Recently, while flipping through my cable guide, I came across Fatal Instinct, an Armand Assante/Sean Young/Sherilyn Fenn vehicle from 1993—perhaps the last year in which the phrase “an Armand Assante/Sean Young/Sherilyn Fenn vehicle” wouldn’t sound patently absurd. Unable to recall which of the many 1990s erotic thrillers Fatal Instinct actually was, I tuned in, and quickly realized that it’s a Carl Reiner-directed parody of those movies. There’s even a scene where Young’s character flashes her crotch at the hero—just like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct—and he reaches into a drawer in his desk to toss her one of the many pairs of panties that he keeps in a pop-up Kleenex box.
Fatal Instinct came out just a year after Basic Instinct, which shows how quickly and pervasively that film swept through popular culture. But as I watched, I found it hard to tell precisely what Fatal Instinct was spoofing. Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, sure. But the movie also contains references to Chinatown, Double Indemnity, and countless Alfred Hitchcock pictures.
This raised a couple of questions: What were those ‘90s thrillers trying to be in the first place? And why were there so many of them between 1990 and 1995?
Success spawns imitators, and Basic Instinct was a big enough blockbuster to inspire a hundred copycats. But that film was at the crest of the wave, not the start of the swell. There was something going on in the culture at large—and in cinema in particular—that produced a moment where Armand Assante could hand Sean Young fresh underpants and everyone watching would be expected to get the reference.
There were a lot of pathways to that point in pop history. Let’s start in 1985.
Close, Douglas & Eszterhas
Joe Eszterhas shifted from journalism to screenwriting at the end of the 1970s, and spent several years as one of Hollywood’s most-in-demand but least-produced writers. He penned scripts that sold for a lot of money but went unmade; and he padded his income doing uncredited polishes of other people’s work. Then veteran producer Martin Ransohoff came to him with an idea for a classy courtroom drama, akin to Anatomy Of A Murder. Eszterhas took the assignment, and whipped up something far more lurid—and more profitable.
In 1985’s Jagged Edge, Jeff Bridges plays Jack Forrester, a crusading journalist (like Eszterhas!) accused of murdering his wife. He turns to semi-retired criminal lawyer Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close) to defend him. Most of Jagged Edge takes place during the trial, as Teddy goes after the shady prosecutorial tactics of her former boss Thomas Krasny (Peter Coyote), and tries to ignore all the signs that Jack—whom she’s fallen for—is a reckless liar.
Jagged Edge scored good reviews and became a word-of-mouth hit, reaching #1 at the box office in its fourth weekend in theaters. It’s a polished product, with powerhouse performances and an unpredictably twisty plot.
It’s also frequently quite nasty. The initial crime involves a multitude of stab-wounds and the word “BITCH” smeared in blood above the victim. Later we hear about a similar crime perpetrated against a woman who was allowed to live—after the intruder ran a serrated blade roughly against her breasts and nipples.
Jagged Edge’s success meant that Eszterhas had the clout to get a wide variety of his projects made, from tony Costa-Gavras-directed political thrillers like Betrayed and Music Box to wacky comedies like Big Shots and Checking Out. But he didn’t become a household name among movie buffs until he returned to the realm of pervy violence with Basic Instinct, a script he reportedly wrote in two weeks and sold for three million dollars.
The finished film was directed by Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, whose terrific 1983 suspense picture The Fourth Man had mined similar territory, weaving sexual compulsion with the imminent threat of mutilation. Verhoeven took a script pulled directly from Eszterhas’ arrested adolescent id, and treated it like vintage Hitchcock. Even now, Basic Instinct looks stunning, despite a ridiculous plot where every man’s a roughhousing sex fiend, every woman’s a promiscuously polyamorous femme fatale, and every cooly deadpan line of dialogue maximizes the vulgarity with intent to shock.
Though best known for its “leg uncrossing” interrogation scene (famously parodied in Fatal Instinct!) and for depicting bisexuals and lesbians as both exciting and deadly to be around, Basic Instinct is actually amped-up from start to finish. The sex scenes are remarkably frank, with clear intimations of cunnilingus and screaming orgasms. And inasmuch as the movie has a point, it seems to be that certain kinds of movie characters—like the alcoholic, trigger-happy cop played by Michael Douglas or the sexually rapacious, scandal-ridden crime novelist played by Sharon Stone—exist wholly outside of our conventional middle-class morality. They can shoot who they want, stab who they want, screw who they want.
