“Serenity” is a movie out of time.
The new-to-theaters film — starring Matthew McConaughey as a boat captain who agrees to kill the husband of his ex (Anne Hathaway) — has the look and feel of a seedier era of moviegoing. The time of the porno-noir, that once extremely popular genre that reigned in the ’80s and ’90s but has since fallen out of fashion in favor of PG-13 superhero movies.
These erotic thrillers were classic noir stories filtered through the lusty excesses of VHS sleaze. The cop/lawyer/psychiatrist falls for the wrong woman. Sweaty bare bodies writhe ’round the twists and turns of an ornately complex plot.
This was a time when movies with titles like “Jade” and “Sliver” dominated the marquee. When femmes fatales seduced desperate dupes to kill their abusive husbands for the insurance money, the whole thing a doppelganger double-cross orchestrated by an icepick-wielding, rabbit-boiling sociopath.
The movies were salacious, explicit and, often, misogynistic. They earned their hard-R ratings, and typically scored a good deal of profit at the box office. Many were written by Joe Eszterhas. Several starred a Baldwin.
Last year, I wrote about how the ’80s/’90s were boom years for adults-only blockbusters, with R-rated movies outpacing PG-13 movies at the box office up through the end of the 20th century. The proliferation of softcore noirs had a lot to do with that.
The erotic thriller was “perhaps the most popular genre in the 1990s,” writes Robert Barton Palmer in his book “Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir.”
The sweet spot was 1992 to 1997, which saw, on average, the release of a new erotic thriller per week. Many were direct-to-video. Most you won’t remember, if you’ve heard of them at all. They had titles like “Secret Games” and “Night Rhythms.” The genre was so mainstreamed that Carl Reiner directed a 1993 parody film called “Fatal Instinct.”
The ingredients were old-hat — film noir, Hitchcock, “Double Indemnity” — but filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader took things to the next level. “The ’70s and early ’80s were a seed bed for the erotic thriller,” writes Linda Ruth Williams in her book “The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema.”
There were early successes, like De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” “Body Heat,” and 1985’s “Jagged Edge,” written by Eszterhas. (If there’s a master of this genre, it’s Eszterhas, who also wrote “Basic Instinct,” “Jade,” “Sliver” and “Showgirls.”)
But the erotic thriller’s big bang, so to speak, was 1987’s “Fatal Attraction.”
The Michael Douglas/Glenn Close thriller opened new possibilities in profitability. “Fatal Attraction” grossed $320 million worldwide. It was the second-highest-grossing film of 1987 (after “3 Men and a Baby”), and it remains one of the top-earning R-rated movies of all time.
This launched a wave of erotic thrillers. Five years later, the genre would get its masterpiece, another Michael Douglas movie, Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct.” Lambasted by critics and protested by audiences, the film made even more money than “Fatal Attraction.”
The ’80s/’90s porno-noir plot can broken down into a few categories:
1. Sexy sociopath dupes dumb guy. This is the most popular iteration of the genre. A guy (typically a cop, sometimes a lawyer or doctor) strikes up a steamy relationship with the woman he’s supposed to be investigating/representing/treating. She’s clearly bad, but the sex is too good for him to accept this fact.
In these stories, it’s almost always the guy getting duped, but there are exceptions. In “Jagged Edge,” it’s ladykiller Jeff Bridges who dupes Glenn Close.
2. A man has an affair (or at least an inappropriate flirtation) with an unstable woman. When he tries to break it off, she stalks him and ruins his life. “Fatal Attraction” is the most famous example. Another is “The Crush,” in which Alicia Silverstone attaches too strongly to Cary Elwes.
3. Creep stalks woman: “Sliver,” “Dressed to Kill.”
4. Double-identities and doppelgangers. De Palma, riffing on Hitchcock, played with these plot devices in “Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double” and “Femme Fatale.”
5. The please-kill-my-husband thriller. The new movie “Serenity” falls into this category. This subgenre’s a cousin to the sexy-sociopath-dupes-dumb-guy movie, but in this case the man’s profession is less essential to the story. These films are often set in small towns: The drifter walks into the seedy burg and stumbles into some domestic mess that turns deadly. He falls for the wrong woman and gets wrapped up in a murder plot wherein there’s always a double-cross. Examples: “The Hot Spot,” “U-Turn,” “Body Heat.”
