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22 Signs You’re Watching an Erotic Thriller

If you see Michael Douglas, sex negativity, or vertical blinds, you’re in the right wrong place.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Courtesy of the studios, Filmways/Kobal/Shutterstock and Moviestore/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Courtesy of the studios, Filmways/Kobal/Shutterstock and Moviestore/Shutterstock

Erotic thrillers, equal parts contrived and riveting, define whole eras of American cinema and culture. The classics are as ingrained in popular culture as Star Wars. If you haven’t seen Star Wars, you know what the Force is. If you haven’t seen Fatal Attraction, you know what a “bunny boiler” is. The best erotic thrillers allow movie stars to be hot, disgusting, and campy; the erotic elements are borderline pornographic, the thrilling elements are Hitchcockian. They’re also stuffed with tropes, themes, and visuals dating back to both 1940s and ’50s film noir and the genre’s own ’80s and ’90s box-office boom. Wanna know how to know you’re watching an erotic thriller without question? Follow this way-too-close read of the sexy-but-murdery genre we’re still very horny for, for all the signs.

The Archetypes

The Femme Fatale

Demi Moore, notable brunette, in Disclosure. Photo: Warner Bros.

Femme fatales are mysterious, glamorous, and seductive women with a tendency to cause immense distress (even death) to men, usually intentionally. So inspiring! Although the archetype traces back to ancient folklore, mythology, and history (Medea, Lilith, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette), the erotic-thriller femme fatale derives from femme fatales of film noir like Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). As the genre evolved in the 1980s and ’90s, so did the femme fatale from blonde bombshell into many different types. They even let them be brunettes.

The Project Manager: Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Gone Girl, The Last Seduction, Disclosure
The only thing the Project Manager does better than seducing and killing is planning seduction and killing. The Project Manager is meticulously organized. Their manipulations, lies, seductions, and violence are strategic. Their goal — like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, who fakes her own murder to torture her boring husband — is to wear down men to their weakest point, sometimes right before killing them. These women motivate me to organize my life as well.

Project managed. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

The Homme Fatale: Unfaithful, A Perfect Murder, Deep Water, The Boy Next Door
In French, homme does not mean “home.” It means “man”! The homme fatale in erotic thrillers does not have that much in common with femme fatales. He is young, sweet, artistic, and has long hair. He gets embroiled in a passionate affair with a married woman, falls in love, and suffers dire consequences as a result (usually murdered by an angry, jealous husband).

The Teen Queen: Cruel Intentions, Swimfan
The Teen Queen is an aspiring Project Manager, a Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct wannabe. They plan some of their moves and some of these moves are quite impressive , like Swimfan’s Madison Bell’s (Erika Christensen) use of instant messaging to harass the man whose heart she wants. But teen queens can never get it quite right. In the end, they never win. Everyone in Manhattan finds out about their coke necklace, or they end up dead at the bottom of a pool.

The Bunny Boiler: Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Obsessed
The Bunny Boiler is the erratic femme fatale. She attempts to accomplish what Project Managers do, but she is motivated by feeling, passion, and anger. Her actions are not preplanned, which ultimately leads to her demise. Alex (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction does not seek out a man to wear down, but once Dan (Michael Douglas) wants to end their affair, she begins to terrorize him and his family. She starts with late-night phone calls and stalking, which eventually escalates into kidnapping his daughter, boiling his daughter’s bunny, and her death.

The Wife: Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful, Deep Water
The wife’s actions — which usually involve cheating or, in the case of Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, sleeping with Robert Redford for a measly $1 million — cause drama that spirals. She is the standard American wife: pretty, sweet, a stay-at-home wife or mom. It is never her intention to unravel her life or her family’s, but her impulses and desires take over. Melinda Van Allen (Ana de Armas) in Deep Water is more calculated than the others in this subcategory, but there is still an innocence to her games.

The Fall Guy

The Fall Guy (Michael Douglas, in Basic Instinct). Photo: TriStar Pictures

The Fall Guy is the male protagonist in erotic thrillers. He is usually a handsome but approachable man with a busy, vaguely interesting but standard job such as detective, doctor, or lawyer. Fall Guys are very easily seduced and incapable of seeing red flags or getting out of their dire situations by being honest. They’re all himbos; the Fall Guy’s lifeless personality serves the purpose of not competing with the femme fatale. His dumbness also makes quick, effortless seductions more believable.

The Go-To Fall Guy: If Michael Douglas, a man who once blamed his throat cancer on oral sex, is in a movie, it is probably an erotic thriller. Really, the only distinction between Fall Guys is “Michael Douglas” or “not Michael Douglas.”