That perspective is markedly divergent from Fatal Attraction, the 1987 potboiler that paired Douglas and Close, and the film arguably most responsible for launching the ‘90s erotic thriller trend—even if it took a few years before the genre really boomed. Written by James Dearden and directed by Adrian Lyne (the latter of whom also made the sexy 1986 drama 9½ Weeks, and the Eszterhas-penned Flashdance), Fatal Attraction sees Douglas playing well-to-do New York lawyer Dan Gallagher, who has what he believes to be a one-time-only extramarital fling with high-powered publishing house editor Alexandra Forrest, played by Close. Before their weekend together is up, Dan fears that Alex is getting awfully clingy—a suspicion confirmed when she slashes his wrists as he’s trying to leave.
Fatal Attraction takes some silly turns in its third act, with Alex behaving like some kind of supernatural demon—boiling Dan’s daughter’s pet bunny, rising from the dead after being drowned, and so on. It’s a disappointing finish, because for the first hour or so, this is one of the most squirm-inducing of erotic thrillers… because it’s so disturbingly real.
From the opening scenes of Dan muddling through another night in his cluttered apartment—with his demanding young daughter watching inane kiddie TV shows, while his attractive wife is wearing skimpy clothes strictly for housecleaning purposes—Fatal Attraction makes its hero’s choice to spend a weekend having sex with a casual acquaintance perfectly plausible. Alex represents the New York life Dan used to lead (or perhaps has always fantasized about), with salsa dancing and spontaneous blow jobs in the old-fashioned elevator up to her stylish loft apartment.
But while the movie has been criticized for making Alex seem like an unreasonable kook, for most of the movie she comes across as pretty three-dimensional. It’s Dan who makes presumptions about how a man like him is allowed to behave, with no repercussions. When Alex starts calling him at home, Dan’s outraged, saying, “I thought you knew the rules.” When she replies, “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” it’s hard not to be on her side. Right up until it lets the audience off the hook by making Alex into a super-villain, Fatal Attraction needles at something deep and painful, reflecting the genuine cultural concerns of a time when ‘70s hedonism and go-go yuppiedom were giving way to politically powerful televangelists and AIDS scares.
Sex, Violence & The Moral Majority
Eszterhas didn’t exactly invent the winning combination of nudity and bloodletting. Eroticism undergirded classic film noir, and shaded most of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. In the 1970s, Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me served as a proto-Fatal Attraction with its story of a one-night stand turning into a dangerous hassle. Over in Italy, the giallo genre produced gorgeous-looking exploitation pictures with titles like Strip Nude For Your Killer. The early 1980s brought a brief wave of neo-noir exemplified by the steamy Body Heat, while Brian De Palma churned out sensational R-rated cinema like Dressed To Kill and Body Double.
And then there were the slasher films. Critics have done some fine work unpacking ‘80s horror, considering everything from the male gaze to the moralism to the stealthy feminist coding. Most of those same critiques and caveats can be applied to the ‘90s erotic thriller. It’s worth noting though how and why movies like Basic Instinct supplanted the likes of Friday The 13th and Halloween.
It’s the rare sociopolitical cause that could unite left-leaning critic Roger Ebert and progressive pastor Jerry Falwell, but the slasher film craze of the mid-‘80s did just that, as concerned folks with influential public platforms began complaining about how their local multiplexes were overrun with stories about masked psychopaths impaling frequently unclad youngsters. The United States never experienced anything like the hysteria in the UK over the “video nasties,” but the gory advertising and pervasive hype for movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night did lead to threats of boycotts, which in turn led to Hollywood lessening the amount of bare flash and open wounds in horror in the back half of the 80s.
The public’s thirst for the prurient never went away though, which is partly why movies like Jagged Edge and Fatal Attraction became so popular. They were by turns sexy and disquieting, yet with a veneer of respectability, conveyed by both their stars and by what appeared to be messages reaffirming “family values.”
In the ‘90s, the erotic thriller essentially cleaved into two sub-genres, represented by Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. The former could best be described as “domestic disturbance” pictures, where someone’s seemingly idyllic family life would be disrupted by the arrival of a seductive babysitter or vengeful nanny. The latter are more sordid tales of sexual obsession, where some horny man or woman gets too turned on by a lover who’s into S&M, voyeurism, or good ol’ fashioned sex-murder.
