What can the best erotic thrillers teach you about genre and sensuality?
Are you a fan of lighting a candle, pouring a glass of wine, dimming the lights, and turning on an adult erotic thriller movie? There's something about taking time out of your day to watch a sensual movie that feels like you're being bad... in a good way.
While these movies don't get as much focus now, they used to be event movies. Parents would get babysitters and head out to the theater, ready for a night away from their kids and a night to rekindle their connection... also, maybe murder? (Yup, a lot of these movies have murders in them, as well.)
While erotic thrillers are still made, they are not as popular of a genre right now. But that means they're primed for a comeback. Hollywood moves in cycles, and your next script or film could be the one that sets off the domino effect. If you want to work on a sexy thriller, you need to understand the tropes, know the best movies that came before you, and tap into all that erotic suspense for your characters and storytelling.
Let's dig into the genre together and figure out what makes erotic thrillers so... steamy.
What the Best Erotic Thriller Movies Teach Us About the Genre
In his book Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, Robert Barton Palmer wrote “perhaps the most popular genre in the 1990s, the so-called erotic thriller [...] is a direct descendant of the classic film noir.” If noir was where the erotic thriller is born, we have now had decades where it could become fully formed in our world.
Steamy thrillers come from the thriller genre, and usually have elements of suspense and even mystery. The best erotic thrillers can capture everything we love about the thriller genre while also turning us on.
They have to be sexy!
Erotic Thriller Definition
The erotic thriller is the intersection between romance, softcore sex film, and thriller. The erotic thriller movie is a subgenre of thrillers. It's defined by its fantasy element and illicit romantic escapades.
These types of films usually contain scenes of softcore sexuality, some nudity, and erotic acts.
While the level of explicitness varies, these films are built around sex, and usually have sex central to the plot.
Erotic Thriller Tropes
When you turn on one of the top erotic thrillers, you expect to see some sexuality and nudity. They don't have to be in there. But it definitely is a trope. Usually, you find sexual tension between the two leads. This tension can lead to manipulation, foul play, and the occasional sex scene. Affairs, conspiring to kill a spouse, obsessive characters, and even the use of sexy Venetian blinds all play a big part in this subgenre.
Risque content is what drove this genre to be incredibly popular in the 80s and 90s. In fact, it's estimated that almost 300 erotic thriller films were made in the 1990s alone.
But it's not just sex that sells. There's also the thriller aspect you have to honor. Are there scenes of danger, murder, or suspense? Then how do you weave sexiness into the storyline? There should be an element of romance as well.
Nina K. Martin says in Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller, "The predominating syntax that shapes these films combines romanticized, 'erotic' appeal with a dangerous 'thriller' narrative—a 'pleasure/danger' principle."
What Are the Best Erotic Thrillers?
It's so hard to come up with a list when there are so many titles that fit this bill. I tossed and turned over whether or not to include a movie like Gone Girl or 9 1/2 Weeks. I also kept thinking about how many of these movies Mickey Rourke has been in, like Angel Heart and even The Wrestler.
There are older movies that fit the bill, and even newer ones that feel like they are just pushing the boundaries. So many famous directors have tried their hands at them. How can you ignore great artists like Adrian Lyne, who almost exclusively worked on that genre for a long period? And Brian De Palma, who constantly pushed us out of our comfort zones. Dressed to Kill and Body Double could easily be on this list. They're so amazing and worth it for anyone to seek out.
The best seduction movies and sexy thrillers have to really capture the audience. It's not just about their releases—they need to cross into the cultural lexicon. Think about movie titles that people still talk about today. The scenes they inspire, the pervasive way they seep into popular culture.
When I think about the best erotic thrillers, I try to come up with a list of movies like Basic Instinct.
The Top 11 Erotic Thrillers
After some research, I had a few days of watching some steamy content, and I decided to venture out into making my list of top 11 erotic thrillers.
I know there are probably some I'm missing! Either way, this is my list of the top 11 I've seen. You're allowed to disagree and to come up with other titles. I want to hear them! But for my money, these are the best adult thriller movies for me.
