50 Best Erotic Thrillers of All Time


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Aug 26, 2023

50 Best Erotic Thrillers of All Time

By Rolling Stone When Fair Play, Chloe Domont’s wonderfully salacious thriller, premiered at Sundance this past January, festival audiences immediately reacted to this tale of two financial analysts

By Rolling Stone

When Fair Play, Chloe Domont’s wonderfully salacious thriller, premiered at Sundance this past January, festival audiences immediately reacted to this tale of two financial analysts gunning for a golden-ticket client and C-suite brass ring. It wasn’t just the now-notorious opening scene of a couple getting it on in the bathroom during a wedding, or the kinks that keeps a secret relationship between these competitive Wall Street sharks in maximum-horny mode, or even the looming threat of violence lurking around every downtown New York corner. What people keyed into was the throwback thrill that Domont and her leads (Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor) were channeling so beautifully. This was a trashy, panting corporate drama set in 2023 that looked and acted like it was still 1993. It was the perfect recreation of a vintage erotic thriller.

Whether or not Fair Play — which begins streaming on Netflix today — brings back this disreputable, much-maligned genre or not, it’s safe to say that erotic thrillers are experiencing a huge resurgence of interest. You can credit You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s popular Hollywood-history podcast that’s been doing a deep dive into these sleazy, saxophone-soundtracked potboilers from the 1980s and ’90s, a.k.a. the genre’s Golden Age, over the last year. It could be that moviegoers bemoaning the lack of sex on screens today have rediscovered yesteryear’s hot-and-heavy handwringers in an effort to scratch that itch. Or it might simply be nostalgia for an anything-but-simpler time. Regardless, these often controversial, almost always problematic movies are once again making pulses race and palms sweat.

Which means, naturally, that it’s the perfect time to rank the trashiest, the sexiest, the most sordid, and the straight-up best erotic thrillers of all time. What surprised us during the making of this list was not only what the definition of term meant when it came to what did or did not qualify, but the fact that these types of movies have been around longer than you think. (There are several key E.T.s here that predate the Reagan-to-Bush-I–era heyday.) From swampy sleazefests to high-temp neo-noirs, Fatal Attraction to Cruel Intentions, these 50 movies remind you that there are few things that movies seem to love more than sex and death. Especially when you pair the two together and let them just have at each other in a back alleyway to the sound of wailing saxophones.

Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche fought during the shoot. Louis Malle declared it “the most difficult film I’ve ever made.” And cuts had to be imposed to avoid an NC-17 rating. But all that friction only added to the ferocious beauty of this adaptation of Josephine Hart’s novel about a brooding British parliamentarian consumed by a clandestine affair with his son’s libidinous girlfriend. Lust and contempt equally bond these lovers, resulting in sex scenes in which it’s unclear if they want to fuck or destroy one another. Why is their attraction so twisted and unhealthy? Fascinatingly, David Hare’s screenplay leaves that question unanswered, forcing viewers to ponder the unfathomable nature of sexual obsession. —Tim Grierson

This early ’90s thriller gained cult-classic status through repeated late-night cable airings, and it still exemplifies an era of after-hours HBO filled with sexy neo-noirs instead of endless Game of Thrones reruns. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson and directed by James Foley, the story centers around a punch-drunk ex-boxer (Jason Patric) who falls into the employment of a conniving widow (Rachel Ward) and a scheming ex-cop (Bruce Dern) as they embark on a half-baked scheme to kidnap a child for ransom. The film seems cloaked in Southern California dust and suntanned sweat, and if Patric and Ward’s inevitable coupling doesn’t feel believable, that’s only because they’re in lust with each other, not love. Given the time of night most would have watched After Dark, My Sweet, that’s perfectly fine. —Mosi Reeves

Yes, Roman Polanski’s cruelly efficient satire about two couples on a cruise ship does provide a lot of sex, courtesy of the voluptuous Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s real-life wife). But she and screen husband Peter Coyote are also very funny as they depict a brutally sadomasochistic marriage in outrageous flashback scenes, all which the wheelchair-bound Coyote recalls for the arousal of naïve cruise passenger Hugh Grant. Meanwhile, his wife (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) initially seems like a spectator to these ribald conversations, even as she grows disgusted at Grant’s pathetic flirtation towards Seigner’s free-spirited libertine. She’ll ultimately play a key role, however, especially as the film winds its way from farce and romantic turmoil to tragedy. —M.R.