6. The insanely complex everybody’s-betraying-everybody plot — which gave us the ’90s classics “Malice,” “Bound” and “Wild Things.”
7. Arthouse erotic thriller. When great, challenging filmmakers play around in the genre while defying its conventions, doing their own thing. Examples: Cronenberg’s “Crash,” Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica” and Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
The Golden Age eventually ended, as Golden Ages always do. For multiple reasons.
For one, the R rating’s market share started to dip by the end of the ’90s, paving the way for PG-13 franchise dominance. We used to watch movie stars have sex on the big screen; now we watch them fly above CG cityscapes.
But the decline of the erotic thriller began when the genre (and the individual movies) got too big.
“Erotic thriller releases in the mainstream consolidated resources into fewer, bigger projects. The higher-profile erotic thrillers which have appeared since 1995, however, had to navigate the wake produced by the critical failure of ‘Showgirls,’ which caused the industry to lose faith in the new classification of NC-17 (designed to enable a new wave of adult filmmaking: cinema for grownups that doesn’t pander to the family market.”
“Basic Instinct” anticipated an alternate universe of American moviegoing, wherein the market remained predominantly adult-focused and edgy psychosexual thrillers shared the marquee with movies like “Babe” and “The Lion King.” The point of the genre was to calibrate its sensibilities between a cop thriller and pornography — sexy enough to entice audiences but palatable enough not to scare them away. (The more recent “Fifty Shades” movies, bad as they are, have toed this line pretty well.)
Perhaps “Showgirls” flew too close to the sun. Since the mid-’90s, Williams writes, erotic thrillers have tended toward the chaste. “The explicit has become the implicit.”
The erotic thrillers released post-Golden Age are mild when compared to, say, Madonna pouring hot candle wax on Willem Dafoe’s genitals (1993’s “Body of Evidence”). Now we get movies like “Unfaithful,” “The Boy Next Door” and “Serenity.”
These films are faint reminders of a very different time in American moviegoing, a time when we regularly went to mainstream multiplexes to sit next to strangers in the dark as we watched Michael Douglas have graphic sex with a woman who might at any moment stab him to death with an icepick.
Notable erotic thrillers
“Dressed to Kill” (1980)
Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, slashing knives, double-identities, graphic nudity, it was all a dream.
“Body Heat” (1981)
William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Florida heatwave, bad lawyer, doppelgangers, femme fatale, wrong man, boat death, sweat, sweat, sweat.
“Body Double” (1984)
Hollywood, voyeurism, murder by drill, double identities, mistaken identities, seaside motel.
“Jagged Edge” (1985)
Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, masked man, hunting knife, did he do it?
“Fatal Attraction” (1987)
Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Manhattan lawyer, stalking, child abduction, rabbit murder.
“Sea of Love” (1989)
Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, drunken cop, femme fatale, lonely hearts ad, John Goodman sidekick.
“The Hot Spot” (1990)
Don Johnson, Jennifer Connelly, Virginia Madsen, small-town Texas, summer heat, kill my husband for me.
“Basic Instinct” (1992)
Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, bad cop, femme fatale, icepick, interrogation scene.
“Final Analysis” (1992)
Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, San Francisco psychiatrist, man duped by sex, thunderstorm finale.
“Body of Evidence” (1993)
Madonna, Willem Dafoe, sadomasochism, hot candle wax.
Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin, bad doctor, botched medical procedures, double-crosses, triple-crosses, “I am God.”
Sharon Stone, William Baldwin, voyeurism, doppelganger.
Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, sexual harassment at the workplace, ’90s tech, virtual reality.
“The Last Seduction” (1994)
Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, femme fatale, kill my husband for me.
“Color of Night” (1994)
Bruce Willis, double identities, color blindness caused by trauma.
Elizabeth Berkley, Vegas, “All About Eve.”
David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino, double identities, secret identities.
Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Wachowskis pre-“Matrix,” femme fatale.
“Wild Things” (1998)
Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Miami, swamps, motel sex, fake death, boats, gators, full-frontal Kevin Bacon, double-crosses, triple-crosses, quadruple-crosses, Bill Murray.
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