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2 May 2023

The erotic thriller has lost its sex appeal

Recent attempts to revive the genre, from Netflix’s Obsession to Paramount’s Fatal Attraction, are neither erotic nor thrilling.

By Anna Bogutskaya

Erotic thrillers should be – stay with me here – erotic. The genre was ubiquitous in the late Eighties and Nineties, with high-budget sleaze in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992) and a lucrative side-Hollywood of direct-to-video productions such as Night Eyes (1990) and Animal Instincts (1992) that were cheaper, quicker and only one step removed from softcore porn. These films were steamy, but not obscene. They traded on pleasure and danger, revolving around illicit affairs, dangerous individuals, the possibility of prison or death not too far away from the best sex you’ve ever had.

Recently there has been a considered re-evaluation of the genre, the context of its production, and its legacy, through Karina Longworth’s “Erotic Nineties” season of her acclaimed podcast You Must Remember This. This critical revival goes hand in hand with an almost monthly online debate about the necessity of sex scenes in film, the declining horniness of cinema in general, and a glut of attempted revivals of the genre. Last year, Adrian Lyne tried it with Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas and a bunch of snails in Deep Water. It flopped. Netflix’s recent series Obsession, based on the novel by Josephine Hart, which had previously been adapted into the charged Louis Malle film Damage (1992), has been derided. Fatal Attraction, a genuine cultural phenomenon in its day, has been stretched into a ten-part limited series released on Paramount+ last week. Series adaptations of Presumed Innocent (1990) and Cruel Intentions (1999) are also on the horizon.

[See also: “Erotic dreams about a man half my age”: Sarah Ladipo Manyika reveals the value of pleasure]

Yet these attempted revivals have lost what made the genre so appealing. They’re giving us a lot of talking about sex, but the sex itself is hardly the selling point anymore. The stories are too self-aware, the sex scenes are bland and the chemistry between the leads is lukewarm at best. Without any heat, the sexual obsession that drives the genre doesn’t make sense. Why would you ruin your life for a half-hearted quickie in an alleyway? Under the guise of feminist reimaginings, the contemporary femme fatale has been made less wicked and more meek. Damaged, but in a hot way. In Obsession, we learn nothing about Anna except for a past trauma that, apparently, made her irresistible. Fatal Attraction has more room for Alex Forrest (played by Lizzy Caplan), fleshing out a character that became derisively known as the “bunny boiler” – but it’s still more interested in absolving its cheating leading man, Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson). These revivals seem to be confusing trauma with desire, as if its female characters are horny only because they’re damaged.

Back in the Nineties, the appealing opportunity to watch movie stars go at it in steamy sex scenes and view elevated porn movies in the privacy of one’s home ensured the genre thrived both at the box office and in the home video business. What can these current films and series show us that we haven’t seen already, and much more explicitly, on pop-up ads for porn sites? So far, all these nouveaux erotic thrillers suffer from a pathetic lack of thrill and build-up. Erotic cinema is built on titillation, and nobody making erotic thrillers today actually seems to be that interested in sex. The original wave of the genre was built on the allure of the forbidden. Now that we can access every conceivable form of pornography online, matched to our particular kinks, the erotic thriller must give us something beyond just flesh. Hyper-sexualised does not equal sexy.

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THANK YOU

We don’t need more flesh, we need more tension. If we’re not getting the pleasure, and we’re not getting the danger, what is the point?

[See also: Harry Wootliff’s True Things is a lacklustre tale of erotic obsession]

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