11. Devil In A Blue Dress
A film that introduced us to Easy Rawlins, a WWII veteran who takes a case he doesn't want because of money he doesn't have. This film exposes the underbelly of Los Angeles in a way only a mix of noir can provide. Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle steal scenes from one another as the mystery here unravels.
This one's biggest sex scene was actually left on the cutting room floor. Instead, it focused on the idea of eroticism and how it can motivate our worst impulses.
10. Lust, Caution
I saw this movie at the State Theatre in State College, Pennsylvania. It was a packed house. I mean, you don't often get an NC-17 film playing on a college campus—but this was an Ang Lee film—it was high art! This movie uses its lust in so many clever ways. It shows seduction, romance, attachment, and eventually betrayal so well.
You can track the thrilling beats as a spy seduces her target for assassination. The movie also keeps you on the edge of your seat, constantly upping the stakes and the danger.
9. The Talented Mr. Ripley
This incredible movie shows how one man can become obsessed with another, and fool everyone into thinking he's someone else. While not having the explicit sex of others on the list, this movie has so much sensuality and lust. Matt Damon's Tom Ripley is fit, witty, and desperately clinging to a fantasy. Jude Law's Dickie is so easy to despise. And Gwyneth Paltrow's Marge is pulled between the nightmare she thinks is happening and the even worse nightmare happening behind her back.
It's a thrilling movie that teases so much more under the surface.
8. Single White Female
A title that's part of the cultural lexicon, this movie is about obsession and betrayal. It also changed the way we viewed picking roommates.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder, this was a rare erotic thriller that feels like it was made without the male gaze. It pulls in elements of horror, slasher, and more psychological thrillers to build out a fun and satisfying story that keeps unfolding until the last frame.
7. Fatal Attraction
This was the movie that started the run on erotic thrillers in the late 80s and early 90s. Again, obsession takes center stage here as a man has an extramarital affair he can't escape. It was supposed to be a one-night stand for Michael Douglas' character, but Glenn Close's character keeps coming back for more. And eventually, violence comes into play.
6. Wild Things
I'm not sure there's a movie that's more famous for just one scene like Wild Things. Even the cover of the VHS at Blockbuster is burned into my brain. Denise Richards and Neve Campbell straddling Matt Dillion in a pool. But outside of that famous three-way is a taut and exciting thriller that keeps delivering twist after twist until the very last frame of the film, and even into the credits. It's a neverending list of plants, payoffs, and double-crosses that will always leave you wanting more.
This is the Wachowski siblings' first film. This sexy crime thriller features Gina Gershon as an ex-con who seduces the wife of her crime boss neighbor. Her witty repartee with Jennifer Tilly kicks this film up a notch, as they banter back and forth, exposing deep feminist themes. The movie helped launch the career of the Wachowskis, who then went on to Matrix fame.
4. Eyes Wide Shut
From the first frame to the last frame, this Stanley Kubrick masterpiece tells the story of a husband and wife in a fight. The husband exits out into the night, sneaking his way into a sex cult, causing a young woman to be murdered, and somehow living to tell the tale.
There are incredible scenes of extended conversations, tensions as Tom Cruise's character slips deeper into the underbelly of society, and the ultimate payoff. Maybe the grass is not greener out there. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman's character deals with how her husband perceives her and how she sees their marriage growing.
I wish Alfred Hitchcock were around to make more of these kinds of movies. But I wanted to add one to the list that I felt helped build the mold of these kinds of films for the modern era. Vertigo is the ultimate obsession film, with Jimmy Stewart subverting audience expectations and playing a man desperate for love and attention. The movie has been homaged so many times many people forget what it was about.
A man becomes obsessed with someone else's wife, who then dies, and then he sees a woman who looks exactly like her. Everything after this movie helped build erotic thrillers as we know them today.
2. Body Heat
Absolutely one of my favorite overall moves on the list. This one understood the assignment.
