We all feel it, that emptiness in our souls where the erotic thriller should be. A subgenre that wasn’t necessarily invented but flew its closest to the sun in the 1990s is the grand unifying experience of cinema in so many ways. It is the bridge between the high and the low. It is the handshake between film snobs and trash collectors. It’s the movie theater in old Times Square where any shade of person could go to watch something sexy, transgressive, and built for pure satisfaction. (Trust me: I’m on the asexual spectrum, and even I can’t resist this hot and bothered section at the video store.) The notion of “guilty pleasures” is a waste of time — love what you love and shout it out loud — but if there’s one class of movies that easily slides into that folder, wrapped in black paper to protect the sensitive eyes of passersby, it’s this one.
And while we may not get as many new erotic thrillers as we’d like (or deserve!), there’s a lurid and sweaty archive waiting for you to access it at any time. We’ve compiled a list of 21 movies you can watch right now with various streaming subscriptions, plus four more bonus entries at the end for the ones you shouldn’t need anyone to tell you about. So whether you’re an experienced collector in the field of film erotics or you’re just now starting to dip your toe in the water, light a candle for Linda Fiorentino and burn a small offering for Adrian Lyne: It’s time to watch some movies that require you to close the shades.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
If an epic erotic thriller is what you seek, then the master Stanley Kubrick is here to fulfill your desires. Eyes Wide Shut is nearly three hours long and a stunning cultural artifact. It is the final film directed by Kubrick, one of the last films Tom Cruise would make that had anything remotely sexual in it, and a sordid team-up for one of Hollywood’s most high-powered (former) couples of the late 20th century. Cruise and his ex Nicole Kidman star as a married couple on the rocks, with husband Cruise driven to dark obsession after he learns his wife has been fantasizing about another man. Eyes Wide Shut came out in 1999, a time when big stars still made bawdy erotica, and when the idea of an orgy onscreen was still worth clutching your pearls over — and not something you couldn’t accidentally catch around once a week on whatever is new to streaming TV. Were we ever so young?
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Based on the 1934 novel of the same name by James M. Cain and written by David Mamet, The Postman Always Rings Twice stars two actors famous for their ferocity: Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. He’s a drifter who happens into a diner, and she is the wife of its owner. When he agrees to come on as a hired hand, the two obviously fall into a torrid affair that will lead to sex, murder plotting, and Lange becoming increasingly unhinged and screaming at Nicholson until her voice trembles and breaks in that singularly Jessica Lange way!
The erotic thriller was riding high in the 1990s, and almost no single person capitalized on that era of abundance more than Michael Douglas, a man born to do wrong onscreen and have no choice but to succumb to the sexual rabidity of cunning women around him! Before Hollywood was gender flipping stories with abandon, Disclosure dared to ask: “But what if a woman was the aggressor, and this good family man was only trying his best when a stunning she-devil showed up to ruin his life?” What if?! Fortunately, that stone-cold lying girlboss is Demi Moore, whose distinct smokey voice is soaking with condescension and contempt as she descends like a missile onto Douglas’s life. First she takes his job. Then she tries to take his whole life. And you are left to ask yourself: Good for her … ?
Deep Water (2022)
Few filmmakers have staked their claim to eroticism more fully than Adrian Lyne. From the sexy thrillers (Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful) to the smoldering dramas (Indecent Proposal, 9 1/2 Weeks), this man has one mode, and that mode is getting people to undress for the camera. (Flashdance may not be an erotic thriller, but think about what scene(s) you remember most from it!) Thankfully for Lyne, he has stayed making movies long enough to work in the era of Ana de Armas, who simply loves to accept sexually audacious roles. While Deep Water was advertised as a down-the-middle piece of thrilling erotica (a trailer promising murder! and handjobs!), it’s possible this is the weirdest movie Lyne has ever made. With de Armas and Ben Affleck starring as an on-the-rocks married couple, Lyne blended so many elements of his long career into one genre-defying tone milkshake that constantly teases suspense while delivering straight-faced acerbic comedy — and features Affleck hanging out with snails in one scene and debating the ethics of making tech for military drones with Tracy Letts in another. None of the adults in this movie seem to have jobs, so what else would they get up to but snails and adultery and riding bikes that are too small for them? Also, shouts out to the most surprising car chase of 2022.