Dark sexual desire infuses every frame of Pedro Almodóvar’s tormented tale of childhood innocence lost, which is set in motion when movie director Enrique (Fele Martínez) reunites with Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), his first love from their Catholic boarding school days. Ignacio has written a provocative autobiographical story he’d like Enrique to adapt for the big screen. There more than meets the eye here, however. García Bernal has never been more seductive, and Almodóvar — very much in his kinky, down-and-dirty mode — luxuriates in his film’s taboo-busting audacity, whether it’s the cross-dressing, the outrageous twists, the condemnation of the Catholic Church’s in-house predators or the humid sex scenes. —T.G.

French filmmaker François Ozon’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel introduces us to Chloé (Marine Vacth), a depressed museum guard who starts meeting with a therapist, Paul (Jérémie Renier). He unlocks something within her while taking her to bed …and then they all lived happily every after, right? Not even close. Ozon pushes the material to the edge of ludicrousness — the twists are absolute doozies — but the filmmaking’s chilly brilliance and the actors’ red-hot sexual chemistry keep you riveted, ready for whatever outrageous left turn the story makes next. —T.G.

“Something to offend almost everyone,” wrote Time Magazine of a film that shocked the censors, appalled the critics, and drew protests from gay rights groups convinced it would inspire hate crimes. If actual time hasn’t totally rehabilitated the reputation of the late William Friedkin’s seedy psychodrama about a killer prowling New York’s underground leather bars, it has thrown a floodlight on the sweaty urgency of its thrills, including a blood-freezing opening sequence of lust hardening into terror with the flash of a blade. Shining brighter still is Al Pacino’s simmering, ambiguous performance as the possibly closeted policeman playing prey to flush out a predator; taking his cues from the double entendre of the title, he blurs the line between duty and desire. Lots of movies follow cops who lose themselves undercover. Gripping as it is eternally controversial, this one gets its whole charge from the possibility that the cop might find himself there instead. —A.A. Dowd

High-priced prosecutor “Rusty” Sabich (Harrison Ford) is assigned by the district attorney to assist homicide detectives in investigating the grisly murder of a fellow lawyer, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Sacchi), who specialized in sexual-assault cases. There’s just one big catch: Rusty had been having affair with his colleague, and when she had broken things off, he became a little aggressive and stalker-y. Which means — you guessed it — he’s not just part of the investigation but also the prime suspect. Even if you already know the twist at the center of Scott Turrow’s best-selling novel, you can still enjoy the way that director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View) and cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) turn what could have been a trashy thriller into a high-pedigree courtroom drama. It’s the steamy-as-hell sex scene between Ford and Sacchi on his desk, however, that’s earned this early ’90s lawyer-lit adaptation a place on this list. Yowza. —David Fear

“I am God,” declares Alec Baldwin’s brilliant, arrogant surgeon — the big punchline of a vintage Aaron Sorkin deposition. Years before he turned his attention to more highfalutin topics like politics, journalism, and the invention of Facebook, the West Wing creator cowrote (along with Scott Frank) this supremely unpredictable ménage à trois of a thriller, co-starring Bill Pullman as an academic blindsided by plot twists and a young Nicole Kidman as his shattered, litigious wife. Juicy monologues aside, the real pleasures of filmmaker Harold Becker’s monument to misdirection are structural, not verbal: It takes the screenwriting equivalent of a god complex to unleash a serial killer on a sleepy college town, only to …well, let’s not spoil the fun. —A.A.D.

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is a strong contender for being the granddaddy of modern erotic thrillers — at the very least, it can be credited (and/or blamed) for kickstarting a potent subcategory in the genre, i.e. a spurned woman turns psychotic. Eastwood’s late-night radio D.J. keeps getting requests for Erroll Garner’s jazz standard “Misty” on his show; eventually, he meets — and sleeps with — the listener (Jessica Walter) who’s been calling in for it. He views the relationship as extremely casual. She does not, alas, and when the man with the velvety voice tries to end things, his superfan’s reactions range from self-destructive to homicidal. Long before she was the Bluth matriarch on Arrested Development, Walters showed she could channel a whole different type of male nightmare made manifest. You don’t get Fatal Attraction without this. —D.F.

