The industry is still nervous about sex on big screens, leaving streamers to struggle to reboot a genre that died too young.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
When did the erotic thriller disappear from Hollywood? Ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you that sex-pulsed neo-noir ceased as a dependable popcorn genre back in 2002, not long after the theatrical release of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful. By then, films of its ilk had been limping along for years — see: the twin debacles of Showgirls and Jade, critically lambasted potboilers that bombed at the box office in 1995. Erotic thrillers had lost the ability to court controversy with sexually illicit material, while also creating four-quadrant cultural sensations à la Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, both multiple Oscar-nominated classics of the category that were the highest-grossing titles in the respective years of their release.
Never mind that Unfaithful hauled in a robust $119.1 million in worldwide ticket sales and netted Diane Lane a Best Actress Academy Award nod. Aside from a scattering of erotic thrillers in the late 2000s centered around Black stars like Beyoncé and Idris Elba (Obsessed), or Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall (When the Bow Breaks), the mid-budget, adult-skewing genre largely receded from multiplexes over the past two decades just as superhero fare and internet porn were rising in prominence. Erotic thrillers survived instead as at-home pleasures via premium cable (the middlebrow soft-core of Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries and Cinemax’s Max After Dark) and quietly lucrative straight-to-VHS (and, later, to-DVD) releases like Sins of Desire and Poison Ivy II: Lily.
“The erotic thriller as a category with certain kinds of neo-noir inflections — those films in a mainstream theatrical sense are extinct,” says Braxton Pope, a producer behind two later movies that fit the category: 2013’s The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan, and 2018’s Looking Glass, starring Nicolas Cage. “Every once in a while one of these films get made. Which indicates that perhaps they’re testing the waters, trying to maybe revive or tap into some of the elements that made those films quite popular in the ’80s and ’90s — but I think largely without success.”
Case in point: Deep Water, the Ben Affleck–Ana de Armas drama that also happens to mark Lyne’s first time back in the director’s chair since Unfaithful. Delayed twice in 2020 and 2021, the $48.9 million adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s twisty novel of the same name was finally yanked from any theatrical scheduling by Disney in December and quietly dumped onto Hulu last month. A funny thing happened to erotic thrillers on the way to cinematic oblivion: Sexy neo-noir has come up for a wholesale cultural reevaluation on the small screen. Racy projects with did-he-or-didn’t-he?/will-she-or-won’t-she? plots — high-gloss genre exercises featuring great-looking people in various states of moral and sexual discombobulation — are increasingly turning up on TV and streaming, in series and feature-length form. The Undoing became HBO’s most-watched show of 2020. After being canceled by Lifetime and jumping to Netflix in 2018, the soap opera–esque stalker-thriller You went on to be watched by more than 40 million households in its first month on the service (and it has been renewed for three additional seasons).
“Three or four years ago, I remember talking to a lot of people, like all anybody wanted at Netflix and Amazon was, ‘Can we have an erotic thriller? Can we have an erotic thriller?’” confirms a producer behind several box-office blockbusters who, like other insiders quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity, not wanting to be publicly associated with the genre’s still-questionable commerciality.
Yet the challenge of milking perceived nostalgia for the erotic-thriller genre while simultaneously updating its “male gaze-y” tropes for the current cultural moment, as You has done in so many self-reflective ways, looms large. “There was an active effort to find projects that would both be modern and a throwback to the erotic thrillers of yore,” a former development executive at a major streaming service says of the thinking that began to take hold a few years ago. “And there were, quite frankly, very few that fit both bills. That in a post–Me Too environment felt like they were giving a nod to current mores and current moral panics while being of a piece with the goals of an erotic thriller. Which are to both entertain and, to a degree, titillate.”
In 2019, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke publicly committed to a slate of what she termed “sexy date night” streaming movies, citing a conversation with Nicole Kidman (eventual star of The Undoing) as the impetus. “She was like, where are the movies like Basic Instinct and Cruel Intentions and No Way Out, those movies you want to watch at home?” Salke recalled. Around that time, writer-director Michael Mohan had written a film called The Voyeurs on spec (that is, uncommissioned and with no guarantee of having it produced) and was energetically pitching the project while also generally proselytizing for the genre with a 93-page “Erotic Thriller Movie Journal” he had written. “I would go in and talk about my passion for erotic thrillers and how it doesn’t make sense that these movies stopped existing,” Mohan recalls. “At the same time, Jen Salke said, ‘Hey, why aren’t people making more erotic thrillers? Please find some for us.’ I walk in going, ‘Hey, why aren’t you making erotic thrillers?’ And so The Voyeurs ended up getting fast-tracked.”
Starring Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith as a young couple who spy on and become consumed by their libidinally relentless across-the-street neighbors, The Voyeurs debuted on Amazon Prime Video in September with no paucity of critics noting its “trashy,” “fun” homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. According to Mohan, the production sought to reproduce the sexual verisimilitude of past erotic thrillers and benefited from a relatively recent addition to modern filmmaking: the intimacy coordinator. “I’d botch a take, and I’d be like, ‘That was perfect.’ And the intimacy coordinator would turn around and say, ‘Oh, I could actually see the gap between their crotches,’” he says. “But if I angled them just a little bit, it’ll look more like they’re having sex.”
