Ice picks, full frontals and the grand, urgent return of the erotic thriller

They were glamorous, obscene and always seemed to star Michael Douglas – now they’re back. As Amazon unveils the sweaty throwback ‘The Voyeurs’, Adam White celebrates a genre that turned us all into stealthy pervs. Could such an X-rated resurrection finally make Hollywood sexy again?

Tuesday 14 September 2021 06:31 BST
Saxophone scores and phallic murder weapons: William Baldwin and Sharon Stone in ‘Sliver’
Saxophone scores and phallic murder weapons: William Baldwin and Sharon Stone in ‘Sliver’ (Snap/Shutterstock)

At the beginning of Amazon Prime’s new erotic thriller The Voyeurs, a pair of mildly repressed twentysomethings watch their neighbours romp away on their kitchen island across the street. “They want us to look!” cries the guy, as his girlfriend feigns discomfort. In truth, she’s guiltily aroused, desperately wanting to perv but unsure if she should. The couple are characters in a sweaty, stylised, and overwhelmingly ludicrous movie. They are also everyone who has ever watched an erotic thriller. That most polarising of film genres lay dormant for years, its saxophone scores unheard, those phallic murder weapons collecting dust. Now it’s back, in all its maddening, barenaked glory. Hopefully, anyway.

We’ve been here before. With the launch of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015, there were rumbles that a cottage industry of adults-only dramas would be unfurled upon the world, resurrecting a style of filmmaking unseen since Michael Douglas stopped taking his clothes off in movies. Instead, the trilogy of book adaptations petered out, and mainstream American cinema maintained its oddly sexless status quo. Eroticism, love-making, even romantic intimacy are big-screen anomalies in 2021. And while we’ve generally convinced ourselves that we’re far more progressive and sexually open than we used to be, at least in the public sphere, cinema is nowhere near as straight-up sexy as it was 25 years ago.

The cinema of the late Eighties and early Nineties was dominated by powerful stars who oozed sex and chaos. There were genre titans Douglas and Sharon Stone, who tangled with one another in 1992’s Basic Instinct, then separately sowed sexual carnage in less-remembered thrillers in the aftermath, such as Disclosure (1994) and Sliver (1993). Linda Fiorentino, Richard Gere, Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger – the last two of whom slathered each other in jelly and assorted meats in Nine ½ Weeks (1986) – were perennial erotica stars, and you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a Demi Moore topless scene. The erotic thriller – from the highs of Fatal Attraction (1988) and Crash (1996) to the barrel-scraping (yet fun!) lows of Body of Evidence (1993) and Jade (1995) – turned mortal actors into prurient myth, or figures burned into the eternal fantasies of millions.

In their heyday, erotic thrillers cut together sex and murder with socio-political symbolism. They were secretly about inadequate males terrified by third-wave feminism in the office and in the bedroom. They were about fear of kink, of bisexuality, of unbridled lust. They were about Aids. It’s no coincidence that tales of sexual carnivores rampaging through America trailed a disease so often reduced to one clear message: have sex and die.

For the most part, erotic thrillers echoed that kind of wrong-headed moralising. Female agency was a catch-22, they insisted. Give women an ounce of power, and they’re inclined to take your job, wreck your home and try to kill you. The best of the genre, though, understood the pleasure of watching a female character intentionally destroy everything she touches. Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction (1994) and even the maligned Showgirls (1995) are all anchored by sociopathic women dismantling worlds set up to hurt them. They revel in glamour and violence, reduce libidinous men to weak-minded boys, and get away with murder. The films they’re in are absolutely dubious in nature – no genre that melted together noir, horror and pornography could ever not be – but they allowed for a feminine, sexual and moral complexity almost entirely absent from American filmmaking in the decades since.

There are any number of reasons why the mainstream erotic thriller went limp towards the end of the Nineties. The easy availability of internet porn meant randy adults didn’t need to pay £15 to see simulated sex with tasteful lighting. And when the president is receiving oral sex from an intern and scandalising every household in America, James Spader – of Crash, Dream Lover and Sex, Lies and Videotape – being horny and devious seemed suddenly quaint.