Consuming desire edges into a desire to consume in Claire Denis’ mesmerizing cannibal erotica, which dips into the gruesome shock of the “New French Extremity” horror movement while channeling the swooning sensuality of the director’s other work like Beau Travail. During his honeymoon in Paris, Shane (Vincent Gallo) starts feeling the effects of an experimental treatment for the human libido, but the former colleague he tries to track down is already dealing with the advanced impact on his wife (a feral Béatrice Dalle), who has insatiable appetites. They’re like the black panthers in Cat People: No cage can hold them back. —Scott Tobias

In the 1960s, sophisticated foreign-language films had a reputation as a place to see the kind of sex and nudity that Hollywood only teased. And for his first feature, director Roman Polanski used those expectations to his advantage, making a taut thriller that delivered sustained suspense and the promise of something naughty, while also exploring heavy themes like paranoia and lust. The story is simple: A married couple (Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umecka) invite an unnamed hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) to join them on a sailing expedition, where the two men compete to impress the lady, while all three of them are dressed in revealing swimwear. The macho chest-beating is at once amusing and scary, as the audience waits anxiously to see which two will tumble into bed together — and who will be tossed overboard. —Noel Murray

Some of the sexiest sequences in Paul Schrader’s portrait of a high-priced call guy barely have to do with actual sex — though that’s definitely in the film. There’s an erotic aesthetic at play here, with Richard Gere’s Julian living a sexy life, from his Armani suits to his perfectly built body. But that pristine existence, funded by the services he provides to lonely, elite women, is punctured by twin events: His affair with Lauren Hutton’s alluring political wife and his implication in a disturbing murder. Schrader invites us to watch Julian’s life unravel, but he is ultimately a romantic at heart, and it turns out American Gigolo is less about sex than the soul. —Esther Zuckerman

Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel introduced the character of Tom Ripley, a con artist who would become a channel for his creator’s misogynistic impulses for decades to come. Anthony Minghella’s film — the novel’s second adaptation after 1960’s Purple Noon — gives her antihero a soul, only to watch as he barters it away to survive. Matt Damon plays Ripley, an aimless young man who bluffs his way into a job retrieving Dickie Greenwood (Jude Law), the wealthy son of a shipping magnate leading a decadent existence in Italy. Once there, Ripley’s gift for deception ingratiates him to Dickie and (most of) his friends. It also ultimately requires him to take drastic measures to maintain his cover. Damon plays Ripley as a sociopath struggling to rejoin humanity, inspired in part by an attraction to Dickie. His failure transforms the film from a clever, nasty delight into a tragedy. —Keith Phipps

Beware the nanny that seems too good to be true — she may, in fact, be trying to wreck your life as a way of seeking vengeance for you busting her OB-GYN husband for assaulting you during an exam! Curtis Hanson’s domestic nightmare of a thriller pits Annabella Sciorra’s working mom against Rebecca De Mornay’s hired help from hell, with the latter slowly insinuating her way into the family while constantly gaslighting her employer. Potential rivals ranging from Ernie Hudson’s mentally disabled handyman to Julianne Moore’s suspicion-harboring best friend are sidelined or dispatched with altogether; as for Sciorra’s husband (played by Matt McCoy), he’s a prime target for seduction. Funny how the nanny just happens to be in the kitchen wearing a sheer nightgown when he comes down in the middle of the night. Or how she’s ready to towel him off after a rain storm while wearing the single clingiest wet dress in the history of erotic thrillers. —D.F.