The Quirky Friend

Like romantic comedies, erotic thrillers have a tertiary character separate but privy to the central drama who is used for comedic relief, and/or to show the audience how sexy the Fall Guy is by comparison. The Quirky Friend is played by a character actor. In Body Heat, a pre-Cheers Ted Danson dances by himself on a dock at night right before letting his best buddy, the Fall Guy, know that he knows he murdered someone. Other uses of the Quirky Guy include Stuart Pankin in Fatal Attraction, Oliver Platt in Indecent Proposal, and female versions in Unfaithful’s Kate Burton and The Boy Next Door’s Kristen Chenoweth.

A Very Good Boy

Deep Water’s good boy. Photo: Hulu

In erotic thrillers about families torn apart by affairs, dogs help ground the Fall Guy. If the Fall Guy has a good dog, he does not deserve any of this shit that he started. He deserves a happy, quiet life with his certified good boy. The dog always turns out completely fine, but every time I see one in an erotic thriller I am personally terrified for the dog’s life.

An Inconsequential Cute Kid

Who is he? Who cares! (He’s the teen from The Boy Next Door.) Photo: Universal Pictures

The kids in erotic thrillers are cute and never consequential. While some films put children in harm’s way — such as the kidnapping in Fatal Attraction or The Boy Next Door — they pass through the movie peacefully and unscathed. The kid in Deep Water even gets to star in the film’s weird end-credit scene.

The Narratives

I Will Give You $1 Million to Sleep With Me

It’s an Indecent Proposal, okay? Photo: Paramount Pictures

The seduction in erotic thrillers is quite jarring; it happens as swiftly as they come (sorry). In Fatal Attraction, all Glenn Close has to do to lock in a happily married Michael Douglas is look at him at a party. In Body Heat, Kathleen Turner seduces William Hurt by complaining about her husband. The Last Seduction takes advantage of this trope by having its protagonist comment on how easy it is to seduce and manipulate men, and the movie goes out of its way to make the men look as dumb as they are. In erotic thrillers where women are seduced by men, like Unfaithful, the seduction phase is much longer and more drawn out in that it does not happen within the first five or ten minutes of the movie.

Whoa, That Escalated Quickly

The rabbit did not see Fatal Attracton coming. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Often, these stories start with humble beginnings that suggest the film will be anything but an erotic thriller. This sounds like it’s bad, but erotic thrillers are so consistent with the big tonal shift, it’s become endearing. Things take a turn from romantic to twisted in Body Heat, which pivots from sensual Florida romance to “Let’s kill the husband” out of nowhere. In Deep Water, Ben Affleck casually mentions he killed someone at a party within the first 15 minutes. He says it so smoothly and casually it feels like a joke.

Oh, You Like It Like That?

Hold the wax. Photo: MGM

The sex in erotic thrillers is rough with BDSM elements — if not at first, eventually. The Fall Guys enjoy being dominated by femme fatales, and sometimes the roles reverse. There’s a lot of throwing around, dirty talk, spanking, choking, ripping of garments, biting, and in some cases, scratching. In Disclosure, Demi Moore scratches Michael Douglas’s chest and the result is the kind of wound only a tiger could inflict. In Body of Evidence (seen above), Madonna drips hot candle wax onto Willem Dafoe. Savage(ly messy).

Secret Identities

And/or imposters. Photo: Columbia Pictures

Erotic thrillers love secret identities. Body Heat, Body Double, Original Sin, The Handmaiden, Dead Ringers and Single White Female (seen above) use fake names/matching bowl cuts in unique ways but to similar effect: Characters are not who they say they are in order to advance sexual and/or criminal needs.

Sex Negativity

Cute. Photo: Columbia Pictures

Erotic thrillers have a very obvious morality complex, the most common one being: Don’t cheat or terrible things will happen to you. The suggestion is that sexual, confident characters such as Alex in Fatal Attraction and Sebastian in Cruel Intentions (seen above) had it coming and deserved what they got for corrupting the innocent. The endings for femme fatales suggest that if you have sex outside of marriage, you are bad. If you are a homewrecker or challenge family values in any way, you deserve to die.

Cultural Relevance

The power of the CD-ROM division. Photo: Warner Bros.

Erotic thrillers make admirable effort to have their fingers on the pulse of culture. But typically they’re a few years too late and, owing to their weird aforementioned morality complex, unreliable Zeitgeist narrators. Indecent Proposal wrestles with how a recession upended the lives of high-school sweethearts (only a couple who met in glee club would not let Robert freaking Redford ruin their relationship). Disclosure (seen above) and Swimfan explore how people can manipulate others using technology that ceased to be cutting edge the second the movies released into theaters. Body Heat and Basic Instinct use feminist femme fatales to unpack the gender dynamics of their respective eras, and Deep Water uses snails to explore the slipperiness of open relationships.