“It’s kind of a lost art,” Brian De Palma – director of Body Double (1984) and Dressed to Kill (1987) – told The Guardian in 2013. “I don’t think anybody’s interested in it any more … They say [my films] are ‘erotic European trash’. I’m like, ‘What are they talking about? These women look fantastic. I spent a lot of time making them look as stylish as possible!’”

A cinematic era that oozed sex and chaos
A cinematic era that oozed sex and chaos (TriStar/Hollywood Pictures/ITC/Paramount/Warner Bros)

We also seemed to lose our vocabulary when it came to big-screen sex appeal. If today’s stars are often accused of being oddly chaste on-screen, it’s only because we prefer them that way. Somewhere along the line, to acknowledge a movie star’s beauty became slightly dubious, or diminishing of their talent. Many factors are to blame: lascivious profiles of female movie stars seemingly written by 12-year-old boys; women on the red carpet demanding to be “asked more” than who they’re wearing, as if fashion, image and aesthetics are inherently vacuous; a Hollywood climate justly striving to be far less exploitative and dysfunctional than it was pre-#MeToo, but ultimately flattening or altogether erasing sex as a whole. Take the recent Jungle Cruise, an adventure romp modelled almost entirely after 1999’s The Mummy. But while Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz oozed carnality and sexual chemistry together, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt bore all the erotic frisson of distant cousins.

So thank heavens, then, for Nicole Kidman. In a roundabout way, Kidman is responsible for The Voyeurs, and some of the smartest erotic thrillers of the past 30 years – from Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Malice (1993) to her production credit on Jane Campion’s subversive masterpiece In the Cut (2003). A few years ago, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke recalled a conversation with Kidman, in which she pined for the return of “sexy date night” movies. “I met her, and she was like, where are the movies like Basic Instinct and Cruel Intentions and No Way Out, those movies that you want to watch at home?”

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The conversation drove Salke to put into production a slate of sudsy thrillers swimming in sex and glamour. The Voyeurs is the first, with others – among them the Black Swan-style ballet film Birds of Paradise, the sapphic campus horror Master, and an adaptation of Sarah Pinborough’s high-society novel Dead to Her – in various stages of production. Chances are the endlessly delayed Deep Water – a Patricia Highsmith adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas – will also materialise soon on one streaming service or another.

In truth, streaming platforms may be the most appropriate future for the erotic thriller. Years ago, a major element of their appeal was in their illicitness. It was the VHS tape you weren’t technically supposed to own, the French movie you didn’t buy for the plot, the late-night Channel 5 movie you watch with the sound low, just so the house won’t wake up. Today, twisty erotica with knife-wielding deviants and graphic sex swim around the edges of Netflix and Amazon – the recent Deadly Illusions, starring Charlotte from Sex and the City as a novelist driven to sexual madness by her live-in nanny, is a particular howler. In the process, they successfully replicate the naughty stealthiness the genre’s zenith brought out in audiences.

Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith in ‘The Voyeurs'
Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith in ‘The Voyeurs' (Bertrand Calmeau/Amazon)

“In America, and in England, people have a problem with sexuality in public,” filmmaker Adrian Lyne – director of Fatal Attraction and Nine ½ Weeks – told Movieline Magazine in 1990. “Men don’t want to go to the theatre and have a hard-on while they’re sitting next to their wives. At one screening of [Nine ½ Weeks], people were so enraged that I didn’t want to be around when the lights came on, so I went up and hid in the projection booth. It was as if they were threatened by it personally. They will rent the tape, though. Which they did in droves.”

This week, someone somewhere will be furiously removing The Voyeurs from their Amazon Prime viewing history to prevent blushes later on, and all will be right with the world again. Let’s hope it stays that way.

‘The Voyeurs’ is streaming on Amazon Prime now

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