Cat People had already been a classic 1942 horror film by Jacques Tourneur, but it gets a fabulously lurid makeover from Paul Schrader. Nastassja Kinski plays a devout young Catholic with a deadly secret: Whenever she feels any kind of sexual urges, she turns into a bloodthirsty black panther. Naturally, she gets a job in a zoo, and what a surprise — she bonds with the man-eating felines. It’s a family curse she shares her brother Malcolm McDowell, who also an unhealthy interest in his sibling. Kinski is really soulful and relatable, getting in touch with her panther energy, especially after she falls in love for the first time. Will she sleep with him? Will she chomp and claw him to shreds? Like Travis Bickle, except more naked, she’s a Schraderesque loner torn between lust and rage, to the soundtrack of Giorgio Moroder’s eerie ’80s synths. David Bowie belts the classic theme song, a goth darkwave anthem where he yells, “I’m putting out fire with gasoline!” —Rob Sheffield

Since director Henri-Georges Clouzot chose to end this film with a warning to moviegoers not to spoil its secrets for others, let’s approach this with caution. Set largely at a French boarding school of questionable quality, the film concerns a love triangle between three people who, by all appearances, despise one another: headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse), his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, the director’s real-life spouse), and his lover Nicole (Simone Signoret). Fed up with Michel, the two women concoct a convoluted plan to do him in. Part detective story (thanks to a fun turn from a rumpled Charles Varnel as a proto-Columbo), part hyperventilating thriller, and part ghost story, Diabolique gets its charge from the sleazy frisson between its desperate characters whose complex, sometimes conflicting feelings for one another make virtually every scene feel like it could end in murder or an embrace. Or maybe both. —K.P.

Who else but David Cronenberg could take the erotic thriller to one of the most extreme levels ever depicted on screen. His adaptation of J.G Ballard’s transgressive 1973 novel is an unnerving depiction of a subculture of people who get turned on by car accidents. A married couple played by James Spader — the perfect man to play an aroused freak — and Debrah Kara Unger dive deeper into this shadowy netherworld led by a cult leader-like figure played by Elias Koteas. Cronenberg makes the sex on screen feel somehow both mechanical and corporeal, fusing metal and skin in ways that are both tantalizing and deeply upsetting. You can almost smell the gasoline fumes coming off this movie. —E.Zu

Not one has ever accused Paul Verhoeven of playing it safe — but he fully crossed the line with this 2016 movie, a psychological thriller so controversial it had to made in France. Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), the head of videogame company, is raped in her home by an unknown, masked assailant. She becomes both traumatized and obsessed with the experience, eventually engaging in a sexual relationship with her neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) that toes the boundary between consent and assault. Despite its challenging subject matter, Verhoeven and Huppert skillfully shift the film away from spectacle into a complex character study that asks uneasy questions about female empowerment. What does Michèle, whose carefully-organized life threatens to descend into chaos, gain from these encounters? In true erotic thriller style, there are a few twists, including which person is ultimately in control. —Emily Zemler

Former sex worker Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) lands a gig as a maid in a Tokyo inn, where married horndog boss Kichiko Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) gleefully molests his libidinous new hire and kicks off a torrid affair of mutual oblivion. Controversy-baiting director Nagisa Oshima goes hardcore in his graphic retelling of a true-life 1936 crime of passion, which culminated in a dazed-and-confused Abe wandering the streets holding her dead lover’s severed genitals. Their appetite for each other is so voracious that Kichi licks her menstrual blood from his fingers and shoves an egg in her crotch, while Sada eats his pubic hair and forces him to mount a geriatric geisha — when she’s not threatening him with a kitchen knife in a fit of jealous rage. Unsimulated penetration, fellatio, exhibitionism, orgies, rough play, and more than a little choking are all on the menu in this X-rated arthouse revelation of mad love. —Stephen Garrett

Pedro Almodóvar’s masterwork of erotic thrills turns Spain’s fanatical love for bullfighting into the catalyst for a psychosexual murder spree. Retired matador Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez) is still so addicted to the adrenaline rush of death that he masturbates to slasher-film highlights of brutalized women and makes his girlfriends play dead when he ravages them. Unbeknownst to him, Diego superfan Maria Cardenal (Assumpta Serna) seduces men just so she can fatally stab them in the back in a toro-erotic climax. Just for kicks, you also get Antonio Banderas as a young-buck virgin with burning sexual desire, nascent psychic powers, and a sense of overpowering Catholic guilt that makes him claim credit for all the bloodshed. Sex and death have never been so closely intertwined, as the Spanish director adds necrophilia, vertigo, rape, and an eclipse to the darkly funny — and surprisingly, a seriously sexy — concoction. —S.G.

