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An Erotic thriller is a film genre defined by a suspense thriller with a thematic basis in illicit romance or erotic fantasy. Most erotic thrillers contain scenes of softcore sex and nudity, but the frequency and explicitness of those scenes varies.
Though similar films appeared as early as the 1960s, erotic thrillers emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1980s, bolstered by the popular success of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction in 1987 and a quickly expanding domestic and international market for softcore adult entertainment on cable television and home video. The genre had a classic period of growth and expansion in the 1990s, but by the early 2000s declined in production and popular appeal.
The potent combination of danger and romance, catering to both male and female audiences simultaneously, was the primary selling point for erotic thriller films during their classic period. The half-naked bodies displayed on posters, newspaper ads, and video box covers were accompanied by log lines that capture the unmistakable duality of the erotic thriller film:
If you think you can handle her, you're dead wrong.—Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction
He was hired to watch. Now he's tempted to touch.—Night Eyes
Twin sisters cross the line into a deadly erotic fantasy land.—Mirror Images
In all, over 300 erotic thriller films were produced in the 1990s, which is comparable to the number of thriller films made in the noir decade of the 1940s. The total number of films in the erotic thriller genre from 1985 to 2005 may number as high as over 500. Like film noir, the genre has evolved and modernized, and new films continue to be made that are influenced by the classic style.
Defining the erotic thriller film
The erotic thriller participates in several genres and film styles at once, taking narrative and stylistic elements from each. Its greatest debt is undoubtedly to the 1940s and '50s film noir, a thriller genre exemplified by stylish crime films and mysteries that explore the dark underworld of post-World War II America.
Thriller as a film genre, however, contains subgenres other than the noir crime film and murder mystery. Any of these might provide the dramatic framework for an erotic thriller. This includes the psychological thriller (Fatal Attraction, Body Chemistry, Object of Obsession), the revenge thriller (Scorned, Improper Conduct), and suspense stories of illicit romance and sexual obsession (Erotic Boundaries, Secret Games, The Adjuster). Like thrillers, romances can also be expressed in subgenres. These are as varied as the “bodice-ripping” romance novel, the soap opera, and works of gothic fantasy. Softcore sex films are often romances of some kind, and the genre has a long tradition, particularly in Europe. Directors such as Radley Metzger (Theresa and Isabelle 1968), Joseph Sarno (Inga 1968), and Just Jaecklin (Emmanuelle 1974) were influential pioneers of the softcore-romance film. Their "middlebrow sexploitation" movies put stories of female desire at the center, and they helped pave the way for softcore's reemergence in the 1990s.
Since the erotic thriller is a hybrid of these genres, pinning down the exact formula for an erotic thriller can be difficult. Each film combines its subgenres differently, and can enlarge the influence of one by minimizing the others. Where a film such as Fatal Attraction contains relatively brief scenes of softcore sex and illicit romance before stockpiling psychological thriller action, films such as Secret Games and Sexual Malice invert this by foregrounding feminized romance and softcore sex with a minimum of noirish thriller plotting.
The predominating syntax that shapes these films combines romanticized, “erotic” appeal with a dangerous “thriller” narrative -- a “pleasure/danger” principle.— Nina K. Martin, Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller 
Though every writer on the subject encapsulates the erotic thriller film differently, the overlapping of the suspense thriller, romance, and softcore sex film is the unique domain of the erotic thriller.
The rise and fall of the erotic thriller in the direct-to-video (DTV) era
Throughout the 1980s, cable television was expanding and diversifying its appeal to adult audiences. In 1980 Cinemax (owned by HBO) launched with a 24-hour schedule. Soon after, Showtime followed suit with The Movie Channel. These late-night, premium cable channels distanced themselves from hardcore pornography but catered to an adult market. By the mid-1980s, HBO was actively looking for or developing adult programming that could be, in the words of one HBO programmer, "spicy but not obscene".
In parallel, video store chains such as Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video thrived and soon dominated the video rental landscape. The first Blockbuster video store opened in Dallas, TX in 1985 with 8,000 titles. By 1995 Blockbuster owned 4,500 stores worldwide. Unlike smaller, independent video stores, these large video stores cultivated a "family friendly" image and did not stock pornography, but the need arose for them to provide adult entertainment to a large customer base of couples who watched movies together.
These two new markets, together called direct-to-video, or DTV, became a lucrative, non-theatrical alternative for producers of low-budget, R-rated films.
Into this landscape stepped Night Eyes (1990), a provocative DTV film directed by Jag Mundhra, starring Andrew Stevens and Tanya Roberts about a security guard who falls in love with the married woman he is hired to both protect and electronically surveil. Co-written by Andrew Stevens and Tom Citrano, Night Eyes made $30 million in DTV sales although it was produced for only $1 million. The film's potent combination of a romantic, noirish thriller with scenes of softcore sex, and the undeniable financial returns it enjoyed in DTV sales, prompted some filmmakers with a background in hardcore pornography to begin making movies for this lucrative new market. One of the most successful of these new ventures was Axis Films International, founded by Andrew Garroni and Walter Gernert. Garroni and Gernert partnered with director Gregory Dark, an art school graduate who stumbled into the Los Angeles pornography business through making a documentary about it, and within ten years Axis produced over 30 erotic thriller titles using a rotating stable of actors, directors, and cinematographers. Many other filmmakers and production companies quickly entered this exploding new market, and by 1994 the erotic thriller was a well-defined non-theatrical film industry.