One of the best films of the era—and ripe for rediscovery—blends the two sub-trends. Screenwriter Don Roos (adapting a John Lutz novel) and director-producer Barbet Schroeder created something archetypal with 1992’s Single White Female, which has Jennifer Jason Leigh playing a lonely, emotionally and mentally unstable young woman who becomes roommates with a recently romantically and professionally jilted New Yorker (Bridget Fonda), and soon begins to meddle in her life, in an effort to be “helpful.”
Just like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female is often remembered in popular culture for its killer’s worst excesses. When Leigh’s character cuts her hair and changes her clothes to be more like Fonda’s—and later turns violent to protect what she imagines is their tight friendship—that’s a move that still gets referred to “Single White Female-ing.” But also like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female reserves most of its crazy for its final third. Before then, Leigh’s lost soul is just a misfit, looking for ways to connect.
Even Fonda’s Allie Jones is vulnerable in ways that are unusually attuned (for an early ‘90s genre film, that is) to what women endure. She’s naked—but not in a way that invites leers—when she finds out that her boyfriend’s cheating on her. She gets manipulated and sexually harassed by a man she needs as a client for her software business. And Allie seems just as obsessed with her roommate’s background and sexual desires as vice-versa. She even surreptitiously watches her masturbate in one memorable scene.
A lot of the ‘90s erotic thrillers felt like they were trying to impart a tongue-clucking lesson, but what Single White Female means to say is that life can be pretty shitty for a young lady—even for the daughters of Hollywood legends like Vic Morrow and Peter Fonda.
Blockbusters, Beaded Curtains & Stone
The ‘90s erotic thriller didn’t produce a new generation of stars, per se. Glenn Close was done with the genre by the end of the ‘80s, and Michael Douglas only made one more after Basic Instinct: 1994’s Disclosure, a hugely profitable but justly forgotten adaptation of Michael Crichton’s alarmist novel about dubious sexual harassment claims. Mostly, these movies just coopted whomever had Hollywood heat for a few years: Annabella Sciorra, Sean Young, Greta Scacchi, Kim Basinger, Tom Berenger… you name ‘em.
Sharon Stone was an exception. A late blooming star—already 32 when her breakthrough role in 1990’s Total Recall hit theaters—Stone starred in the sensationalistic mid-budget fare Scissors and Where Sleeping Dogs Lie in the year before Basic Instinct changed everything. Looking to capitalize on her newfound notoriety, Stone hopped aboard the next project with an expensive Joe Eszterhas script: the 1993 murder mystery Sliver.
Based on a novel by Ira Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and A Kiss Before Dying… the latter of which was made into a Sean Young-starring erotic thriller in 1991 by Fatal Attraction screenwriter James Dearden), Sliver has Stone playing Carly Norris, a divorced New York editor who moves into a high-tech skyscraper, and soon finds herself the object of a romantic rivalry between the building’s reclusive genius owner Zeke Hawkins (played by William Baldwin) and blowhard bestselling author Jack Landsford (Tom Berenger).
Once again, Eszterhas essentially spins a handful of his favorite Penthouse Forum letters into a feature, with a vision of adult sexuality that’s centered on a woman’s pleasure—but only inasmuch as it allows him to show how her orgasmic potential can be unlocked by the right man. Sliver’s big hook is that Zeke has cameras all over the apartment complex, which allows him to watch Carly masturbate, but also to see her gab with her gal-pal about what a good lover he is. With the competent-but-timid Phillip Noyce directing instead of the visionary Verhoeven, Eszterhas’s preposterously purple and twisty script comes off looking a lot goofier.
The last of Eszterhas’ big-money scripts from this era to reach the big screen was 1995’s Jade, directed by the much more talented William Friedkin—who apparently rewrote so much of it that Eszterhas wanted to remove his name from the credits. David Caruso stars a San Francisco DA (so many of these movies are set in either NYC or San Francisco), investigating a high-profile murder case that overlaps with a clandestine kinky-sex ring, involving several powerful people and his best friend’s wife, played by Linda Fiorentino. The director of The French Connection and To Live And Die In L.A. has a good handle on Jade’s action and suspense sequences, which combine Hitchcockian control of the frame with documentary immediacy. But he seems to check out whenever it’s time for another strikingly lit, cartoonishly fantastical sex scene.
There’s a reason why Jade came at the end of the ‘90s erotic thriller craze. The glut of interchangeable studio films like Shattered and Final Analysis—with their overbearing style and nonsensical plot twists—had become fairly exhausting.