Based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Nicolas Roeg’s slow-burning, subliminally constructed nightmare supplies the “erotic” in this thriller thanks to one hell of a sex scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, playing a bereaved couple mourning the drowning of their young daughter. (For years the artfully edited sequence has been the subject of speculation: Were the actors really doing it?) But there’s something sensuous and tactile about the whole enterprise, from the ominous cobble-stoned alleys of Venice to the ubiquity of the color red, which Sutherland’s John, poking his head up from his work restoring a church, ends up following over bridges and through empty streets to what turns out to be his doom. —Chris Vognar

Identical twin gynecologists sleep with the same actress, declining to mention that they’re not the same person. It sounds like a setup for premium kink, maybe a naughty sex comedy. But as usual, David Cronenberg has more in mind than mere titillation. Working from a novel by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, the Canadian body-horror maestro dives deeply into the symbiotic relationship between these physically indistinguishable but emotionally quite distinct brothers. Jeremy Irons plays both, using mannerism to carefully differentiate between the two characters, so that we can tell one from the other at a glance …at least until their respective identities begin to blur together. Here, a sensational story becomes something more complex, more disturbing, more tragic — even as it tosses those with a twin fetish a bone via the looming threat of some steamy Irons-on-Irons action. —A.A.D.

Set aside its story of an enigmatic client recruiting a detective to investigate a nightclub singer’s disappearance — everyone who’s seen Angel Heart remembers the film because it features Mickey Rourke at his glinting-eyes debonair Eighties peak and Lisa Bonet at her Rolling Stone Hot Issue-era finest performing one of the wildest, most disturbing sex scenes in neo-noir history. (It was so intense that the RIAA nearly gave the film an X rating.) British director Alan Parker specialized in steamy atmospherics and shadowy visuals, which served him well in making this gumbo of sex and evil that begins in 1950s New York, heads down to summery New Orleans, and ultimately travels where few expect to go, least of all its viewers. —M.R.

Rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) has barely been on the force for a day when she discharges her weapon while a stopping an in-progress robbery. Worse, the dead perp’s gun isn’t at the scene of the crime, which makes her superiors question her side of the story. Suspended from duty, she strikes up a relationship with a commodities broker (Ron Silver) …who, not coincidentally, stole the missing .44 magnum and has been using it around town, leaving bullet shells with Megan’s name on it. A movie that’s launched a thousand dissertation papers on power, gender and the potency of guns as phallic symbols, Kathryn Bigelow’s gloriously slick, impeccably stylish thriller isn’t afraid to tow the line between erotic and sick. Case in point: That hot-and-heavy sequence in which Silver introduces the idea of including Curtis’ service pistol into the sex play. —D.F.

It has a ridiculously convoluted plot that not even Wikipedia can do justice: Banker and, uh, call girl Anne Heche somehow falls into the orbit of rich and creepy Christopher Walken, leading to all sorts of machinations that require several viewings to unravel. Among the sleazy twists on display is a near-pornographic forced-sex scene between Heche and Walken’s driver Steven Bauer; and an infamous lovemaking session between Heche and Joan Chen that lasts nearly as long as the central act in Blue Is the Warmest Color. Yet despite those titillations — which ensured Wild Side got plenty of late-night cable airings after Heche blew up in the tabloids as Ellen DeGeneres’ girlfriend — the movie resonates as a kinky, flawed gem, thanks to its breakout star and director Donald “Performance” Cammell’s dazzling eye towards characterization and camera angles. —M.R.

On a nude beach where men park, suntan, and cruise, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) makes eyes with Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome stranger he later witnesses casually drown another man in the lake. The cold-blooded crime complicates Franck’s attraction. But it doesn’t extinguish it, even once a detective starts poking around and asking questions. Alain Guiraudie’s coolly, seductively menacing French thriller studies its isolated milieu with the slightly detached eye of a naturalist observing a closed ecosystem, lavishing special attention upon rituals of pursuit and foreplay. Some have read an allegory for AIDS in the film’s comingling of desire and danger, but Stranger by the Lake gets at something more primal and less specific, too: the timeless tango of Thanatos and Eros, and the way reaching for another can become a kind of a murder of the self. —A.A.D.