Crushed by a Snowglobe

The real star of Unfaithful. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

With a few exceptions, erotic thrillers don’t wrap up the story in a tidy bow. It’s more like … dropped in a bag without tissue paper. One moment you’re Richard Gere having an honest conversation about your wife’s affair, the next you’re still Richard Gere, but you’ve crushed a man’s skull with a snow globe. It would not be an erotic thriller without a violent end, or the threat of one.

The Cinematic Miscellanea

Blinds Are Always in the Way

Body Double has vertical and horizontal blinds. Photo: Columbia Pictures

The unifying visual element of erotic thrillers is cinematic voyeourism. This includes shots through windows, shots through windows in between blinds, shots through telescopes, holes, cracks and, generally, people watching people.

Everyone Is Rich

How erotic. How thrilling! Photo: Warner Bros.

Characters in erotic thrillers are wealthy or surrounded by wealth, almost always existing in an idyllic atmosphere of lavish apartments, mansions, cars, and clothes. Do the characters vacation on the Cape? Is one or more of them a doctor? Do they wear evening gowns and tuxedos to one another’s apartments? Brace yourself for some erotic, thrilling plot development. (Also, you’re probably watching Eyes Wide Shut.)

Mood Lighting

Bound by a dedication to shadow play. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Like film noir, erotic thrillers have a definite color theme. Body Heat plays with the subtropical setting and the bloody outcome by playing with bright white and deep red in contrast to the sunny, blue skies; David Fincher goes for an almost monochrome, muted blue palette in Gone Girl, making the sight of warmer colors (read blood) alarming and effective. And everything is accentuated by shadows. Toward the beginning, erotic thrillers are often lit in soft, romantic light, but as the twist approaches and the violent, true nature of a fatale is revealed, the lighting gets darker and more stylized.

Tasteful White Button-downs

Obsessed with this obvious costume choice. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Costumes are an essential part of the erotic thriller, and specifically, the arc of the femme fatale. In the first act, she wears light fabrics in bright colors (usually white, often white button-downs) and as the story progresses, her wardrobe begins to show her true colors: red, black, leather.

Trench Coats: Speaking of costumes, watch out for a classic between-season wardrobe staple. In an erotic thriller, any woman in a trench coat could be naked underneath it.

Extreme Weather

Give it up for the sweat stains in Jagged Edge. Photo: Columbia Pictures

Erotic thrillers always go to the extremes, and this includes weather. Extreme weather always seems to be happening. Weather is used to establish an erotic mood: The disgustingly hot Florida setting in Body Heat motivates the characters to rip off each other’s linen and have hot, sweaty sex all the time. In Unfaithful, the fateful affair begins because of … wind.

“Mr. Lyne, I’m Ready for My Close-up”

9½ Weeks worth of tight shots. Photo: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Erotic-thriller king Adrian Lyne perfected the close-up that is now synonymous with the genre. In sex scenes, he exaggerates their mouths and necks as they kiss, bite, lick, and choke one another. The mouths are erotic, whereas the neck — a dangerous place on the body to play — adds a thrill. Lyne often uses this shooting style in violent scenes, too, such as the climatic bathroom scene in Fatal Attraction.

Bathrooms

Tell your decorator you want the Sliver. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Erotic thrillers love a bathroom scene. If a climatic scene ending in murder does not happen in a bathroom, there is at least one scene in which a character takes a bath surrounded by candles while washing the infidelity off their bodies.

Elevator Music

Don’t ask The Piano Teacher to play jazz. Photo: Kino International

Smooth, harmless, ordinary jazz establishes the romantic atmosphere early on. When things get steamy, the jazz becomes more sensual. Then, as things take a turn to sinister, the score develops into something more reflective of a standard thriller: suspenseful music with repetition and key changes.

Effective Use of Westchester County

She’s Westchester. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Owing to its central location and convenience to Manhattan, Westchester County is one of the most desired suburban areas in the New York metropolitan area. In Fatal Attraction, the Fall Guy seeks refuge from the Femme Fatale there, where she hunts him down. In Unfaithful, the Wife fulfills her sexual needs with an affair in the city, a welcome development in her boring suburban life in Westchester. Erotic thrillers set elsewhere, like California, New Jersey, or Florida, have a similar vibe: The characters who feel trapped by their lives and their location, and tempted by an unseemly affair to get a release from it, might as well be in Westchester.

Chekhov’s Ice Pick

How vintage. Photo: MGM

Erotic thrillers love a truly random object — snow globes, drills (Body Double), ice picks (Basic Instinct) — as much as they love Michael Douglas. In Deep Water, Ben Affleck’s character is taken not with a random object, but a random animal (he’s obsessed with snails, what more is there to say). Snails don’t murder anybody in the end, although the genre’s history suggested that they would.

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22 Signs You’re Watching an Erotic Thriller