Unlike many erotic thrillers of the Michael Douglas era, the sexy-suspense titles of today increasingly forefront female characters’ stories in order to sidestep the tendency of past genre exemplars to punish women simply for acting upon their libidos. Female development executives are being positioned at the forefront too. Paramount+’s head of original scripted series, Nicole Clemens, for one, is behind an upcoming reboot of Fatal Attraction that is set to star Lizzy Caplan and Joshua Jackson. As Clemens tells it, the series adaptation will be a thorough departure from the original film, which was plotted around Dan, a Manhattan lawyer–family man (played by Douglas), whose torrid dalliance with Alex, a book editor with borderline personality disorder (Glenn Close), concludes in a crescendo of boiled bunnies and cartoonish bloodshed. (Spoiler: Alex is first drowned in a bathtub and then shot to death by Dan’s wife.) The series, meanwhile, will embark from the film’s original ending — extensively reshot after testing poorly with audiences — in which Alex commits suicide but frames Dan for her murder, resulting in his incarceration.
The 1987 film “was told primarily with the male gaze,” Clemens explains, but the TV series will provide “a 360-degree view, dimensionalizing the characters, really getting underneath their skin and examining the psychology.” Whereas the movie spoke to a theatrical audience obsessed at the time with the notion of a perfect marriage and how infidelity can so efficiently puncture the facade of an idyllic family, the 2020s version will dive into issues like personality disorders and coercive control. Clemens believes that by exploring what she calls the timeless themes of erotic thrillers — “in a deeper way” — the show will “have popcorn resonance but also a nutritional value.”
A movie reboot of the 1985 kiss-kiss-bang-bang classic Jagged Edge, which has been moving through development at Sony since 2018, started out with a similar approach. In the original, Jeff Bridges plays a charming preppie — or is he a psychopath? — charged with the hunting-knife murder of his heiress wife; Close stars as his defense attorney–cum–paramour, a lovelorn divorcée who walked away from practicing criminal law after a workplace harassment incident with a predatory district attorney (Peter Coyote), her former boss. According to the new film’s producer, Doug Belgrad, the production team initially looked to update the narrative by making it a “more issue-oriented story, shining a light on domestic abuse and harassment in the workplace.”
“But it became too polemical,” he says, “so we decided to pull back and make that the subtext. It works better now that we’re being a little more faithful to the original.” Belgrad insists the ideas that were entertaining 40 years ago — forbidden relationships, the ways in which attraction can prompt otherwise smart people to make bad decisions — remain relevant today. Although the producer adds he is “in the midst of meeting with directors on Jagged Edge who can interpret it with a female gaze for today’s world,” a female filmmaker being his ideal candidate.
Yet another series reboot, of the silken 1980 neo-noir thriller American Gigolo (starring Jon Bernthal in the career-defining role originated by Richard Gere), is currently under way at Showtime. And while the Skinemax-esque, millennial-mom-journey-of-sexual-self-rediscovery series Sex/Life (another project created and produced by a woman) delivered the third-largest audience for an original Netflix show to date (also home to the hit “Polish humpathon” film 365 Days), industry experts say there is still hesitance in Hollywood proper — not necessarily around the presence or absence of a female director, or the effectiveness of critical, issue-based stories, but around the simple return of voyeurism onscreen.
“In the move to streaming, I think maybe sexy thrillers suffered of being seen as — no pun intended — a guilty pleasure of cinema,” says a producer behind a smash-hit streaming series and an Academy Award–nominated film who has pursued development of various erotic-thriller projects at a streaming service and two major movie studios to as yet no avail. “Maybe it’s less that porn ruined it and more that, if you live in a world where you can see anything, it’s like, ‘Well, what’s the level of voyeurism that makes it cinematic now?’ But I feel that someone is going to crack it.”
Although The Voyeurs “exceeded all expectations” for Amazon, two sources claim the platform has abandoned plans to pursue its slate of “sexy date night films” (Amazon declined to comment). Mohan, for his part, is now in negotiations with other streamers to set up his next installment in the genre. As filmdom’s most outspoken evangelist for erotic thrillers, the filmmaker can sound like he is ready to pull out his hair contemplating why there haven’t been “ten copycat Unfaithfuls” greenlit already. He agrees that the answer lies not in the audience. “It’s not what will it take to repopularize the genre? It’s already happening. People are taking notice and looking for them actively,” Mohan says. Instead, it lies somewhere in Hollywood executive offices. Bereft of a functioning box office with clear-cut success stories, industry bigwigs can’t quite decide which strategy — a non-male gaze? polemical storytelling? pure nostalgia? — will appeal both to moviegoers of yesteryear and younger generations today.
Nonetheless, Mohan is certain: “The cinematic language of these films is something that has disappeared. I think movies should be sexier.”
On the heels of such recent, thrilling, but not entirely erotic literary adaptations as Gone Girl and Girl in the Window, some Hollywood hands feel the genre’s best hope for a return to cinematic prestige lies in another industry altogether. “I think a popular erotic-thriller novel — a best seller with a built-in fan base — would have the best chance of resuscitating the erotic-thriller movie genre,” says, of all people, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.