Erotic Underground 6: Ten Thrillers from 1996-1999

Following the trend of previous years, the erotic thriller continued its transition from the box office to VHS.  As the popularity of erotica continued to decline in the wake of family focused/PG-13 blockbusters, the genre began to fly under the radar of mainstream audiences, delving deeper into the softcore side of the equation as well as stretching the confines of storytelling within the sleazy depths of direct to video features.  What follows are ten films from the time period and where to find them. 

Bound (1996)

The Wachowski sisters' debut feature is a scorching hot neo-noir with style to spare.  Blending Hitchcock and Wilder's sensibilities with an ultra-graphic visual palette, the result is an unforgettable crime story about prisons of self-design.  Featuring an authentically researched lesbian relationship as the centerpiece, the story focuses on a money launderer's girlfriend who begins an affair with an ex-con handywoman.  When the two hatch a plan to steal dirty money and escape the life, things go perfectly awry.  The Wachowski's hired a sex educator to consult with on the sex sequences and the end result one of the finest neo-noirs ever made, featuring brutal violence and a trio of high-octane performances, including Gina Gerhson, Jennifer Tilly, and Joe Pantoliano. 

Availability: HBO MAX, Pluto, Crackle 

Crash (1996)

David Cronenberg's fearless adaptation of J.G. Ballard's classic novel, Crash follows a cult of individuals who are aroused by car crashes.  Featuring a bravura ensemble including James Spader, Deborah Unger, Holly Hunter, and Elias Koteas (in the best performance of his career), the film explores concepts of sex, control, and the inherent danger of obsession.  One of the most striking aspects of the controversial film (NC-17 upon release) is in its remarkable depiction of a secret, underground world in which the principles bounce from one another in an effort to find fulfillment.  Whether allegorical or literal, Crash is a film that will stay with the viewer long after it is over.  

Availability: DVD 

Fear (1996)

While this is essentially Fatal Attraction Beta Version, Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon's memorable performances manage to keep James Foley's Fear afloat.  The premise involves a young woman who lives in a perfect, privileged world, who falls in love with a mysterious man.  The resulting relationship threatens to destroy not only her perfect lifestyle, but her family as well.  The wonderful William Petersen steals the show as Witherspoon's father, caught in an unending cycle of paternal nightmares.  The final act devolves into a gruesome siege that continues to up the ante that Foley builds throughout the film, ultimately delivering a sexy, violent, and at times, appalling slice of suburbia. 

Availability: Digital Rental  

Kissed (1996)

Molly Parker (Deadwood) delivers an unforgettable performance in Lynne Stopkewich's debut feature, Kissed.  The story involves a medical student who is obsessed with death and corpses.  She begins an apprenticeship at a mortuary and slowly begins to increase her affections for those who have passed on.  When her boyfriend, also a medical student, discovers her proclivities, things devolve into tragedy and madness.  Extremely controversial upon release for its depictions of necrophilia, Kissed is an outstanding revolution against male dominated erotica and a bold depiction of sexual freedom within a prison of surreal, dreamlike sequences of dance and death. 

Availability: Digital Rental 

Human Desires (1997)

Shannon Tweed returns…again. Director Ellen Earnshaw's only film, Human Desires, was a direct to video affair.  The premise revolves around a private detective who is hired by a fashion mogul (Tweed) to investigate the suicide of a model.  A sleazy descendant of Blow Up, the film chronicles Dean Thomas' (the detective) journey through the fashion underworld in search of a killer.  Desires has more sex scenes in it than all the other films in this list.  Earnshaw's command and understanding of the picture lends a sense of risqué conspiracy to each of the sequences, whose appearance in the film could be clocked with an egg timer.  

Availability: DVD 

New Rose Hotel (1998)

Abel Ferrara adapts William Gibson's cyberpunk short story, starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Asia Argento.  Fox (Walken) and X (Dafoe) hire a prostitute Sandii (Argento) to seduce a scientist in order to extract him from a megacorporation and insert him into their employer's.  Essentially a minimalistic hangout, mood piece, Dafoe and Argento's punk rock chemistry is the lifeblood of the film, as their characters fall into a dangerous relationship their doomed affair becomes symbolic of the dystopia that awaits.  There's no action and the central drama plays out off screen, fortifying the concept of a future in which reality itself is unreliable.

Availability: Amazon Prime

Devil in the Flesh (1998)

Rose McGowan gives her strongest performance as Debbie, a foster child placed with her abusive grandmother after the mysterious death of her mother.  On the surface, this appears to be a clone of Poison Ivy, however, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that director Steve Cohen is more focused on horror conventions than surreal explorations of femininity and sexuality.  Devil in the Flesh is a unique stalker/slasher hybrid that is anchored by McGowan's commitment to the role.  Another interesting choice is that Alex McCarthur's teacher Rinaldi (the subject of Debbie's murderous affections) never transgresses and remains "pure" despite temptation.  Of note is Joseph Montgomery's shadow drenched cinematography that contrasts the sun baked sequences of the first act, to create a dichotomy between the perceived safety of normality and the dangers that hide within the heart of American suburbs. 

Availability: DVD 


Raw Nerve (1999)

An inverted Training Day by way of direct to video trash, Raw Nerve stars Mario Van Peeples as an unstable, maverick (read dirty) cop, Zach Galligan (Gremlins) as his ex-partner, and Nicolette Sheridan as his girlfriend.  The action involves Van Peeples attempting to extricate himself from a dangerous situation of his own design while avoiding prosecution.  His actions drag his friend and his lover into a noirish hellscape of assassins, sex, and double crosses.  Featuring a supporting performance by Salt from Salt N Pepa, this is a New York nightmare in almost real time.  Every scene has a sense of urgency that amps up the stakes, resulting in a final act that is unexpectedly surprising while also remaining loyal to noir constraints.  

Availability: DVD

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Kubrick's surreal erotic odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut examines the crucible of sexual and relationship dynamics amidst a backdrop of Christmas themed visuals.  Featuring one of Nicole Kidman's greatest performances, this is a dreamlike journey into the basest of human desires and fears.  Tom Cruise also stars as Kidman's husband, a doctor who is drawn into a cult (a running theme of this era) that gathers for orgies and bizarre sexual rituals.  Whether the film is truly an erotic thriller is most certainly up the viewer, however the understanding that it brings art house sensibilities to a stereo-typically "cheap" genre only enhances the eclectic nature of erotic art.  A horror film about fidelity and sexual desire, this is one of Kubrick's best films. 

Availability: Showtime, Digital Rental

                                                               Forbidden Sins (1999) 

A millionaire has been arrested for murdering a stripper during a violent sex game.  A high-profile defense attorney (yes, Shannon Tweed, again) takes the case putting her at odds with her ex-husband, the detective who made the collar.  What elevates this Jagged Edge copy is not only the well edited sex scenes, but its most likely one of Tweed's best performances.  The script is layered, and while the acting makes things laughable at times, there's just enough twists and turns to keep things somewhat unpredictable.  However, it also of import that at the end of the century, the erotic thriller was dying.  The focus is almost entirely on the sex scenes, rather than them being an accoutrement to complex social issues and high concept horror.  The silver lining is that the 2000's would eventually see a return to form.  

Availability: DVD 

Next week's feature will be an interlude, examining the Wild Things series of films. 

--Kyle Jonathan