Many people remember the names of the big-budget erotic thrillers -- Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Jade. Less well known were lower budget independent films such as Mirror Images, Night Eyes 3, and Scorned. Films produced by the major studios exploded into public view with star wattage, enabling films such as Sliver, starring Sharon Stone, to screen in cineplexes alongside Jurassic Park. Most erotic thrillers, however, never screened in theaters. Saddled with smaller budgets and a cadre of lesser-known celebrities, they thrived by finding an audience in the expanding DTV market. These “high and low” markets for the erotic thriller overlapped but did not compete, and each fed off the other financially and artistically. The “blockbuster” erotic thrillers boosted sales for small players, who sold films to DTV markets by underscoring the similarities between their films and works by the majors. The major films often expanded upon themes, visual styles, and plot devices first developed in lower budget films, using them like a pre-emptive screening room in which new ideas were auditioned.
Unfortunately, the very success of the erotic thriller in the DTV era helped officiate its collapse. By the late 1990s, a glut of cheaply produced “T&A films” which offered sexual spectacle and copious nudity, but little else, began to saturate the market, watering down lucrative pre-sales deals with foreign distributors  and causing budgets for erotic thrillers to shrink to nearly a third or less of what they were in the early 1990s. As budgets shrank, so did actor salaries, image quality, and shooting schedules. For these reasons many of the pioneers of the erotic thriller film, such as Axis Films International and Prism, left the market in frustration or went out of business entirely.
A few established Hollywood film directors made erotic thrillers, but their careers are not defined by their work in the genre. Other directors are known only for their erotic thrillers. Each group produced significant films.
Adrian Lyne helped usher in the erotic thriller as a genre with 9 ½ Weeks (1986) and, a year later, the hugely successful Fatal Attraction (1987). He later followed these with Lolita (1997) and Unfaithful (2002) while continuing to direct high-profile mainstream films for established Hollywood studios.
As the writer of Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993), Jade (1995), Showgirls (1995), and other successful studio pictures, Joe Eszterhas established a clear style for his erotic thrillers that rarely deviated from a successful formula. He subsequently penned sequels for both Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Andrew Stevens, a multifaceted actor-producer-director, began the erotic thriller goldrush of the 1990s when Night Eyes (1990), the film he co-wrote and starred in, turned a one million dollar production budget into thirty million in direct-to-video sales. Stevens subsequently either wrote, directed, or starred in the most genre-defining erotic thrillers of the decade, including Night Eyes 2 (1991), Night Eyes 3 (1993), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), Illicit Dreams (1994), and Scorned (1994). Stevens later moved on to produce films in the action genre.
Provocateur and former pornographer Gregory Dark (credited variously as Gregory Brown, Alexander Hippolyte, and Gregory Hippolyte) left the porn industry in the mid 1980s for more fertile artistic grounds in the erotic thriller genre. Dark joined Andrew Garroni and Walter Gernert as the in-house director for Axis Films International, a company formed to produce films that could duplicate the success of Mundhra’s noirish Night Eyes. Dark’s Carnal Crimes (1991), his first film with Axis, established a strong noir-romance hybrid for the erotic thriller, placing a female protagonist at the center of a romanticized story abundant with feminine imagery and softcore sex, setting the stage for many erotic thriller films to come. Dark’s subsequent filmography is a connoisseur’s collection of erotic thrillers in this mode, including Mirror Images (1992), Secret Games (1992), Night Rhythms (1992), Animal Instincts (1992), Body of Influence (1993), and Object of Obsession (1994). Dark eventually left the erotic thriller genre to direct music videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore, among others.
Jag Mundhra, another Axis Films International collaborator, directed the hugely profitable Night Eyes (1990), and also Tropical Heat (1993), L.A. Goddess (1993), Wild Cactus (1993), Monsoon (1999), Improper Conduct (1994), and Irresistible Impulse (1996). Mundhra eventually returned to the Indian film industry.
Zalman King, one of the most famous names in softcore erotica, made what are more properly considered erotic romance films, but he put an unmistakable stamp on the genre at an early stage with his films Two Moon Junction (1988), Wild Orchid (1989), and Red Shoe Diaries (1992), which is also the title of his long-running cable television series consisting of erotic featurettes with female protagonists. Zalman King was adjacent to the erotic thriller genre but not strictly one of its practitioners, and his films are placed more neatly into a lineage of softcore erotica. The erotic thriller genre is indebted to King’s early, influential combination of noirish atmosphere and illicit romance, an influence he shares with co-screenwriting partner Patricia Louisianna Knop, to whom he was married until his death in 2012.
William Friedkin’s Cruising and Jade are the only erotic thrillers in his impressive filmography, and both rank among the most powerful in the genre. Likewise, Paul Verhoven’s Basic Instinct was a blockbuster, and perhaps the apotheosis of the 1990s erotic thriller. Verhoeven’s controversial and critically panned Showgirls, made a year later, has gained a cult following but was critically panned when released.