Few filmmakers defined the erotic thriller like Adrian Lyne, whose sleek, stylish, sweaty efforts tapped into sleazy ‘80s and ‘90s zeitgeist like few others. Though he would make one more (2022’s Deep Water), this potboiler from the beginning of the 21st century feels like the end of an era — an adultery drama that often plays like the hangover after a night of bad behavior. Equal parts sensuous and sullen, Diane Lane plays a mother and wife (to Richard Gere, no less) whose scorching encounters with a sexy stranger (Olivier Martinez) turn her perfect life upside down. Lyne could’ve just made a gender-swapped riff on his smash hit Fatal Attraction, but this underrated contribution to the genre is a much more nuanced and thoughtful tale that considers the consequences of sin without soft-selling their pleasures. —Jason Bailey

The erotic thriller goes to high school in director Roger Kumble’s deliciously lurid and silly take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It brilliantly transports the sexual gameplay from 18th century France to the 20th Century Upper East Side, and sets a bunch of hot nascent stars loose on the material. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Philippe are a conniving pair of step-siblings who lust after one another and make a bet that involves seducing the new girl at school, a virginal beauty played by Reese Witherspoon. Gellar is at her absolute best as horny mastermind Kathryn Merteuil, who can’t stop dipping into her coke cross necklace for a little bump, and the film leans into everything gloriously scandalous, including the spit that lingers between Gellar and Selma Blair’s mouths in their infamous makeout scene. —E.Zu

This stylish mash-up of erotic thriller and police procedural brought Al Pacino’s career back from the dead and made Ellen Barkin a star. A burnt-out cop (is there any other kind in this genre?) is investigating a serial killer of men who place personal ads. So he takes one out and makes himself the bait, which is all well and good until sparks fly with a seductive vamp who soon looks like his best suspect. Pacino reminds you why exactly he was such a big deal in the 1970s, but the key to the picture’s success is Barkin, who smolders like a house fire and, in the most memorable scene, takes charge of their first sexual encounter like a hunter teasing out her prey. —J.B.

Director Brian De Palma leaned all the way into his Alfred Hitchcock fetish with this raunchy pastiche of Rear Window and Vertigo, starring Craig Wasson as a neurotic out-of-work actor who uses a telescope to spy on a friend’s sexy neighbor. While Hitch’s 1950s thrillers could only hint at where one man’s compulsive voyeurism might lead, this picture lays them all out in explicit detail. The hero becomes obsessed with two women (played by Deborah Shelton and a vivacious young Melanie Griffith) who bait and tease him, leading him on a tour through Los Angeles that winds from Beverly Hills shopping malls — complete with glass elevators, perfect for spying — to the porn industry. It’s gory, sleazy, completely over-the-top, and makes for an astute comment on the fakery of the movie business …and how we all love to watch. —N.M.

It’s all sun and afternoon-delight sex in St. Tropez for Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider), two gorgeous European layabouts borrowing a friend’s vacation home. Enter Harry (Maurice Ronet), an old friend of Jean-Paul’s — and an ex-lover of Marianne’s — and his nubile 18-year-old daughter (Jane Birkin). They’ve dropped by for a visit, and accepted an impromptu invitation to stay for a while. The tension between all four of these visitors soon adds a claustrophobic sense of humidity to accompany the French Riviera’s seasonal heat. It’s not a question of whether something bad will happen, merely who will be the perpetrator and who will be the victim. Thanks to a recent restoration and revival run, Jacques Deray’s spirit-of-’69 thriller has gone from obscure cult movie to rediscovered classic. As to whether the “erotic” tag applies here, well …if you’re not hot and bothered watching two of the most beautiful people to ever grace a screen roll around half-naked next to an expensive swimming pool, you may want to check yourself for a pulse. —D.F.

Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing, and it sure seems like her emotionally aloof husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is behind her disappearance — but is he the real villain in this relationship? Toying with gender roles and the unknowability of other people’s marriage, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling mystery is savagely funny as it subverts expectations and shifts our loyalties. The erotic and the murderous are closely intertwined — especially when Neil Patrick Harris’ luckless supporting character gets drawn into the couple’s web — and Pike and Affleck are both terrific playing people who are, in a sense, playing people in their brittle domestic stalemate. In revealing what happened to Amy, Fincher peels back the layers of resentment that build up after the “I do”s, exposing matrimony as one elaborate mind-fuck. —T.G.

