Whatever happened to the erotic thriller? This iconic genre, which came to fruition around the late 1980s through the early ‘90s, and canonically starred a sexually obsessed Michael Douglas, has fizzled like a libido in lockdown.
Which is too bad, because we could use some heat in this cold, lonely February. And the best erotic thrillers certainly deliver on that front, as they explore the intersection between lurid desire and the fate that can befall those who indulge their sexuality. Bunnies will be boiled, legs will be uncrossed. There will be sex … and blood.
My fixation on the genre began the first time that I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, which will be playing at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox as part the seven-film program Dark Twisted Fantasies: Erotic Thrillers (Feb. 5 to March 3). I was floored by Sharon Stone’s sexy, icepick-wielding Catherine Tramell. Verhoeven’s lurid plot begins as Douglas’s detective investigates a murderous crime novelist, only to become obsessed. Almost always clad in a white turtleneck, Stone’s high-wattage charisma unlocked a level of desire I’d previously only felt for Josh Hartnett. Every time that she arched her back, I didn’t know whether I wanted to possess Catherine or become her.
I first became a student of the genre when I was 24 and decided to move to Montreal for the summer. (I moved in with a young actress I met on Craigslist, which I realize now is the perfect setup for an erotic thriller.) My Cinema Studies degree had forced me to watch Battleship Potemkin more times than humanly necessary, and now I needed pleasure. After that first searing viewing of Basic Instinct, I developed a ritual of watching erotic thrillers late at night with the volume turned low, lest my roommate and her boyfriend overhear the scorching hot saxophone licks and sensual moaning emanating from my bedroom.
Weirdly, it was movies such as Single White Female and Fatal Attraction that made me feel less alone. Maybe it’s because women in erotic thrillers have more agency, desire and complexity than they do in almost any other genre – even when they’re brutally murdered for it. Who couldn’t relate to Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest, just another single New York woman tired of being ghosted? Curiosity killed the cat. Or in the case of Paul Schrader’s Cat People, curiosity caused a frigid Canadian virgin to transmogrify into a leopard. This was my genre.
Last year, I revisited Montreal where, playing at the 40-seat Cinéma Moderne, was Jane Campion’s In the Cut (which is also screening on 35 mm as part of TIFF’s new series). When the film was released in 2003, Meg Ryan’s vulnerable performance, featuring a two-minute oral sex scene in which she dared to display pubic hair, was condemned almost instantly, turning the actress into a national punchline. But once again, Montreal had provided me with one of the most seismic erotic thrillers I have ever seen.
In the Cut, adapted from a haunting novel by Susanna Moore, stars Ryan as Frannie, a veritable Cathy cartoon of a New York English teacher with dour brown hair in perpetual motion. She chases after her students to finish their essays in trashy pool halls, and passes through a strip club to the studio apartment where her half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) lives. When she meets a brutish cop named Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a serial killer in the area, Frannie comes undone. Campion crafts a fascinating portrait of a middle-aged woman who is terrified by her own neediness, yet unmoored by her sexuality enough to invite a man home for sex after being run over by a car.
Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy, which premiered alongside Reservoir Dogs at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, and will also be screened at TIFF, is yet another maligned masterpiece by a female director. Star Drew Barrymore was slandered for her charismatic, grounded performance as the titular Lolita-esque Ivy, who forms a friendship with a rich nerdy girl in a plot to kill her mother and seduce her father. Sumptuously directed and campy in all the right ways, Poison Ivy bristles with teen angst, more like My So-Called Life than anything on Skinemax.
I wonder why streaming services haven’t yet resuscitated the genre to its full powers. Amazon Prime Video’s The Voyeurs from last year is a stellar example of how a modern erotic thriller could function. Starring Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith, and set in Montreal of all places, the film follows a young couple who become entranced with exhibitionist neighbours visible through their windows. Complex, haunting and utterly sensual, The Voyeurs made me feel hopeful for the future. After all, erotic thrillers know that we like to watch.
Dark Twisted Fantasies: Erotic Thrillers runs Feb. 5 to March 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net)
Special to The Globe and Mail
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