The In Crowd (2000)
You might know the name Mary Lambert because she directed the horror classic Pet Sematary, but take a moment for her entry into aughts genre fare. The In Crowd plays like a nighttime soap in line with the coming era of The O.C. and Gossip Girl while piggybacking on the dead (and sexy) teenagers craze ushered in by Scream. This movie masquerades as a slasher given its context and marketing, but what you’ll find if you open the hood is actually a lightweight erotic thriller set in the environs of the rich and entitled at some country club during summer break. The college kids are moneyed and bored, and they take a shine to Lori Heuring’s Adrien, who is at the club doing their laundry but is hot enough to make it past the velvet rope. And, of course, controlling access from on high is Brittany, the fairest and deadliest of them and played to evil brunette perfection by Susan Ward. This entry is really a tribute to Ward, who should have been feasting on “fuck your husband and your son” Lifetime movies for years, but our world is not a just one. Ward is the Denise Richards of Kari Wuhrers (watch Wild Things 2 if you need proof), and her sexually opportunistic femme fatale makes this underseen 2000s treasure sing.
Color of Night (1994)
Trying to explain Color of Night would do a disservice to you the reader as well as the movie itself. Night sits in the Venn diagram center of two genres: erotic thriller and YES! Yes to what, you ask? Yes to it all. And while you can stream the theatrical version, we highly, highly recommend you seek out the fully restored director’s cut that runs two hours and 40 minutes, because it is worth it. Here are as many details as you’ll need. Bruce Willis plays a therapist who comes to visit a group session lead by another therapist friend, played by Scott Bakula. When Bakula is taken off the board, Willis steps right in and takes over care for all of his group patients … one of whom might be a murderer. Look out for hitters in this one. Leslie Ann Warren going full bimbo Susan Sarandon is here, along with Brad Dourif, Lance Henriksen, Kevin J. O’Connor, and more. But the real star isn’t even Willis. It’s Jane March in a role she couldn’t possibly have been paid enough for. Word has it that the producers ripped the movie away from the director and made savage cuts before releasing it theatrically. The director’s cut has about 20 minutes of additional footage, and it’s fair to assume that’s most of the good stuff. Show up for the nude cooking, stay for the nude Willis.
American Gigolo (1980)
Richard Gere had already been cutting a handsome figure in crime thrillers for years before 1980, but American Gigolo helped cement him as a sex symbol for erotic-thriller connoisseur. In this film written and directed by Paul Schrader, Gere plays a sex worker named Julian who is generally enjoying the high life thanks to the compensation from his very satisfied clients. But one day he gets called to service a rich man (Tom Stewart) and his wife (Patricia Carr), and the husband’s requests are far kinkier and more violent than Julian is comfortable carrying out. After the bad job, the wife turns up dead, and Julian ends up the prime suspect in her murder. Since no one is springing to the rescue of an escort they could more easily discard, it’s up to him to clear his own name — but can he do it before the hammer of justice comes down? Pull up this classic and find out!
Dream Lover (1993)
When you think of erotic thrillers, you probably think of the 1990s. What you might not think of but should is Mädchen Amick, who should have been devouring the screen in a dozen entries for the subgenre in its most abundant decade. Instead, we got precious few starring thriller vehicles from Amick in her ’90s zenith, and one of those is a true hidden treasure. Amick stars alongside James Spader as a beguiling beauty whom Spader is helpless before. She warns him that she isn’t simply a pretty vessel in which to pour his fantasies, and old James insists he sees the truth of her beyond her good looks. Would you guess that he’s calamitously wrong? The special thing about Dream Lover is that it plays out like a traditional erotic thriller until the halfway mark, leaving you to careen through unexpected twists and turns for its back half. Amick seethes sensuality and menace, and Spader is excellent as the hot idiot thinking with the wrong part of himself. And because this is from the ’90s, there are entire extended dream sequences dedicated to Spader fantasizing about being in a circus. Okat!
