Few cinematic genres are as simultaneously alluring and enigmatic as the erotic thriller. A big-time moneymaker in the ‘80s and ‘90s that largely faded out by the new millennium, the erotic thriller combined elements of film noir and soft-core to sometimes cheesy, sometimes brilliant effect. During the genre’s heyday, before Internet porn and a shift from adult drama films toward big-budget franchises took over the culture, straight-to-video erotic thrillers lined the shelves of video stores nationwide, a phenomenon detailed in a recent Vanity Fair article that amusingly dubbed them “the sexpendables.”
Last month, the lackluster, erotic thriller-influenced “Unforgettable” debuted to little fanfare, raising a question: Where has the genre gone, and is it going to be making a comeback anytime soon? While the erotic thriller is seen as lowbrow and can play to gender stereotypes, the films’ stylized sheen and over-the-top performances make them fun to watch. There’s something innately satisfying about seeing a femme fatale enact revenge while the score builds or rain falls or curtains billow. It’s a cinematic fantasy that could be written off as a guilty pleasure, though the best erotic thrillers can be appreciated without taking an ironic distance.
In the genre’s heyday, “Single White Female” became a colloquialism for deranged womanhood, jokes about the boiled bunny in “Fatal Attraction” abounded, and Sharon Stone’s uncrossed legs in “Basic Instinct” were a source of parody and genre shorthand. Would that last brazen gesture become a meme today? Perhaps, though the fact that our culture has somehow gotten more puritanical and more vulgar simultaneously would get in the way. Much cultural criticism now focuses on labeling elements of films as problematic (sometimes too quickly) and even upon its release, “Basic Instinct” was protested by gay rights groups. At the same time, the Internet is flooded with far more risque displays, which lessens the titillation factor, as does the crudeness and sexism that’s shown up in politics.
The best erotic thrillers often have not only calculating, glamorous female protagonists but also the guiding hand of an auteur. Brian De Palma (“Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double,” “Femme Fatale”), Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”), David Cronenberg (“Crash”) and David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”) have all elevated the genre — most of its directors are men, though there have been some notable exceptions, like Katt Shea’s deliriously Oedipal, Drew Barrymore-starring “Poison Ivy.” (The genre is often derided for playing to the male gaze, a frustrating criticism that leaves out women who enjoy watching femmes fatales.) The best ones are also well-constructed and stylishly shot works that simultaneously elicit gawks and delight. For a genre so preoccupied with infidelity, a key component of a good erotic thriller is commitment. One of the finest in the genre, John McNaughton’s “Wild Things,” succeeds because it is borderline preposterous in its illusion of sultry Miami heat and nubile teen girlhood, while ultimately being a pleasingly tart, suspenseful tale of con artistry and the power of feminine wiles to scam and provoke.
There have been a few erotic thrillers in recent years. Last fall, South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” was a twisty tale of deception and lesbianism, and a strong argument for the genre’s relevance outside of the United States. De Palma’s last film, 2012’s “Passion,” was a glossy and murderous tale of two women that didn’t make nearly the impact that his contributions to the genre in the ’80s did. The film grossed only a fraction of its budget, and critics called it a bland retread of his earlier work.
Producer-turned-director Denise Di Novi’s “Unforgettable” used just enough erotic thriller elements to make it frustrating that it didn’t fully embody the genre. Rosario Dawson stars as Julia Banks, a calmly elegant woman engaged to David Connover (Geoff Stults), a man who just happens to have a deranged ex-wife, Tessa (Katherine Heigl), who, you guessed it, comes back to wreak havoc. The film does deserve some credit. It’s both directed and co-written by women. Dawson is an appealing performer, and it’s notable to see a woman of color starring in an overwhelmingly white genre. “Unforgettable” also makes some clever updates to the erotic thriller mold. Julia works for a Facebook-like start-up, and Tessa, in some of the film’s most exaggerated (and therefore, following the rules of the genre, best) scenes, uses technology to stalk and impersonate Julia, hacking into her phone and social media accounts. There’s even a scene where Tessa vapes while cyberstalking Julia, a bit of visual storytelling that places this film explicitly in the 2010s.
Still, while Heigl makes for a passable devious blonde, at times her ice queen delivery, instead of being campy, merely makes her seem like a wooden performer. And then there’s Stults, who doesn’t merit the attention given to him by the two women — if “Unforgettable” gets anything about the genre right, it’s the fact that the women are always more fun to watch than the men.
Much of the film references the ’90s: It’s difficult to watch “Unforgettable” without being reminded of “Single White Female.” A scene where Tessa buys a dress that Julia tried on previously recalls the earlier film’s infamous scene of female psychosis expressed through one woman exactly matching her haircut to another. The denouement — a fight to the death — is also similar. And as of this month, the film has made only around $10 million, on a modest-for-Hollywood $12 million budget. “Single White Female,” on the other hand, opened at No. 2 at the box office, making more in its opening weekend alone than “Unforgettable” has so far even in 1992 dollars and going on to make nearly $50 million. Audiences just aren’t buying erotic thrillers the way they used to.
If anything, “Unforgettable” leaves fans of the genre dreaming of a day when erotic thrillers might fully burst back onto the scene — especially for those of us who lack for both eroticism and thrills in our daily lives.