ryan digs deep into her character's curiosity and fear. The film functions as an often disturbing mystery, one with a shocking ending, and as a portrait of a woman managing her own desires and struggling with the demands of the troubled men who circle around her.

Jagged Edge (1985)

A slightly lesser-known early work from screenwriter Joe Estervez, the mastermind behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Jagged Edge offers an alluring mix of violent mayhem, ill-advised romance, and legal intrigue. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a defense attorney recruited to defend a wealthy newspaper publisher (Jeff Bridges) accused of killing his wife. Soon enough, they're riding horses, preparing for a trial, and carrying on their own secret affair. Set in the wealthy homes of San Francisco's elite, the movie has a lush quality that sets it apart from many of the later legal thrillers of the '90s, which often played out in the sweat-filled Southern cities of Grisham's novels.

antonio banderas in law of desire
Lauren Films

Law of Desire (1987) 

A few of Pedro Almodóvar’s movies could be labeled erotic thrillers: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, Bad Education. None of them follow the genre’s American formulas, but they’re all lascivious and thorny in that signature Almodóvarian way. For the purposes of this list, fire up Law of Desire, the Spanish director’s third collaboration with Antonio Banderas, his favorite leading man. Banderas plays a gay novice who takes a fierce liking to a successful film director (Eusebio Poncela) already entangled in a complicated relationship with a fickle man (Miguel Molina). Desire is a comedy that veers into pitch-black waters as its passionate love triangle turns deadly.

The Piano Teacher (2001) 

Fair warning: It's perhaps not quite accurate to describe The Piano Teacher, director Michael Haneke's study of abuse and alienation starring Isabelle Huppert, as an "erotic thiller." With its carefully staged long takes, unrelenting focus on the dynamics of control, and bursts of classical music, the film has few of the gauzy, sweaty pleasures typically associated with the genre. Instead, the story of tortured piano professor Erika Kohut (Huppert) unfolds in a stark series of encounters that show how the violence of her home life with her cruel mother (Annie Girardot) informs the unsettling relationship she embarks on with a bright new pupil (Benoît Magimel), one who shows a particular interest in her. In his distinctly unnerving way, Haneke twists the knife as the movie builds to its shocking conclusion, which Huppert brings to life with devastating restraint and emotional clarity.

drew barrymore in poison ivy
New Line Cinema

Poison Ivy (1992)

This perfectly calibrated bit of early '90s sleaze comes from director Katt Shea. Bizarre sexual tension floods the screen in this story of a beautiful and scandalous wayward teen, played by Drew Barrymore, who befriends a moody, rich, compulsive liar named Sylvie (Sara Gilbert). Sylvie invites her new pal, who goes by Ivy, into her home with her sick mother (Cheryl Ladd) and leering father (Tom Skerrit). Of course, Ivy goes ahead and seduces Sylvie's dad, but it's the unspoken tension between the two girls that gives the movie its heat as we see Ivy through Sylvie's intoxicating gaze.

Single White Female (1992)

Today, the term "Single White Female" might be more ubiquitous than the 1992 film itself. Starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Lee, Single White Female is a campy fun thriller that gets to the heart of the staying power of that phrase. Fonda plays Allie, a software designer, who, after breaking off her engagement, needs a roommate. In comes Hedy (Jason Lee), and the two become close quickly, but Hedy becomes overly protective of Allie and when she starts dressing like her—all bets are off. I hate to call Single White Female a “romp,” but in its '90s thriller way (complete with unfortunate auburn bowl haircut), it’s a total blast.

diane lane in unfaithful
20th Century Fox

Unfaithful (2002)

After making seminal erotic thrillers of the '80s and '90s like 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne returned to the genre in the early '00s when it had fallen out of its box office heyday. To bring some sauciness back to the blockbuster, he remade the 1969 French film The Unfaithful Wife with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. It follows the dangerous turn of events that unfold when a suburban housewife lets her yearning for something more get the best of her and indulges in an affair with a younger stranger. With jealousy, lust, and Lane in a Golden Globe-nominated role that's full of physicality and powerful glances, what more could you want in an erotic thriller?

The Voyeurs (2021)

There are hardly any new erotic thrillers in the 20202s, but this recent movie from Michael Mohan intends to bring the genre back. Taking cues from Hitchcock and genre classics like Brian De Palma's Body Double, the movie peers behind the blinds and into one alluring couple's sex life when another young couple, played by Justice Smith and Sydney Sweeney, moves into the building across the way. Obsession and intrigue, obviously, follow. With tantalizing sequences and a fair share of mind-boggling twists, the genre film dares to make a voyeur out of you.

Wild Things (1998)

If you, like many, watched Wild Things at an impressionable age, it still might be one of the sexiest movies you've ever seen, despite its magnitude of problems. In Florida (of course), a perpetual bachelor high school counselor (played by a VERY sexy Matt Dillon) is accused of raping two students (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell). The story is far more complicated and twisty than that premise, which includes many a consensual sex scene, threesomes galore, and, if you slo-mo in just the right way, Kevin Bacon's bacon. It's a well-executed erotic thriller that came out right as the genre gave its last gasps of air.

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