The erotic thriller would be nothing without women. When thinking about that gloriously trashy, often reviled but recently critically reexamined movie genre that had its heyday in the late ’80s and ’90s, you think first of the femme fatales: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. With all due respect to Michael Douglas, the actor most often associated with the genre, any erotic-thriller fan will agree it’s the darkly seductive women at the genre’s heart that keeps us watching.
But while women are the stars of the best erotic thrillers, the vast majority of films in the genre are directed by men. This isn’t necessarily surprising, given Hollywood’s notorious gender imbalances (as recently as 2018, women directed just 8 percent of the top-grossing 250 films, per The Hollywood Reporter). Erotic thrillers may often be derided for their supposed sexism but the women onscreen are undeniably powerful, taking pleasure in their own bodies, their devious schemes, and in ruining men’s lives. There’s an inherent threat in the figure of the erotic-thriller femme fatale, with the way she combines the classic deviousness of a film noir dame with a hard-charging charisma brought on by sexual liberation. In the world of erotic thrillers, sex is a tool and revenge is always an option.
Stories of female directors having their films taken away from them or having agonizingly long gaps in their filmographies are all too common, especially when their films are made in a genre that often panders to male desires. It’s a shame that there are so few of these films available to study, and most of them have been dismissed by their directors or lost to time. Films like Lady Beware (1987) and Love Crimes (1992) are cautionary tales for women behind the camera. As more women take on directing and writing roles (which seems a necessity in a Hollywood increasingly aware of sexism within its ranks), one can only hope that the erotic thriller will come back with a newly feminist vengeance. After all, the sight of a female character who takes pleasure in being bad is rich psychological territory. In a cultural landscape filled with ’90s nostalgia and viewers with increasingly strong bullshit detectors around sexist cliche, cinema could use more femme fatales seen through the eyes of actual femmes.
While pretty much all of the films that come to mind when the gloriously evocative phrase “erotic thriller” is mentioned are directed by men, there are a few exceptions. You can count the number of erotic thrillers — theatrically-released films centering sex in a noir-inflected narrative — on one hand. The best-known example is Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy (1992), starring Drew Barrymore as a street-smart teenage temptress who inspires fear and awe in equal measure and Sara Gilbert as Sylvie, the wealthy girl who wants to be her (and also probably be with her). As Barrymore’s character (named Ivy, natch), insinuates her way into the life of Sylvie and her family, things take a dark turn.
The film may not have been a huge success, but its batty literalization of a gender-swapped Oedipus tale and Barrymore’s bleach-blonde bad girl charisma (buoyed by her real-life status as a scandalous figure) and fabulous wardrobe make it wildly watchable. Unlike many erotic thrillers, Poison Ivy focuses on female friendship. It takes the thorniness and envy found in so many of these relationships (especially during the frequently romanticized but usually terrible teenage years) and pushes them to delirious extremes. It’s unlikely that a male director in the genre would emphasize such a relationship, and a woman is more likely to probe its unique potential for toxicity. A New York Times article timed to Poison Ivy’s release speculated that as a woman director Shea would “no doubt be subjected to extra scrutiny.”
Reactions to the film were mixed from the start: the audience “bombarded” Shea with “hostile questions” at early screenings and the director was called both “a male-basher and a female-basher.” While Poison Ivy has some nuance beyond its original “teenage Fatal Attraction” elevator pitch, a woman director working in a genre known for exploitative elements film is frequently expected to bring some new form of morality to the proceedings, and any reliance on a genre’s cheesier tropes can be painted as a betrayal of feminist values. Poison Ivy spawned three direct-to-video sequels (one of which, Poison Ivy II: Lily, was also directed by a woman, Francis Ford Coppola’s editor-turned-director Anne Goursaud) and Shea continued to work in genre film, with her most high profile movie being the 1999 sequel to Carrie. Her most recent release — her first in nearly 20 years — was a Nancy Drew adaptation that went under the radar. Tellingly, her Wikipedia page includes a list of unmade projects.
The idea of Weinstein, of all people, being the one to ruin this film feels like a queasy case study in the sexist power imbalance of early ’90s Hollywood.
It’s unfortunate that Poison Ivy, with its cocktail of ’90s sleaze and twisted feminine psychology, is one of the very few female-directed erotic thrillers to have any sort of cultural impact. When women filmmakers worked within this genre, the resulting films frequently became cautionary tales of troubled productions and Hollywood sexism. Lizzie Borden, director of the feminist cult classic Born in Flames (1983) and Working Girls (1986), a nuanced portrayal of sex work, made an erotic thriller, Love Crimes, in 1992. In theory, Borden, having previously explored sexual politics and taken a more political stance in her work, would seem a good candidate for subverting the erotic thriller, but the reality was bleak. The film was taken out of her hands by none other than the most disgusting man in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein. In a recent podcast interview, Borden expressed regret over not walking away from the project and said the experience of Weinstein demanding to change the screenplay and structure of the film and threatening to ruin her career if she took her name off it was traumatizing.