The Crush (1993)
There are three magic words that open the movie The Crush: “Introducing Alicia Silverstone.” One of the defining big-screen figures of the 1990s, she made her film debut in this erotic thriller about a teen girl pining after the boarder, Nick Eliot (Cary Elwes), who lives in her parents’ guest house. Everything about this movie is unhinged. It was written and directed by Alan Shapiro, who based the story on events from his own life. And the fact of a man making a movie that basically shouts, “No, your honor, the 14-year-old seduced me!” is, at the very least, a fascinating circumstance to ponder.
Nonetheless, Silverstone sets the celluloid on fire as the sinister, scheming teen, giving a performance that shows the meaning of star power. She had herself legally emancipated to be able to work on the film as a 15-year-old (she turned 16 during shooting), and it’s unreal that a brand-new kid can have this much presence in front of a camera. The real heads out there know why it sounds so weird whenever anyone in the movie says “Adrian,” and that’s because the real girl whom Silverstone’s character was based on sued the production for illegally using her actual name, Darian, in the script. She won, so the movie had to be dubbed over following release. Watch this movie and behold the preeminent case study in how obsessed with Lolita films were in the ’90s. Much to unpack there!
Whenever anyone starts talking erotic thrillers, the conversation will almost inevitably veer into someone shouting “The Last Seduction!” And, listen, the movie is great; it’s a classic. But the lack of respect for Linda Fiorentino’s other contributions to the erotic thriller by constantly listing that one movie first is frankly disrespectful to her legacy. Consider instead a movie that is decidedly more thrilling (Seduction is more of a dark comedy if you’re really being honest with yourself) than her most-cited sexy hit. Consider: Jade. This movie has a weirdly tepid reputation despite starring a hard-boiled David Caruso simply oozing Caruso as a detective trying to solve a string of high-profile murders related to kinky sex. Fiorentino becomes the prime suspect in it all, and she reminds you here why people have been mourning her absence from the screen for years. Jade also makes excellent use of one of the era’s most stunning cinematic treasures: the city of San Francisco.
Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon star in this all-time sexy crime thriller about two women finding a steamy connection with one another and planning to do away with the violent man keeping them apart. Gershon plays Corky, a freshly out of prison construction lesbian who catches the eye of Violet (Tilly) in an elevator one day, and Joe Pantoliano co-stars as Caesar, the criminal and abusive boyfriend of Violet who needs to go. Bound is the directorial debut of Lilly and Lana Wachowski, and it’s truly a beautiful thing that before they took us into The Matrix and before they cast Channing Tatum as a human dog in Jupiter Ascending, they made a hall of fame “Be Gay Do Crime” film.
Wild Things (1998)
If you’re a geriatric millennial, there’s a good chance you have a formative relationship with Wild Things, which surely has the distinction of being the first screen threesome and/or first screen penis for so many. Not only is Wild Things a top-tier erotic thriller, it’s also an aces Florida crime movie, and there’s nothing sweatier than Florida crime. Neve Campbell and Denise Richards star as the most grown-looking teens you’ve ever seen in this story of two high schoolers who accuse their guidance counselor, played by Matt Dillon, of a heinous crime. The entire sordid affair upends the posh seaside city of Blue Bay, and it puts surly detective Kevin Bacon on their tails as he tries to figure out who is lying about what. For all the sensation, it shouldn’t be looked over that Campbell and Richards are both chewing up these roles and turning some delicious trash into a fine five-course meal of sexy thrills. Shouts out, too, to composer George S. Clinton, who did the score for both this movie and Red Shoe Diaries — which makes a hilarious amount of sense.