It is about a heatwave, takes place mostly at night, shows us real-world scoundrels like sleazy lawyers and shady auto mechanics, and has a murder that may not be happening the way we think. Kathleen Turner's performance in this movie is nothing short of amazing. She plays the seductress who may have more than meets the eye and absolutely haunts every hallway and furtive glance delivered in this masterpiece.
1. Basic Instinct
It's hard to peg the most famous erotic thriller, but I bet it's this one. From the leg crossing, to the ice pick, to the sex scenes, to the big reveals, to the murders, blood, and violence, this amazing erotic thriller delivers on everything we have come to expect from the genre and more. It's sexy and scary and full of dangerous escapades.
Catherine Tramell is one of the best movie villains of all time, one who you think has to be guilty—but you also have no idea how that can be true.
Of course, this movie comes with its own baggage. In Sharon Stone's recent memoir, she talks about how she was duped into shooting the leg uncrossing scene. "After we shot Basic Instinct, I got called in to see it. Not on my own with the director, as one would anticipate, given the situation that has given us all pause, so to speak, but with a room full of agents and lawyers, most of whom had nothing to do with the project. That was how I saw my vagina-shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, “We can’t see anything—I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.” Yes, there have been many points of view on this topic, but since I’m the one with the vagina in question, let me say: The other points of view are bullshit."
The director, Paul Verhoeven responded in Variety, saying “My memory is radically different from Sharon’s memory. That does not stand in the way and has nothing to do with the wonderful way that she portrayed Catherine Tramell. She is absolutely phenomenal. We still have a pleasant relationship and exchange text messages. But her version is impossible. She knew exactly what we were doing. I told her it was based on a story of a woman that I knew when I was a student who did the crossing of her legs without panties regularly at parties. When my friend told her we could see her vagina, she said, ‘Of course, that’s why I do it.’ Then Sharon and I decided to do a similar sequence.”
This is obviously a complicated issue but the film remains and achievement for all those involved.
1. Double Indemnity
Yeah, I have two number-one flicks. I had to go with the original erotic thriller, the Billy Wilder classic. This movie has it all. A Raymond Chandler and Wilder screenplay, Barabara Stanwyck as the femme fatale, and a murder with so many suspects you can't blink.
Absolutely one of the best films of all time, and certainly one of the most erotic, even while combatting the Hays Code.
Erotic Thrillers on Netflix
While erotic thrillers have not survived the studio's lust for tentpole films, we have seen them picked up on streamers like Netflix, who understand adults need entertainment and want to watch things after the kids go to bed.
Netflix has made movies like 365 Days, You Get Me, Dark Forces, and Offering to the Storm. Netflix has made a name creating sexy and erotic thrillers they know people will enjoy thanks to their algorithm.
The Future of Erotic Thrillers in Hollywood
While streamers seem to be the best place to have these kinds of films seen, I think Hollywood would bring them back in a big way. Right now, the only real erotic thrillers that are greenlit are based on big intellectual properties, like 50 Shades of Grey. That trilogy was a massive box-office success and brought butts into the seats and out of the house.
Hollywood studios are always going to be looking for movies that bring people out to see them. A few years ago, they bet big on A Simple Favor, a Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick erotic thriller that absolutely paid off.
If you can get marquee talent interested, you can still find your movie playing at the local box office. The idea is to write scripts or create projects that are so sensual, sexy, and thrilling that people cannot wait at home to find out what happens.
Summing Up Erotic Thriller Movies
Sexy thrillers and the best seduction movies will always have a place in Hollywood. They were big when movies were still finding their place in this world and will continue to be popular across different mediums. We've seen a lot of these titles move to TV, but there is still the occasional erotic film that breaks through and becomes part of the cultural lexicon.
The top sex thrillers will always have a place at the box office and an audience to see them. So if you have ideas to create the next best steamy thriller, get writing that screenplay today.
Erotic thrillers might be the right genre for you.
Let us know your favorites or some lesser-known gems in the comments.
I can't wait to watch them.