The film, which stars Sean Young as a district attorney who goes undercover to catch a serial sexual predator, was doomed from the start, plagued by countless rewrites and disagreements that left Borden feeling disempowered and unable to do what she wanted with the story. As she succinctly said, “There was nothing good about the experience.” The idea of Weinstein, of all people, being the one to ruin this film feels like a queasy case study in the sexist power imbalance of early ’90s Hollywood.
A few years earlier, Karen Arthur’s Lady Beware (1987) met a similar fate by producers determined to stifle a woman’s creativity. Arthur had previously directed the arty horror film The Mafu Cage (1978), which focused on a disturbing sororal relationship. Lady Beware would seem to have all the ingredients for a classic erotic thriller: Diane Lane plays a department store window dresser who specializes in sexy displays. Her work catches the eye of a sleazy stalker, and she’s made into a victim in search of vengeance. The tagline, “When fantasy leads to terror,” could describe most films in the genre. Sadly, it ended up as a cursed production. While Arthur wanted to make a film exploring uniquely feminine fears, telling the Los Angeles Times prior to its release, “I’m not interested in making a picture where a woman gets beat up. I want to show how a woman deals with this kind of insidious violence. A policeman can’t help,” her producers wanted to make an exploitation film.
The final cut went against the director’s wishes, and in another interview with the Los Angeles Times a year later, Arthur said, “They printed up negatives where I never said ’print.’ I, as a female director would never exploit a woman’s body and use it as a turn-on.” To compare Arthur’s Los Angeles Times interviews from 1986 and 1987 is to see a crystal clear example of how frustratingly the film industry can treat ambitious women interested in bringing their own lived experience to a project. Male producers overlooked the perspective a woman could bring to the story and prioritized semi-nudity over psychology. It wouldn’t be the first time or the last, and one wonders how many women were prevented from making memorable erotic thrillers by opportunistic men eager to run with only the genre’s most problematic elements.
Erotic thrillers directed by women rarely had opportunity to rise above the purgatory of low budgets and straight-to-video releases. The movies are generally more likely to gain notoriety than acclaim — to give one famous example, Boxing Helena (1993) the directorial debut of Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David, made the news when potential stars — first Madonna and then Kim Basinger — dropped out, leading to dramatic legal battles. The film, a horror tale with erotic-thriller flourishes, received scathing reviews. If few erotic thrillers in general are well-reviewed (the genre, with its bared flesh and often absurd plotting tended to fare better with audiences and the then-burgeoning home video market than it did with critics), ones by women tend to do even worse.
It’s telling that one of the only five women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar, Jane Campion, made a film with that blended erotic-thriller elements (voyeurism, sex, obsession) with self-conscious artiness and had none of the cultural impact of a Basic Instinct. Her 2003 movie In the Cut, based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Moore, starred Meg Ryan, playing against her girl-next-door type as a woman drawn into a web of seamy sexual intrigue. The film received mostly negative reviews, mostly from men. New Yorker critic David Denby called it “terrible—a thriller devoid of incidental pleasures or humor, or even commonplace reality,” though the film does have a few defenders, including critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who claimed it was Campion’s best work since her Oscar-nominated The Piano. The film was also featured as an example of “the enigma of feminine subjectivity” in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the 2006 documentary starring idiosyncratic philosopher Slavoj Žižek. With its somewhat dour palette (unlike many erotic thrillers, the film isn’t very “fun”), In the Cut is more of an object to be studied than enjoyed.
Have there been any steps forward in the niche cinematic concern of erotic thrillers directed by women? The answer is kind of, but not really. The most recent erotic thriller directed by a woman (which is also one of the only recent erotic thrillers period) is Denise Di Novi’s Unforgettable, from 2017. Unforgettable is also notable for being one of the very few films in the genre to feature a woman of color in a leading role, with Rosario Dawson in the part of a woman being tormented by a crazy blonde (who else?) played by Katherine Heigl. The film, which spent much of its runtime offering up tepid reinterpretations of genre tropes (leaning particularly heavily on Single White Female’s push-and-pull between two women), was also a critical failure. In a nice bit of women-directed erotic thriller symmetry, Heigl’s mother was played by former Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd, who also played Sara Gilbert’s mother in Poison Ivy.
The erotic-thriller genre may not be feminist in the ways that say, a horror movie’s “final girl” or a coming-of-age story’s female friendship is often understood to be, but it does seem to cry out for a feminine view, or what’s now often trendily refered to as a “female gaze.” Between the ’90s being back in fashion and the current discourse around women, power, and consent, now seems the perfect time for femme fatales brought to us by women.
My personal favorite entries in the genre, in no particular order
Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998)
Swimming Pool (Francois Ozon, 2003)
Bound (The Wachowski Siblings, 1996)
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002)
Poison Ivy (Katt Shea, 1992)
Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
Crimes of Passion (Ken Russell, 1984)
Bitter Moon (Roman Polanski, 1992)
Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, 1992)
Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)