Are the sexy thrillers of the 90s so-bad-they’re-good or just plain bad?
It’s no surprise that sex sells, but 90s cinema commodified the R-rated, sexy (but not too sexy) thriller to the point where it became a cliché. How could something called a “sexy thriller” possibly be so boring as to be called a cliché? Well, you’re about to find out as we take a little trip back to the 90s, where sexy bad girls luring men (and sometimes women) into their rarely-good schemes was a favorite plot element of the day.
And while some of these were fun — and could even be called classics — the early 90s was home to so many of them that the standard elements quickly became a paint-by-numbers routine, with a series sultry (and sometimes very young) femme fatales led the objects of their affections to bad ends. Mixing sex with scares offered just the right amount of titillation to fill theater seats during the early 90s, when you could expect a new movie in this genre playing at the local cinema year round — but their popularity has faded since.
But with 2015’s 50 Shades of Grey cut from the same cloth as these 90s thrillers, does that mean we’re going to see a whole new generation of cliché sexy thrillers? Considering how many of these flicks the 90s spawned after the success of Basic Instinct — and how awful most of them were — let’s hope not. Let’s check out some of the best and/or worst of this 90s genre.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Though it wasn’t the first of its kind, Basic Instinct was the big success — grossing $352 million world-wide — that kickstarted (pre-Kickstarter) a whole fleet of imitators. When a rock star is brutally murdered, Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is sent to investigate. The prime suspect is the seductive Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a novelist whose latest work features a murder much like the one Curran is investigating, and who coincidentally was the last person to see the victim alive.
The flick avoids falling into straightforward crime drama with as many stabbings and sex scenes — and on one very notable occasion, a stabbing during a sex scene — as could be included in an R-rated movie. Curran’s detective strategy of sleeping with his prime suspect (when he’s a homicide detective) might shed some light on why he doesn’t show up in the (widely panned) sequel, even though he (somehow) manages to survive this movie.
Poison Ivy (1992)
Not exactly a big budget affair, Poison Ivy starred a teenaged Drew Barrymore — now better known as Our Lady of Harmless RomComs — as a creepy teenage stalker. It starts out as a conventional high school drama, with Ivy (Barrymore) befriending the wealthy loner Sylvie (Sara Gilbert) at school. But the friendship sours from there (perhaps her killing a dog in the first act was a sign). Ivy seduces Sylvie’s father, murders her mother, and tells Sylvie they can be a family now. (That sounds completely reasonable!)
Though not a box office hit, this formula has been successful enough to spawn three — yes! three! — sequels, though two were direct-to-video and the third was a TV movie… which seems about right on par with the cliché quality of this bad girl flick.
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Not the sexiest movie on this list — by a long shot — Indecent Proposal still has a pretty sexy premise, though it pushes more into romance territory. Sweethearts David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) have gone to Las Vegas to try to win the cash to build their dream home — but, of course (it would be a short movie otherwise), they lose their life savings instead.
However, billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) has noticed Diana and offers a million dollars to spend the night with her. The money is too good for the couple to refuse, but it forms a rift in their relationship. Will she stay with John or rejoin her increasingly bitter husband? Spoiler alert: unlike a lot of other movies on this list, there’s a more or less happy ending to this one, without a single murder.
The Crush (1993)
The story of yet another teenage girl (this one played by Alicia Silverstone in her first feature film role), The Crush is the tale of a teen crush gone very, very wrong when 14-year-old Adrienne (Silverstone) develops a crush on Nick (Cary Elwes), a writer who’s renting the guest house on her parents’ property. Nick befriends the lonely Adrienne, but backs off as her advances become more sexual… much to Adrienne’s dismay.
In retaliation, Adrienne defaces his car, erases his computer disks (computer disks? how 90s!), and releases wasps into the vents to attack Nick’s girlfriend. When none of this wins her Nick’s heart, she accuses him of sexual assault… which goes just about as well as you’d expect. Silverstone is surprisingly scary in this role, despite being just a teen herself when it was filmed.