Cruel Intentions 2 (2002)
The thing about Cruel Intentions 2 is that it won’t surprise you with how good it is, but if you haven’t seen it before, it will surprise you to see Amy Adams succeed Sarah Michelle Gellar as the pretty rich girl with bad intentions Kathryn Merteuil. And somewhat unexpected: CI2 is actually a prequel! That means we get to see Adams’s Merteuil antagonize Robin Dunne’s Sebastian Valmont in this origin story of their psychosexual step-sibling relationship. We all know Adams should have at least two Oscars to her name by now, and while a direct-to-video YA erotic thriller may not be the most prestigious affair, she is still serving bad bitch like her life depends on it to fill Gellar’s formidable designer shoes. There are no small parts, only small actors! And even in this sequel-prequel from the early days of her career, Adams is a giant. Watch and pay your respects.
Congratulations, aughts teens, your savior is here to represent you. If you’re in the market for teens with secrets and lies, either relive your sleepover days or enjoy for the first time this nasty little number about an all-star swimmer who gives in to the temptation of a new girl with a dangerous crush. This movie is so aughts it stars Jesse Bradford as the heartthrob athlete. This movie is so aughts it’s about a champion high-school swimmer. This movie is so aughts it features Erika Christensen going totally feral and laying emotional waste to people. Swimfan is deluxe Friday-night popcorn fare.
There are few people who have done more for the erotic thriller than writer and director Adrian Lyne, who made everyone clutch their pearls with 9½ Weeks before mastering the form with Fatal Attraction. Next came Indecent Proposal and a dip into even more taboo waters with Lolita before he delivered 2002’s Unfaithful. Diane Lane earned an Oscar nomination for her turn as a wife who throws her marriage vows to the wind when she embars on an affair with Olivier Martinez. Richard Gere is a sexy movie icon in his own right, but here he is the cuckolded husband unaware that his wife is having sex everywhere with the confoundingly attractive Martinez. This is paperback sleaze with a prestige sheen.
When we think of erotic thrillers, the first women that come to mind are titans of the genre such as Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, and Linda Fiorentino, but don’t let the name Julianne Moore stay too far from your heart either. Moore is one of our most fearless performers, giving her all over and over in films that luxuriate in the taboo and the transgressive, from Boogie Nights to Body of Evidence to Maps to the Stars to Savage Grace and then some. Now, is Chloe the apex of her career when it comes to dark sexy material? No. But sometimes it’s just fun to play around in the mud. In this 2009 pulp drama, Moore plays Catherine, a woman so certain her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her that she hires a sex worker (Amanda Seyfried) to tempt him for proof that he’s a two-timing bastard. But soon enough, the business arrangement between Catherine and Seyfried’s Chloe turns into its own kind of affair with the wife asking her spy to recount every sexual encounter with the husband in lurid detail. Does this movie play into the sticky history of queerphobia that’s rampant throughout the history of erotic thrillers? It sure does! But the gays deserve to have fun, too, so put your judgments aside and give yourself over to the charms of Chloe.
The Housemaid (2010)
If you’re looking to discover some international erotic thrills, consider dabbling in this domestic story of sex and betrayal and bourgeoisie malaise. The Housemaid follows a young woman (Jeon Do-yeon) who’s hired as a nanny for a pregnant housewife (Seo Woo) and becomes the object of desire for the man of the house (Lee Jung-jae). As you can imagine, this goes wrong for everyone involved. When the nanny and the husband engage in an affair, the pregnant wife gets wise, and everything starts coming apart at the seams for all involved. All of this builds up to a shocking climax that just doesn’t feel like anything you’d get from an American film of the same class. If you like it, seek out the 1960 film of the same name this one is based on.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
