Silk Teddies & Serrated Knives: Revisiting The 1990s Heyday Of The Erotic Thriller by Noel Murray
By Yasmina Tawil
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.