Body of Evidence (1993)
Not even Madonna, plenty of sex scenes, and controversy over whether the film should have an NC-17 rating could get Body of Evidence to perform at the box office. Like Basic Instinct before it, Body of Evidence features a femme female (starring Madonna as Rebecca Carlson) who uses sex to get what she wants — in this case by coaxing her older men into adding her to their wills before killing them. (Unlike Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, who had a tendency to stab her lovers, Rebecca Carlson kills older men with sex, just in case you’d missed the point that this was a sexy story about sex.)
After Carlson’s lover dies of a heart attack, she’s put on trial for his murder with the prosecution arguing that she caused the heart attack with “vigorous sex” in oder to win the payoff from his will. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to put it into the “erotic thrillers” category, so during her trial, we also see Carlson getting it on with her hapless lawyer (Willem Dafoe). Yep, Madonna and Willem Dafoe.
Color of Night (1994)
It doesn’t matter if you didn’t want Bruce Willis staring in a sexy drama with the much younger Jane March — this movie exists anyway and the scenes between Willis and March are just as awkward as their 18 year age difference would suggest. In it, Dr. Bill Capa (Willis) is a psychologist who moves to LA to get away from it all after seeing one of his patients commit suicide. But the violence doesn’t end here as bodies continue to drop. Through it all, Capa is seduced by Rose (March) who, in a not-so-surprise twist, turns out to be Capa’s male patient Richie. (How can Capa be having sex with her without noticing that she looks exactly like one of his patients? It’s clearly not her face he’s paying attention to.)
It’s Rose’s brother who’s doing the killing, worried that the knowledge of her dual identity will link her to his killings. Or something. You probably shouldn’t try to apply too much logic to this plot.
In case this movie wasn’t strange enough as filmed, you could always imagine it as some kind of bizarre prequel to The Sixth Sense. But, really, you’re probably better off not watching it at all.
The only box office hit on this list besides Indecent Proposal, Disclosure shows executive Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) who’s passed over for promotion in favor of his ex Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore). Despite the fact that Sanders is married and uninterested, Johnson tries to force him into a relationship with her, and when he refuses, she accuses him of sexual harassment.
Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame), the flick works because there’s a story beyond the sex, which mostly serves as a catalyst for the real (and less sexy) drama of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits. In the end, Sanders weathers the scandal of the situation and winds up back right where he was at the start of the film without his promotion, but he’s learned a valuable life lesson… maybe.
How was Hollywood to revive the sexy thriller, which by the mid-90s was growing into the tired cliché that we know today? With Species, they threw in some sci-fi to create a sexy alien antagonist — in the film, the alien antagonist is literally created from a combination of human and alien DNA, which was made to be female so it would be more docile. (Oops, I guess these geneticists never saw Basic Instinct.) The resulting creature — an alluring blonde who could transform into a terrifying alien creature — just wanted to mate with a human male. (Though sexy aliens everywhere, I feel like I should tell you that you can do better.)
The finished product is an odd cross between Alien and Basic Instinct, which doesn’t quite work on any level… and somehow still spawned Species II, Species III, and Species – The Awakening. Now that’s scary.
With Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas, who worked together to made Basic Instinct, return with another sexy thriller… though to lesser results. (There’s no Sharon Stone for a start.) Unlike Basic Instinct — and many other films on this list — Showgirls wasn’t edited to receive an R-rating, instead releasing to theaters as NC-17, which meant it didn’t even make back its $40 million budget at the box office (though it became a cult hit on home video).
So how do you make a sexy thriller that doesn’t get people to show up at theaters? Instead of focusing on crowd-pleasing sex scenes, Showgirls spent a lot of screentime focusing on the myriad forms of abuse taken by the showgirls the story follows… and on top of hackneyed, predictable dialog (i.e. “I’m a dancer!”), it just didn’t work no matter how much nudity it had.
For better or worse, the golden age of the sexy thriller seems to have come and gone… but with Hollywood’s fondness for revisiting old favorites, we wouldn’t be surprised if this genre rises from the grave — especially if 50 Shades winds up being a box office success.