“A complex series of seductions and murders — that’s not something you see a woman do.” This line, spoken early (by a man, of course) in Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987) — which features Theresa Russell as a beautiful psychopath who marries wealthy magnates only to poison them — sets a clean template for erotic thrillers to work against. The often-maligned genre, which flourished in the ’80s and ’90s and functions as an intriguing amalgam of film noir, sexy music video, and pure id, is the subject of “Crimes of Passion: The Erotic Thriller,” a luxuriously sprawling 24-film series running this month at the Quad Cinema. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, the rep house is bringing seduction and murder to the forefront. But it’s worth remembering, amid the enjoyable screen hysterics, that the erotic thriller would be nothing without its femmes fatales. To watch them rebuff the Black Widow line, again and again, is a reliable pleasure.
In addition to glossy genre icons like Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), the Quad’s program also offers up some films that haven’t traditionally been described as erotic thrillers. But even more surprisingly, while surveying the canvas of titles on display, is the second connective thread that emerges: “Crimes of Passion” is, in a sense, a short seminar on the femme fatale. The stock character, as old as cinema itself, endures for a reason: Within a society that expects women to be docile, passive figures, the spectacle of a woman behaving badly ignites both lust and a perverse wish fulfillment. It’s a nuanced appeal that reaches beyond the male gaze.
Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic, is the oldest work in the series; Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal, in that movie, of a married woman who seduces an insurance salesman into a murderous scheme stands as a template for the genre. Her deviousness would be scandalous in any era. She’s also an obvious inspiration for Kathleen Turner’s character in Body Heat (1981), an early pioneer in heaping horniness onto the handsome noir template and beginning to codify the erotic thriller as a newly steamy genre of its own.
The genre also owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo (1958), with Kim Novak as a provocative woman who takes on two distinct identities, is one of the great cinematic examples of femininity spiraling into something confusing and sinister. And a particularly ardent Hitchcock follower, Brian De Palma, may well be the auteur of the erotic thriller. With three films, he’s the most-represented director in the series; each of them — Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), Femme Fatale (2002) — prominently features crime, plot twists, and babely blondes. It takes some moxie to literally title an erotic thriller “femme fatale,” but De Palma’s the rare director who could actually pull it off. Though he has long had charges of sexism leveled against him, the women in his films project power and know how to use their sexuality to influence those around them. Femme Fatale doesn’t just gawk at its model-turned-actress star, Rebecca Romijn. It builds a head-spinning world of double crosses around her — and, ultimately, gives her the last laugh.
Stretching back even before the institution of the Motion Picture Production Code, traditional cinematic narratives dictated that promiscuous, scheming women meet punishment. But in erotic thrillers, you never know where the women will end up. The famous Fatal Attraction is one of the least advanced in these terms: The crazy woman is killed in self-defense, and the family unit is reestablished. Basic Instinct, that other famous genre piece starring Michael Douglas, is ultimately more interesting because Sharon Stone’s character uses her wiles to get away with crime. Fatal Attraction wants us to root for Douglas, but erotic thrillers are way more fun when you’re rooting for the woman. This is the case in Bound (1996), which pairs Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly as lesbians who scheme their way out of the world of criminal and abusive men. Anyone who doesn’t root for these two to get their way — and cheer when they end up making a clean break from male grotesquery — is a narc.
The spectacle of female power can make men uncomfortable both onscreen and off, and it’s amusing to see the lengths to which the erotic thriller is willing to go to make this happen. Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy (1992), a rare genre entry directed by a woman, casts Drew Barrymore in a torrid Oedipal tale, rewriting old-as-time male myth as gleeful trash and exploring good girl/bad girl power dynamics all the while. In The Fourth Man (1983), an earlier Verhoeven film playing at the Quad, there’s a nightmare sequence in which the female protagonist cuts off the male protagonist’s penis. If you’re looking for subtlety in depictions of the trials and tribulations of gender relations, well, you might want to try a different theater.
There’s a tendency in cultural discourse to wring meaning about our dire political moment from every piece of art with which we engage. The phrase “erotic thriller” instantly conjures a previous era, and the idea of offering eroticism and thrills in one film feels like the ultimate form of escapism. But moments of political salience do surface: In Tightrope (1984), the eventual love interest of gritty masculine icon Clint Eastwood is none other than a rape counselor, played with matter-of-fact assurance by Geneviève Bujold. While murder comes up in just about every erotic thriller here, the movies are sure to grant women, be they high schoolers (Cruel Intentions), mythical creatures (Cat People), possible figments of another woman’s imagination (Swimming Pool), or, yes, Madonna (Body of Evidence), permission to act as over-the-top as they want to. The lurid charms of the genre are rooted in the foundation of aberrant female behavior, the power and thrill of which is still as sharp and gleaming as a murderous ice pick.
‘Crimes of Passion: The Erotic Thriller’