Erotic Underground Part One: Ten Thrillers from 1980-1984

Originating in the 40's with Double Indemnity, the Erotic Thriller subgenre rose to prominence in global cinema in the 1980's, crowned by Adrian Lyne's infamous Fatal Attraction. Blending elements of noir, horror, and softcore pornography, these films exist in a strange celluloid ecosystem.  For the most part, these are studio pictures made by auteurs, something that would not occur today (prior to the pandemic).  The genre's existence is perhaps the swan song of Hollywood originality, signaling the transition from the guerrilla style production of the 70's to the box office obsessed/Rotten Tomatoes focused 21st century.   Prior to Attraction's release in 1987, erotic thrillers surged from 1980-1984, laying a foundation that would extend into the late 2000's.  What follows is a list of 10 films that are essential viewing experiences from that time period, and where they can be found online.  

Cruising (1980)

Perhaps the most controversial entry in this list, William Friedkin's Cruising follows Al Pacino's detective Steve Burns as he goes undercover in the New York City gay nightclub scene to catch serial killer.  Protested upon release and critically lambasted, the film has a place of notoriety in American cinematic history.  Originally rated X for graphic sexual content and violence, the film was trimmed down to get an R.  The studio included a caption at the beginning, claiming that the film was not an indictment of homosexuality, which only furthered outrage.  In recent years, the film has received a critical reappraisal and Arrow Video issued a special edition Director's Cut.  Featuring lurid sequences of debauchery, brutal violence, and a wonderfully ambiguous ending, Cruising set the tone for the next four years of erotic cinema.

Availability: VUDU Free w/ Ads, Digital Rental 

Bad Timing (1980)

Renowned auteur Nicolas Roeg's deeply divisive masterwork is not for the faint of heart.  The central story, told through flashbacks, revolves around a psychology professor (Art Garfunkel) and an American woman (Theresa Russell) who enter into a dangerous sexual relationship.  This is the perfect example of how viewers respond to the genre.  There is no middle ground, the film is either lauded or utterly despised for its shocking sexual sequences and appalling denouement.  Featuring a solid supporting turn by the incomparable Harvey Keitel, and an infamous scene in a stairwell, Bad Timing is a harrowing journey into the dark corners of the soul.

Availability: Criterion Channel, Digital Rental. 

Dressed to Kill (1980)

The infamous shower scene.  One of Brian De Palma's many classics, Dressed to Kill is not only a touchstone of American psychological horror films, it is also a loving (one of De Palma's many) homage to Alfred Hitchcock.  It features a checklist of shockers: Intense opening sex scene, a surprise death during the first act, and a jaw dropping finale.  This is the first film on the list to break out into the mainstream, largely due to the twists, turns, and Angie Dickson's undeniably steamy performance.  Using unique framing techniques and building upon his European influences, De Palma frames the film as an American neo-giallo that remains one of the finest examples of sexually infused cinema today.

Availability: Digital Rental 

Body Heat (1981)

Kathleen Turner's steamy debut as the predatory seductress Matty Walker balances raw sexual mastery with wicked intent.  Kasdan's Body Heat is a film that rests entirely on its villainess's ability to captivate the audience, and Turner delivers.  William Hurt’s Ned is the surrogate, blindly following his heart (and other anatomy) into moral oblivion due to Turner's sultry delivery and her uncompromising command of the material.  Her chemistry with Hurt is intoxicating, to the point that the viewer is carefully reminded of a time when they made bad decisions for a bad thing that never felt so good and this is the film's essence.

Availability: HBO Now, Digital Rental 

Cat People (1982)

Paul Schrader's remake of the Jacques Tourneur classic (and originator of the jump scare) focuses on a love triangle between Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, and Nastassja Kinski. Set in a decaying New Orleans, Schrader focuses on the sexual angles of the original story about people who are able to transform into large feline animals.  Kinksi, who would go on the break hearts in Win Wender's masterpiece Paris, Texas, gives a haunting performance as Irena, and her sexual awakening is documented with extreme kink, masterfully woven with Schrader's trademark panache. 