Canadian filmmakers Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg elevated the genre in the 1990s by producing arthouse erotic thrillers that evolved the form in new directions. Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994), and Chloe (2009) all trade on the audience’s perception of what an erotic thriller should be, but then give them something more complex in exchange. Likewise, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996) propel the genre into the near future, where sex, obsession, and erotic desire are played out in cerebral, hypermodern settings mediated by potentially destructive technologies.
There remain many directors and producers with uneven filmographies who contributed solid films to the genre. Mike Sedan directed many erotic thrillers, beginning with Night Fire (1994) and continuing through Erotic Boundaries (1997). Jim Wynorski directed Sins of Desire (1993), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), and Sorceress (1995). Rodney McDonald directed both Night Eyes 2 (1991) and Night Eyes 4: Fatal Passion (1996), as well as Desire (1993) and Scorned 2 (1997).
Some actors appear in many erotic thrillers, and their careers are defined by work in the genre. The female actors are undeniably more well known. Towering above all, no less in stature than reputation, is Shannon Tweed, the Playboy bunny turned actor, who starred in over fifteen erotic thrillers between 1985 and 2000, including Night Eyes 3 (1993), Indecent Behavior (1993), Scorned (1994), Illicit Dreams (1994), The Dark Dancer (1995), and Forbidden Sins (1999). Tweed married famous Kiss frontman Gene Simmons and went on to a hugely successful career in reality television. Bombshell Kathy Shower, also from the pages of Playboy magazine, starred in Wild Cactus (1993), L.A. Goddess (1993), and also Erotic Boundaries (1997), among other films and television shows. Fashion model Joan Severance, equal to Shannon Tweed in the number of erotic thriller films in which she starred, was the centerpiece of Write to Kill (1991), Lake Consequence (1993), Criminal Passion (1994), In Dark Places (1997), and many others. Danish fashion model and Parisian burlesque artist Delia Sheppard put an unmistakable mark on the genre by appearing in many films and starring in Mirror Images (1992). Jodie Fisher starred in Intimate Obsession (1992), Body of Influence 2 (1996), Sheer Passion (1998), and Dead by Dawn (1998). Tane McClure is a fixture of many erotic thrillers, including Target for Seduction (1995), Sexual Impulse (1997), Scorned 2 (1997), and Illicit Dreams 2 (1998). Fiery redhead Angie Everhart was a supporting player in the big budget Jade (1995), then starred in Another Nine & a Half Weeks (1997), Sexual Predator (2001), Heart of Stone (2001), Bare Witness (2002), and Wicked Minds (2003). Julie Strain starred in Carnal Crimes (1991), Sorceress (1995), and Lethal Seduction (1997). Tanya Roberts, originally one of “Charlie’s Angels”, was in Night Eyes (1990) and Sins of Desire (1993). Rochelle Swanson entered the genre through the erotic thriller TV series Silk Stalkings, appearing in Night Fire (1994), Secret Games 3 (1994), Illicit Dreams (1994), and also Sorceress (1995). Shauna O'Brien is featured in Over the Wire, Deadlock: A Passion for Murder, Striking Resemblance, and many other erotic thrillers and erotic dramas. Monique Parent is a veteran of the genre, appearing in numerous films and television shows, including Sins of Desire (1993), Body of Influence (1993), Sexual Outlaws (1993), Midnight Confessions (1994), and a starring role in Dark Secrets (1997). Lee Anne Beaman was active in the genre throughout the 1990s, appearing in many films and starring in both The Other Woman (1992) and Irresistible Impulse (1996). Linda Fiorentino starred in Jade (1995), and also smaller films like The Last Seduction (1994) and Bodily Harm (1995). Finally, no list of female erotic thriller regulars would be complete without Shannon Whirry, who starred in Animal Instincts (1992), Body of Influence (1993), Mirror Images 2 (1993), Lady in Waiting (1994), Animal Instincts 2 (1994), Private Obsession (1995), and Playback (1996).
Of the male actors, Michael Douglas is perhaps the most recognizable, having starred in the studio pictures Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and Disclosure (1994). Andrew Stevens was far more active in the genre, starring in Night Eyes (1990), Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994), and Scorned (1994), as well as writing, producing, and directing erotic thrillers. In just five years Martin Hewitt blazed a trail through the genre, starring in Carnal Crimes (1991), Secret Games (1992), Night Rhythms (1992), Secret Games II: The Escort (1993), and Night Fire (1994). Jan-Michael Vincent, star of the television show Airwolf, was featured in Animal Instincts (1992), Sins of Desire (1993), Indecent Behavior (1993), and a few others. John O’Hurley, famous for his role as Elaine’s boss “J. Peterman” on the TV show Seinfeld, was in both Night Eyes 2 (1991) and Mirror Images (1992). Finally, Gary Hudson appeared in three erotic thrillers released in 1993 (Indecent Behavior, Sexual Intent, Wild Cactus) before moving on to work in other genres.
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