What Ever Happened to the Erotic Thriller?

Basic Instinct Erotic Thrillers
Basic Instinct | TriStar Pictures
Basic Instinct | TriStar Pictures

In the late '80s and early '90s, the mainstream erotic thriller was all about Michael Douglas' ass. The genre is rife with other tawdry, sweaty elements -- femmes fatales "trapping" men in morally compromised situations, tastefully lit sex scenes in spacious office buildings with glass bricks, poor little bunnies boiling in pots. But for years the upper echelon of erotic thrillers was defined by a simple question: do you want to see Gordon Gekko's posterior from a flattering angle?

The answer, for most sentient humans during the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton eras, was yes. While the actor embodied the erotic thriller in a trio of movies (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and the unapologetically absurd Disclosure) with his preening arrogance in both the bedroom and the boardroom, Douglas eventually aged out of his sexual conquistador period, and the genre entered an accompanying downswing.

But with the Morris Chestnut-starring When the Bough Breaks grossing a surprising $16.6 million in its opening week, it's worth taking stock of the type of film that helped define steamy sex for a generation of moviegoing adults and teens with access to premium cable. What the hell happened to erotic thrillers over the past 15 years or so? And could they actually be making a comeback?

wild things
Wild Things | Columbia Pictures

Wait -- what's an erotic thriller again?

In most erotic thrillers, the plot is an old-fashioned noir or a corporate thriller with an extra twist: lots of sex. Sex in offices! Sex in public places! Sex in the kitchen with a pants-less Michael Douglas!

Besides Douglas, who was unquestionably the charming face of '90s male paranoia, there's one more big name from the genre's heyday you need to know: Joe Eszterhas, an enormously successful Hollywood screenwriter who now looks like a very rich werewolf.

Here's a quick list of some of the movies Eszterhas wrote: the Glenn Close courtroom thriller Jagged Edge (1985), the leg-crossing bombshell Basic Instinct (1992), the less-beloved Sharon Stone vehicle Sliver (1993), the David Caruso in a "fuck house" experiment Jade (1995), and the camp classic Showgirls (1995). These movies vary wildly in tone, veering from genuinely intense to winking self-parody, but they're unified by violent plot twists, seedy sex scenes, and hilariously vulgar dialogue, like, "I do the fucking, I never get fucked!" and "Fucker! Fuck off!" They are glorious.

Of course, like any genre, there were various offshoots, ripoffs, and predecessors to the Douglas, Stone, and Eszterhas glory days. Noirs like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) offered genuine psychological tension without the nudity, but '80s films like Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980), Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981), and Paul Schrader's delightfully bonkers Cat People (1982) effectively set the stage for the sexy eruption of movies to come. Surprise: audiences liked watching attractive people take off their clothes and solve mysteries. 

In the '90s, things got crazier than a party at David Caruso's fuck house. In the wake of Basic Instinct, we got less-well-known movies with vaguely sensual titles like Consenting Adults (1992), Body of Evidence (1993), and the Bruce Willis(!)-featuring Color of Night (1994). The late '90s saw the genre become more experimental and daring in the ways it portrayed sexuality on screen, with movies like the Wachowski siblings' Bound (1996), David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), and John McNaughton's softcore cable classic Wild Things (1998) finding new ways to provoke, confound, and, yes, titillate. At the time, it looked like the reign of the erotic thriller would last forever.

Basic Instinct 2 Erotic Thrillers

Where did these movies go?

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the genre began its decline, but the downtick can likely be attributed to a few factors: the much-discussed decrease in the number of mid-budget Hollywood films, the shrinkage of the direct-to-video market, and the rise of readily available pornography via the internet. The last one feels especially relevant: why go out to the theater to see Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in a sex scene when you can stream far more explicit sexual acts right from your laptop? The choice, for many, was obvious.

The last gasp of the '90s erotic thriller may have come with the arrival of Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction, an embarrassing 2006 film that attempted to re-spark an old flame by pairing Sharon Stone with the very-much-not-Michael Douglas-like David Morrissey. Despite a game performance from Stone, the lackluster sequel was savaged by critics, mocked by audiences, and only made back $38.6 million of a $70 million budget. If the genre wasn't already on life support, Basic Instinct 2 drove an icepick through the heart of a once-powerful (and, perhaps more importantly, profitable) genre.

That's not to say that exciting stories of hot sex and deadly weapons completely vanished from your local cineplex. Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects (2013) was like an Adrian Lyne movie tipped on its side, while recent hits like Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and Jennifer Lopez's The Boy Next Door (2015) had erotic thriller-like elements. But the genre's hot-and-heavy heyday seems to have faded. At the very least, there's been very little discussion about a Basic Instinct 3.

click to play video
Screen Gems/YouTube

What does the genre's future look like?

When the Bough Breaks arrived in theaters at an interesting moment for the erotic thriller. Starring Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, and Jaz Sinclair, the movie looks like Fatal Attraction mixed with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and the trailer includes lines like "Do what you have to do to bring my baby back," so I'm all in. It looks great. With a respectable box-office haul that well outperformed its studio's expectations, it's Chestnut's second hit in the genre after last year's The Perfect Guy, which made over $60 million on a slim $18 million budget.

Is Chestnut the new Douglas? If the tailored suit fits... As The Guardian's Dave Schilling points out, the erotic thriller is now being marketed and sold to black audiences, often with the wronged woman as the main star. "The erotic thriller that was once all about white suburban angst now taps into the upper middle-class black nightmare of infidelity," he writes. In addition to the Chestnut films, Idris Elba has emerged as another heir to Douglas' throne, with films like the Beyoncé-starring Obsessed (2009) and the Taraji P. Henson-is-trapped-in-her-house potboiler No Good Deed (2014).

In addition to When the Bough Breaks, this fall will also bring us Oldboy director Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and the heavily anticipated adaptation of Girl on the Train, which has a very Gone Girl-goes-Fifty Shades trailer. At the very least, this fall looks sexier than anything in Batman v Superman

Personally, I'm excited to see the genre make a comeback on the big screen. As studios cater to kids with animated comedies and teenagers with superhero-filled blockbusters, television has emerged as a place where the tropes of the erotic thriller flourish. Shonda Rhimes shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder mix thriller elements with the political conspiracy film and the whodunit, respectively; while Billions, with its BDSM subplot and corporate intrigue, and elements of Showtime's racy The Affair, feel cut from the same white-collar Douglas cloth. But watching erotic thrillers on TV isn't the same.

There's really nothing better than watching an erotic thriller in a crowded movie theater on opening night -- then awkwardly shuffling out, walking to your car, and not making eye contact with anyone. It's not that we're embarrassed or ashamed; we're all just chasing that initial Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction high -- and, like Michael Douglas' entitled antiheroes, we'll get it any way we can.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.