Fifty Shades Freed hit theaters on Friday and was received pretty much as you’d expect – with brutal notices and boffo box office. And hey, people like what they like, and if those movies put money in Dakota Johnson’s pocket and bankability on her CV, more power to them. But the forehead-slapping silliness of the picture is quite a come-down for the erotic thriller, that venerable ‘80s and ‘90s theatrical and straight-to-VHS standby that fell onto fairly hard times once people could just watch porn on their computers. Yet a mighty handful of those movies legitimately got the job done, providing sex, suspense, and a good time for moviegoers in the right mood (or, y’know, in The Mood). So as Quad Cinema’s ace retrospective winds down, we’re spotlighting a few of our favorites.
Dressed to Kill
Brian De Palma may have directed better pictures than this 1980 erotic thriller, but few that so compactly accommodate his ongoing peccadillos and preoccupations: voyeurism, deception, prostitution, kinkiness, surveillance, and general sleaziness. In other words, it’s a lot of fun, with the Hitchcock-quoting director broadly riffing on Psycho, but without the restrictions to content, language, and nudity that seemed to stymie Hitch in the ‘60s. Angie Dickinson is marvelous in what amounts to the Janet Leigh role as a sexually dissatisfied housewife whose little adventure in adultery goes awry; Nancy Allen oozes sex appeal as a high-class call girl in a wrong place/wrong time situation; and Michael Caine conveys a calculating brilliance as the psychiatrist who connects them.
If Dressed to Kill introduced the tropes of the ‘80s erotic thriller, Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut the following year cemented them. Kasdan was cashing in his cachet as the co-writer of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he wasn’t quoting Saturday serials this time around; he was riffing on the quintessential film noir set-up, a rich husband and a sexy young wife and the horny dope who helps her kill him, but taking advantage of a freedom in onscreen sexuality that his ‘40s counterparts could only dream of. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (also making her debut) sizzle in the leading roles, while newcomers Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke have a blast with their small but memorable supporting turns.
Over the next few years, Rourke would become a star – and was particularly tied to the erotic thriller, thanks to his starring roles in the likes of 9½ Weeks, Wild Orchid, and this moodily effective mash-up of neo-noir and supernatural whodunit from director Alan Parker (Fame, Midnight Express). Parker ladles on the Bayou atmosphere and cooks up a wild little mystery, while the scrappily off-the-cuff Rourke generates enough heat with co-star Lisa Bonet to burn holes in the screen. Throw in Robert De Niro entertainingly chewing the scenery in the side role of Louis Cyphre (get it?), and you’ve got a picture ripe for rediscovery.
This 1987 treat from director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) is the kind of movie where the strings plink when the title appears, and you immediately settle in, confident that these people know exactly what they’re doing. True to the title, it concerns a femme fatale (a purring Theresa Russell) who marries rich men, kills them, collects their fortunes, and moves on to her next victim. But the twist is that the clever lawman who tracks – and risks falling for – her isn’t a man at all, but a female DOJ investigator, played with brass-tacks brilliance by Debra Winger. They’re a strange combination that works (Winger plays it close to the vest as Russell veers into delirious theatricality), and the whole thing is lit with wit by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall; he’s got a masked-off close-up of Russell’s eyes, as she watches her husband reach for a poisoned bottle, that’s better than any entire movie that came out that year.
Sea of Love
Believe it or not, there was a time when Al Pacino’s career needed saving, his damn near unparalleled run of iconic ‘70s performances grounded by a spectacularly bad streak in the following decade. He became bankable again, oddly enough, thanks to an erotic thriller: this tight little 1989 item from director Harold Becker, which paired the aging leading man with the heart-stopping Ellen Barkin, fresh off a startling breakthrough turn opposite Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy. The mystery that cop Pacino (and his partner, a wonderful John Goodman) are out to solve is nothing to write home about, but that’s not what the movie’s about anyway; it’s about the chemistry between Pacino and love interest/suspect Barkin. Watch their first love scene, and the incredible moment when Barkin pulls away from him, stalks around him like a jungle cat sizing up her prey, and then goes in for the kill. That is the kind of thing these movies did well.
The Last Seduction
If Barkin’s character in Sea of Love was a jungle cat, the cold-blooded femme fatale made flesh by Linda Fiorentino in this 1994 noir riff was a goddamn rattlesnake. Director John Dahl – who helmed another great noir, Red Rock West, the previous year – again benefits from the shifting eras, but not just in the sex scenes (though they are, um, effective). He and screenwriter Steve Barancik aren’t burdened with the responsibility of making their bad girl the least bit sympathetic, or explaining her actions; she is who she is, and she may just get away with it. That freedom from moralistic norms gives the entire picture a delicious kick.
When the Wachowskis were handed a big-budget studio action movie, they’d only made one, much smaller picture – but it so impressed everyone who saw it, they were able to make the leap. That movie was Bound, a 1996 stealing-from-the-mob caper picture with a lesbian-erotica twist, in which a gangster’s moll (Jennifer Tilly) and her lover (Gina Gershon) team up to steal millions of laundered cash from the clueless goodfella (Joe Pantoliano). Thrillingly photographed and paced within an inch of its life, it also some of the sexiest love scenes of the decade – rendered all the more fascinating now by the role that gender fluidity would play in its creators’ lives.
Two years later, director John McNaughton – best known for the horrifyingly brutal Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – would display a decidedly lighter side with this frisky, swampy tale of a high-school guidance counselor (Matt Dillon) and the two students (Neve Campbell and Denise Richards) who take him down in a sex scandal, or do they? It’s a nutty, funny picture, with much of the latter provided by a shoot-the-works Bill Murray supporting role, but as with Bound, it’s mostly remembered these days for a taboo-breaking sex scene that still gets the pulse racing (even after twenty years of Internet screencaps).
Women don’t often get much of a say in mainstream movies about explicit sexuality, which is part of what makes this 1992 effort worthwhile – director Katt Shea cut her teeth on the Stripped to Kill series, and this story of a high school outcast (Sara Gilbert), the “bad girl” she befriends (Drew Barrymore), and the various ways that goes awry is, yes, predictable, but Shea frames the clichés in new and surprising ways. Plus, it proudly announced the second act of Ms. Barrymore; she comes on in this thing like a hurricane, and melts every scene she storms into.
It’s not that erotic thrillers never contemplated the consequences of their illicit assignations; it’s that they did rarely did so with any real intelligence or maturity. That’s what makes this late entry from Adrian Lyne so mesmerizing – it finds the director of Fatal Attraction exploring the complicated issues of attraction and guilt that haunt a seemingly happy housewife (Diane Lane) who cheats on her charming husband (Richard Gere) with a smoldering stranger (Oliver Martinez). In other words, it doesn’t take the kind of moralistic short cuts such stories so often leap to; her home life is happy, the sex with her lover is electrifying, and there are no easy answers. Lane is staggeringly good, and the deliberateness of its ending is the best imaginable retort to the push-button phoniness of Attraction’s.