Plus, at a certain point, no matter how much money Hollywood pumped into these pictures, they all ended up on video store shelves next to cheapies like Night Eyes… and Night Eyes 2, Night Eyes 3, and Night Eyes 4. (And Body Chemistry, Body Chemistry 2, Body Chemistry 3, and Body Chemistry 4. And Indecent Behavior, Indecent Behavior 2, and Indecent Behavior 3. And Midnight Tease and Midnight Tease 2. And so on.)
A lot of what stoked—and then burned out—the public’s fascination with the erotic thriller was the proliferation of these low-budget, straight-to-video productions, which for the most part were leading the movement, not following. The first installments of Night Eyes and Body Chemistry came out in 1990, and set the standard for what the lower end of the genre would look like, and what it would explore. Shot like TV movies and set mostly in upscale LA neighborhoods and office parks, the films explored the usual themes of voyeurism and the arousing appeal of sexual danger… and frequently featured Andrew Stevens and/or Shannon Tweed.
They were also a lot less sexy than they promised. Despite box art that emphasized curvy women in lingerie (with the word “unrated” emphasized), movies like Night Eyes and Midnight Tease compartmentalized their scenes of women undressing, and rarely worked sex into the plot as inextricably as Eszterhas did with Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Jade. They seemed to be made primarily for outlets like Blockbuster, which didn’t have a porn section—or for patrons of independent video stores who were too nervous to check out what was in the back room.
Madonnas &… That Other Thing
Here’s the truth of the matter: Though the cheap kicks of nudity and killing were the primary reason ‘90s erotic thrillers existed, very few of the films, on any budgetary level, dealt with sex in an especially sexy way. Compare even the bracingly explicit Basic Instinct with Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill and Body Double. In the latter two, the stories and characters are often every bit as artificial as anything penned by Eszterhas, but from moment to moment the situations feel real, because De Palma is unafraid to excite the emotions.
De Palma’s fine with viewers getting turned on watching Angie Dickinson soap herself up in the shower, or watching Melanie Griffith dance naked in front of a picture window. He can then use those feelings of engagement, curdling them into a sick dread. De Palma has often been accused of misogyny because his movies are so replete with violence against women. He would counter that he’s just using the classic motifs of Hollywood cinema—and that if it makes us uncomfortable, that’s just because he’s really good at it.
By contrast, two of the most popular movies of the early ‘90s, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Poison Ivy (both released in 1992), just fumblingly push the buttons of disgust and catharsis. Unlike Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, or even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, the murderers played by Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Drew Barrymore in Poison Ivy are hyperbolically batty. Both films mean to suggest that the stable suburban family unit is so fragile that it can be unravelled by one diabolical female, but the villains are so outlandishly cruel that they can’t support any reading that reflects real world problems. These two movies literalize the most savage impressions some viewers had of Fatal Attraction’s Alex.
These kinds of misfires were common. That’s why the genre’s quintessential film is also one of the worst: Body Of Evidence, a 1993 mash-up of Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct, which arrived at the peak of its star Madonna’s “provocative sexpot” persona. Channeling Sharon Stone—but with none of the layers beneath the flirtatious smirk—Madonna plays an S&M aficionado whose lovers have the bad habit of dying in bed. Willem Dafoe plays her lawyer, who gets drawn into a sexual relationship with his client, and gets off on the pain she inflicts.
The story makes very little sense, director Uli Edel overdoes the extreme camera angles and noir shadows, and for a movie in which the two stars simulate very specific sexual activity—with no bedspreads or hazy camera filters to disguise just what’s being thrust into where—the eroticism’s more laughable than alluring. Body Of Evidence was the perfect star vehicle for Madonna, an artist who’s frequently put “sex” in quotation marks. Unintentionally, she turns the movie into a mockery of the forced kink and slapdash storytelling of the genre’s most popular products.
Looking back, a lot of these movies seem like sideways attempts to make neo-noir, softcore porn, or slasher pictures, via the kinds of premises that were selling at the time. The best films kept the obligatory elements sequestered in the final reel or two, so that they could deliver richer explorations of sexuality, gender roles, and contemporary alienation. The worst just offered cynical stimulation, devoid of any real conviction. The dirty secret of the ‘90s erotic thriller was that the line between a Body Of Evidence and a Fatal Instinct was always razor thin—and plainly exposed.