As we all know, the worst thing to happen to mainstream American cinema in the 21st century was the near-total abandonment of that most compelling and enigmatic of subgenres: the erotic thriller.
While there have been a few notable additions to the canon over the past two decades (In the Cut, Unfaithful, Gone Girl, When the Bough Breaks…em… The Boy Next Door) the sweaty heyday of the erotic thriller has been over for some time now. Its Golden Age was actually quite a lengthy period, beginning (I would argue) in earnest in 1981 with Bob Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice and ending in 1996 with the Wachowskis’ Bound. (I will also accept 1998’s Wild Things as an end point, for those of you who prefer a messier climax to your cinematic eras).
What exactly counts as an erotic thriller? I am so glad you asked. Let’s start by clarifying what is does not count. A suspenseful movie, of any stripe, with a graphic sex scene or two thrown in for good measure is not (necessarily) an erotic thriller, for the same reason a soft core porn movie (do these still exist? I truly hope so) with an unusually complicated dramatic plot is not an erotic thriller. A film can be erotic, and thrilling, and still not qualify as an erotic thriller. For instance, I would argue that Terminator is both erotic and thrilling, but it’s not an erotic thriller. Ditto The Piano and Desperado and Queen and Slim and a thousand more.
So how do I know if what I’m watching is an erotic thriller and not just a thrilling piece of erotica or a movie about a killer robot who travels back in time to stop Sarah Connor from having sex with Kyle Reese in a Los Angeles motel room?
Well, broadly speaking, an erotic thriller is a movie in which forbidden/illicit romance or sexual fantasy is central to the core dramatic conflict of the narrative. If the protagonists of a film destroy themselves (physically, morally, spiritually), and one another, because of their insatiable carnal desires, well, there’s a good chance that film is an erotic thriller. (Think of Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence, Sea of Love, The Last Seduction.) The best of them also make pretty liberal use of melodrama, pay homage to the classic tropes of film noir (femme fatales, double-crossing, chain-smoking, con artists, convoluted plotting, et cetera) and are, at least in their more lurid moments, knowingly over the top. Thunderstorms soundtrack ecstatic lovemaking, expensive-looking clothes are ripped from heaving bodies, spouses are unceremoniously dispatched with blunt household objects, innocent family pets are slain, post-coital treacheries abound.
Now, there are many gloriously unbridled erotic thrillers that you can, and should, seek out for your own
titillation edification (many of them starring Michael Douglas and/or directed by Adrian Lyne), but if you’re a newcomer to the genre, why wouldn’t you begin with the very best, the perfect exemplar of the form, the throbbing loins from which so many lusty imitators have sprung? I speak of course of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 neo-noir morality tale of sex and betrayal in a Floridian coastal town: Body Heat.
Partially inspired by the 1944 film Double Indemnity (itself an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1943 novella of the same name), Body Heat—which Kasdan wanted to have “the intricate structure of a dream, the density of a good novel, and the texture of recognizable people in extraordinary circumstances”—is a hallucinatory masterpiece of pure filth. It’s the story of Ned Racine (William Hurt, sporting one of cinema’s great pornographic mustaches), a bored small-time lawyer and amiable womanizer who spends his days shooting the breeze (or lack thereof) with his exuberant prosecuting attorney pal, Peter Lowenstein (a tap-dancing Ted Danson), and his nights picking up cocktail waitresses on the Miranda Beach boardwalk. It’s on one of those lazily prowling nights that Ned catches the eye of Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner, in her very first role), a breathy, Bacallian beauty married to a wealthy-but-domineering older man (Richard Crenna, aka Colonel Trautman from the Rambo movies). Ned and Matty engage in some delightfully R-rated banter over snow cones, fall into bed together, and, before you can say “we can’t go on like this,” come up with a plan to murder Matty’s shitty husband.
Even if you took a censor’s machete to the sex scenes, Body Heat would still be a top drawer noir (albeit a rather brief one). The script is dynamite, the third act twists are twisty, the lush cinematography and Sax n’ Synth (n’ wind chime) soundtrack combine to create a palpable mood of languid, sleazy peril. The supporting roles—from Danson’s ebullient-but-concerned lawyer foil to Micky Rourke’s sweetly loyal ex-con—are remarkably well-developed. And then there’s the sweat. Everyone in this film sweats constantly, vigorously, and visibly, regardless of setting, situation, or time of day. The denizens of Miranda Beach, a town suffering through both a merciless heatwave and an epidemic of broken air conditioners, are bathed in sweat 24/7. It beads from their foreheads in courtrooms, stains the backs and armpits of their linen suits in diners, coats every inch of their skin as they stare through the black distance at an old hotel engulfed in flames. They even sweat while reclining naked in bathtubs full of ice water. They’ve all very hot, and very bothered, and none more so than Matty and Ned.
Matty: My temperature runs a couple of degrees high, around a hundred. I don’t mind. It’s the engine or something.
Ned: Maybe you need a tune up.
Matty: Don’t tell me. You have just the right tool.
Every time Hurt and Turner appear on screen together, clothed or otherwise, the titular heat could melt steel beams. Right from the jump they’ve got the kind of uninhibited, almost vulgar chemistry of two people who know exactly where things are headed. They’re wolfish with one another’s bodies, they way they eye and salivate and ultimately devour. Even the manner in which they run their fingers over one another’s torsos in the spent aftermath calls to mind apex predators idly licking wounds sustained in a tussle. The looming specter of Matty’s mob-affiliated husband finding out doesn’t deter them. Being caught in flagrante by Matty’s horrified niece can’t cool their jets. The (extremely justified) suspicions of the entire town aren’t enough to put even an temporary kibosh on their nocturnal sexcapades. It’s not love, not really. It’s lust, hot-blooded and unquenchable and doomed.
The below scene, perhaps more than any other committed to celluloid, encapsulates what makes erotic thrillers—at their sexy, explosive, ludicrous best—so damn entertaining. In the minutes preceding, Ned has invited himself over to listen to Matty’s collection of wind chimes (classic move), reiterated his debauched intentions, and been shown the door. What Ned does next, well, watch for yourself and then tell me you don’t want to spend two sultry hours drifting through this iconic American fever dream.