Nearly a decade before outfitting a polyamorous Sharon Stone with an icepick, director Paul Verhoeven turned to his favorite Hitckcockian blonde, Renée Soutendijk, for what in retrospect seems like a dry run for Basic Instinct — save maybe for Christ getting stimulated on the cross. Sexual fluidity, castrating blades, and prescient visions all play a role in the story of a bisexual author (Jeroen Krabbé) who falls for a thrice-widowed cosmetologist (Soutendijk). He starts to suspect that she killed her husbands …and he’s next. In the drab port city of Vlissingen, Soutendijk pops in a red dress and Kim Novak hairdo, and Verhoeven likens her to a spider elegantly spinning its web. Just because the author dreams himself the fly, however, doesn’t mean he can wriggle his way out of it. —S.T.

Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas truly deserves his space in the Erotic Thriller Hall of Fame — the man penned Basic Instinct, Sliver and Jade! — and he established his bona fides early on with this key ’80s thriller, in which Glenn Close’s criminal lawyer comes out of retirement to defend Jeff Bridges’ newspaper publisher. His wife has been brutally murdered, he’s the prime suspect, and she’s determined to prove he’s innocent. The fact that they also begin sleeping with each other during the trial does muddy the waters a bit, of course — especially when the smitten lawyer begins to doubt whether he’s telling the truth or not. Director Richard Marquand keeps tightening the screws and turning up the heat, while Bridges subtly weaponizes his good looks and laid-back, California-surfer-dude charm. —D.F.

French filmmaker François Ozon explores the lurid impulses that fuel dark storytelling in this randy Hitchcockian portrait of bestselling British mystery writer Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a middle-aged singleton bored with the “blood, sex, and money” formula fueling her stale success. So her publisher offers Sarah his villa in the south of France to get those creative juices flowing. The author’s unlikely muse: Julie (Ludivine Seigner), the publisher’s promiscuous daughter. Her unannounced visit and parade of one-night stands makes Sarah both bitter and resentfully aroused, when she’s not rifling through Julie’s diary for story ideas. Tensions come to a head when their mutual lust for a handsome townie leads to a steamy night at home, skinny dipping, and jealousy-fueled homicide. —S.G.

Based on John Lutz’s 1990 novel SWF Seeks Same, Barbet Schroeder’s dramatically unhinged film taught us that roommates are not to be trusted. Software designer Allie (Bridget Fonda), reeling from a breakup, rents a room in her apartment to Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who responds to an ad. Hedra becomes obsessively protective of her new friend, going so far as to masquerade as her to seek murderous revenge on a horny boss. The film teeters between slasher and thriller — you will never look at a stiletto heel the same way again — and Hedra’s fixation on Allie is a puzzle you’d need a team of psychiatrists to decipher. Yet another reason you should live alone. —E.Ze

Welcome to ground zero of the Drewassaince of 1992—one of the most shocking show-biz comebacks ever. Before this film, Drew Barrymore was a former child star in a serious career lull when she took this role; since then, she’s never been unfamous for a minute. Director Katt Shea (a longtime Roger Corman collaborator) puts her grunge-era twist on a familiar story: a nuclear family gets invaded by a wild thing who wants in, no matter who she has to kill. Drew plays a tattooed teenage crime wave named Ivy, who becomes best friends with gullible classmate Sara Gilbert. She works her charm on the mom (Cheryl Ladd from Charlie’s Angels!) and has sex in the rain with the dad (a never-slimier Tom Skerritt). Drew brings all her feral intensity, knowing this was her last shot; she went on to bad-girl roles from Gun Crazy to Mad Love to The Amy Fisher Story. —R.S.

