The back alley bastard child of noir, pulp, and Hitchcockian paranoia; the erotic thriller is one of the most indulgent and trashy genres in cinema, but it’s not without its merits. It hinges on the marriage of sex and death; mixing up seduction, deception, and violence into a decadently delicious cocktail that allows us to explore our basest animal instincts from a safe distance. And they’re not all about the sex (though they are a lot about the sex); the best erotic thrillers entangle their lurid affairs into compelling mysteries and dramatic tales of Which might sound a bit like the old “I read it for the articles” refrain, but Playboy always has had excellent articles, and erotic thrillers are built on gripping stories.
They’re also a dying breed. The once-popular genre has all but become a relic of the ’90s, especially in America; an absent voice in the modern cinematic landscape that is dearly missed. No doubt the rise of the internet and subsequent easy access to pornography have stifled the genre, which once offered a semi-respectable means of titillation without the cultural shame of a stop to the porn shop.
However, that escapist need for titillation has manifested once again in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James‘ wildly popular series of erotic novels and their subsequent film adaptations. The success of the Fifty Shades franchise (in addition to being an intoxicating economic fantasy in an age of recession) is largely due to that same safety net. Swaths of women who might otherwise still be uncomfortable with the blunt force vulgarity of pornography have found a means of exploring their darker sexual inclinations in a way that’s polite-society approved.
And while I’m all for a resurgence of the erotic thriller, there’s a problem. On top of just not being very well told, The Fifty Shades stories are fundamentally broken on a moral level; encouraging the toxic idea of mental abuse and emotional manipulation as a form of romance and spurring on that age-old fallacy that the right woman can “fix” a broken man.
Not that the erotic thriller has even been the benchmark of moral integrity. In truth, it’s often been a rather harsh genre to women – especially single career women – awash with femme fatales driven mad by lust and the poor men who fall in their wake. However, if the characters and their behavior have never been exactly politically correct, they have always been unapologetic actual characters with desires and needs all their own, who are allowed to get as down and dirty as the men with their own agency. They’re not exactly feminist, but they reject traditional often reject traditional cinematic gender roles with brazen abandon.
With that in mind, Brian Formo and I have put together a list of alternate suggestions to get your erotic fix with a healthy dose of engaging storytelling and cinematic flourish. Check out our picks below.