Availability: HBOGO, Digital Rental. 

The Hunger (1983)

Tony Scott's vampire epic is one of the most memorable films of the decade. Lead actress Catherine Deneuve delivers an unusual performance. The legendary actress, known for controversial roles, abandons the subtle touchstones of her repertoire in favor of a sexually charged persona that takes what it wants and isn't afraid to get down on the blood-soaked floorboards when required. She's supported by David Bowie in one of his most vulnerable performances, playing the jilted lover who is desperate to hold onto a lie. Susan Sarandon rounds out the cast as Miriam's latest conquest, and while she does an adequate job with the material, it's her iconic sex scene with Deneuve that is the centerpiece. The thing about this scene, aside from its vivid imagery is that it’s hot without being cheap due to Scott's refusal to cut away and the delicate, yet dangerous performances of the leads. The idea of a woman taking what she wants, and in this case, it being a female lover, in an 80's American film was a remarkably bold choice that pays off due to the emotional depth of the performances.

Availability: Digital Rental

Body Double (1984)

Easily the most "fun" film on this list, Body Double is yet another De Palma Hitchcock homage, but also a loving tribute to filmmaking.  Perception, Performance, and Deception are of import as Craig Wasson's down on his luck actor navigates the seedy underbelly of the Los Angeles porn scene on the trail of a killer.  Combining elements of Vertigo and Rear Window, this is one of De Palma's most balanced works in his portfolio, combining all of his hallmarks: sex, extreme violence, laugh out loud humor, and incredibly large murder weapons.

Availibility: Crackle w/ ADs, Digital Rental

Crimes of Passion (1984)

Ken Russell is no stranger to contention or sexually charge storytelling.  His masterwork The Devils is still regarded as one of the most controversial films ever made.  In Crimes of Passion, Kathleen Turner gives the most polarizing performance of her career as Joanna/China Blue. Her commitment to this role is so unique and viscerally charged that you often forget you're watching the same actress who starred in Romancing the Stone in the same year. Turner is simply amazing as a tortured hooker with a bleeding heart of fool's gold. Anthony Perkins brings his A game, summoning the insanity of previous performances and using them to bring his street preacher gone mad to life, along with a murderous sex toy called "Superman". 

Availibility: Digital Rental

Fear City (1984)

Abel Ferrara's grimy, sleazy, and absolutely insane masterpiece Fear City is unbelievable at first.  The basic premise involves a pair of "talent" agents who procure gigs for exotic dancers.  A serial killer is hunting down the women, using martial arts skills to kill them.  One of the agents is a former boxer and haunted by a death in the ring, and he begins to investigate the killings while being dogged by a Vice cop.  Featuring an unbelievable cast including Jack Scalia, Melanie Griffith (also in Body Double), Rae Dawn Chong, Tom Berenger, and Billy Dee Williams, this picture is emblematic of an era where filmmakers took chances and studios took even bigger ones.  Ferrara is a rebel, a one-man New York army and his films during this decade explored all manner of taboo.  Fear City is perhaps the best because it is an unrestrained look at life on 42nd street, a district that many visited, but never stayed the night. Featuring Lando Calrissian as a tough talking Detective, a Boxer vs Ninja climax, and unforgettable dance sequences, this is not to be missed.

Availibility: MUBI, Digital Rental 

Tightrope (1984)

Clint Eastwood's complex central performance marks Tightrope as one of the most forward-thinking films of the 1980s.  Focusing on a troubled New Orleans detective hunting a serial killer who is preying on prostitutes, the real story lies underneath Eastwood's brooding turn.  Essentially, this is a film about a man learning to become a better person.  While the subject matter is extremely gruesome, Eastwood is fascinating and uncharacteristically vulnerable in this, delivering possibly the best performance of career.

Availibility: Digital Rental 

-Kyle Jonathan