What would a list of erotic thrillers be without something French? This simmering drama set at a cruising beach drips with longing, lust, and the breezy freedom of a warm and sunny day spent by the water watching bodies glisten. Alain Guiraudie wrote and directed this story of murder and desire, and it stars Pierre Deladonchamps as Franck, a handsome 30-something looking to indulge in the delights of this gay gathering spot. Franck connects with Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), but he’s truly smitten with Michel, the mustached hunk of everyone’s dreams played by Christophe Paou. The whole movie takes place within the snow globe of the beach, and the suspense comes thanks to a discovered body and the downward spiral of Franck as he pines for the magnetic Michel. Stranger by the Lake is for those who want the French art-house experience: male bodies dazzlingly on display and sex scenes that don’t hold back. Expand your cinematic palette and check out this critical darling.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Erotic thrillers are famously lowbrow fare that’s just so tantalizing it draws in even the highest-minded movie watchers. Of course, some of them are legitimately great — classics of cinema! — while still satisfying the viewer’s basest desires. The Handmaiden might be the highest-level work of them all. Park Chan-wook’s sensual, stunning masterpiece collected accolades from film-awards bodies the world over before being blanked by the idiot Oscars, but every frame is a painting and every plot twist is a pearl clutcher in this thrilling amalgamation of drama, suspense, dark comedy, and eroticism out of South Korea. The plot concerns three main players: a suave con man (Ha Jung-woo), the low-level grifter he’s conscripted into a scheme (Kim Tae-ri), and a housebound heiress (Kim Min-hee), all locked in a duplicitous love triangle. The two crooks are after the pretty rich girl’s fortune, but everything gets complicated when the women start developing feelings for one another. Or are they? Is this a burgeoning love affair or just another con job stacked on top of a labyrinth of deceptions? The performances are engrossing, the art direction is breathtaking, the sex scenes are eye-widening, and the betrayals are heart-racing.
Double Lover (2017)
If you know anything about director François Ozon (See the Sea, Swimming Pool), you should know that he revels in the carnal and the transgressive. If there’s one thing to know about Double Lover going in, it’s that the movie basically opens with gyno-POV and a speculum entering a vagina. The story centers on Chloé (Marine Vacth), who starts seeing a therapist named Paul (Jérémie Renier), and before long, the pair become romantically involved. But after a time, Chloé meets another analyst who is a dead ringer (hint hint!) for her boyfriend. He’s Paul’s twin brother, you see, and he thinks he can cure Chloé of what ails her via treatments that involve sex. There are secrets about her lovers that Chloé must uncover, and this loose adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins should set off bells for fans of David Cronenberg’s own erotic doppleganger thriller Dead Ringers, which is a wonderfully twisted tradition to follow in.
The Voyeurs (2021)
If you’re out there bemoaning the loss of the erotic thriller but you’re not watching The Voyuers from 2021, are you even for real? If you’re out here watching Euphoria and tweeting “Sydney Sweeney ate that!” but not seeking out her work as a sexy optometrist in this twisty thriller, do you even care about her or are you just riding the Zeitgeist wave? Michael Mohan wrote and directed this steamy little number about a couple (Sweeney and Justice Smith) who get approved for a stunning new apartment that comes with one very specific stipulation: You can’t put any curtains up. Ever. This leads them to building weird little parasocial relationships with all the people they can snoop on across the way — particularly the incredibly attractive couple (Natasha Liu Bordizzo and Ben Hardy) with the sexually and emotionally explosive relationship right in their eyeline. Our hero couple, Pippa (Sweeney) and Seb (Smith), start overindulging in the voyeuristic delights of watching their hot neighbors with Pippa’s interest sliding into a full-blown obsession. The real suspense kicks in when something terrible happens across the way, and Pippa in particular is conflicted about what her duty is to the other woman, who might not know all her husband’s extracurricular activities. The Voyeurs builds toward a truly bugfuck final act. If you really do miss the erotic thriller, you simply cannot miss this movie.
Plus: Some more essentials
And finally, we shouldn’t need to tell you to watch these erotic thrillers, but if you’ve got a hankering:
Fatal Attraction (1987), HBO Max
Glenn Close as the bunny boiler.
Basic Instinct (1992), Paramount+ or Showtime
Sharon Stone as the erotic-thriller femme fatale.
Single White Female (1992), Amazon Prime Rental
Jennifer Jason Leigh as the blueprint for modern-day toxic female friendship villains.
The Last Seduction (1994), Tubi
Linda Fiorentino as the seductress who can bring any man to his knees.