Rita Hayworth once quipped, “Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.” In Mulholland Drive, Laura Harring’s character survives a car wreck with amnesia and takes the name “Rita” after seeing a Gilda poster, then everyone who goes to bed with Rita wakes up simply confused. Filmmaker David Lynch billed the picture as “A Love Story in the City of Dreams,” but that undersells the mystery and tension that swirls around Rita and Naomi Watts’ character, Betty Elms. The two women visit the bizarre Club Silencio, an apartment that belongs to a freshly deceased mystery woman, and Elms’ couch, where they discover their mutual love. In true Lynchian fashion, everything turns topsy-turvy halfway through — Harring and Watts transform into other characters, and there’s a love triangle with Justin Theroux’s character. “You want to know who you are, don’t you?” Elms asks at one point. But with a puzzle this elaborate, does anyone? —Kory Grow

Among the OG pioneers of the erotic thriller genre, Hitchcock’s deep, dark dive into sexual obsession lets the viewer share in the mania of Jimmy Stewart’s helplessly smitten tragic hero as he subjects Kim Novak to the ultimate makeover (but only after she gets a head start in the transformation game). Working in the gray area between the death rattle of the Production Code and the birth of the ratings system, Hitchcock knew he didn’t need nudity or explicit set pieces to convey near-hallucinatory eroticism. Sex and death have rarely been so inextricably linked. Would there even be a De Palma or a Verhoeven without Vertigo? —C.V.

Stanley Kubrick’s final film was a sensation even before its release, with some rumors suggesting it might be too hot for America’s multiplexes. And it is indeed memorably steamy — so much so that its central masked orgy scene still gets parodied. But while it’s set in opulent New York apartments and mansions, the movie revolves a fairly down-to-earth guy: a grumpy jealous husband (Tom Cruise in one of his subtlest, most fragile performances) who gets so flustered at hearing the secret erotic desires of his wife (Nicole Kidman) that he roams the city in a fog of arousal and envy. He’ll eventually stumble across dead bodies and underground sex soirées before running afoul of powerful people. Like the best erotic thrillers, this one draws a direct line between sexual frustration and mortal peril. Just remember: Fidelio is the password for admission, but it may not be the password for the house…. —N.M.

Leave it to the brilliant Jane Campion to make one of the smartest and most artful takes on the erotic thriller without losing any of the danger that makes it so appealing. Former rom-com queen Meg Ryan is Frannie Avery, an English teacher in a distinctly grimy post-9/11 New York, who collects words and phrases in her notebook. A serial killer victim’s severed limb in her apartment building’s garden draws Detective Malloy, played by Mark Ruffalo, to Frannie’s door. Their resulting affair as the threat of the murderer draws nearer is passionate and paranoid all at once, and as a result distinctly entrancing. —E.Zu

Released during Brian de Palma’s incredible late Seventies-early Eighties run as the king of Hitchcockian adult thrillers, Dressed to Kill probably couldn’t be made today, at least not on a multi-million-dollar Hollywood budget. Like Cruising, another hot and controversial watercooler film released in 1980, it flirts with portraying non-heteronormative people as homicidal deviants, even though it’s not entirely clear whether the killer who slices up Angie Dickinson in an elevator is motivated out of lust or rage. As the sole witness to the murder, the director’s then-wife Nancy Allen gives a terrific Golden Globe-nominated performance, and the way she inhabits her role as a shrewd sex worker contributes greatly to a film that slowly yet surely enraptures its audience in suspenseful twists. You wouldn’t call the film “sexy,” but there’s a constant undercurrent of sexual tension throughout. De Palma excels at negotiating shades of human desire and torment, so while the story may be distasteful to feminist-minded viewers (who singled out a scene with a conspicuously phallic drill as being particularly offensive back in the day), it’s also engaging. Deciding which side the filmmaker is truly on — the perverts or the normies — is part of the intrigue and fun. —M.R.

“She’s evil! She’s brilliant!” With these four words, Jeanne Tripplehorn doesn’t merely sum up the plot of Basic Instinct — she encapsulates the whole erotic-thriller philosophy. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Ezsterhas kicked off a ‘Nineties’90s golden age for the genre with this trashy magnum opus, streamlining all the E.T. tropes into a glossy blockbuster. Sharon Stone is a seductive crime novelist who may or may not be a serial man-killer with an icepick under her bed. As usual for erotic thrillers, male vanity is a main character, here personified by two specific asscheeks and Michael Douglas’ dubious decision to wave them in the breeze. He’s the chump cop investigating her for the schtup-and-stab murder of a rock star. As for Stone, she revels in her shameless arch-villain top energy, leaving teethmarks all over the furniture. In her most iconic (and oft-parodied) scene, she uncrosses her legs during a police interrogation, revealing that she’s wearing no underwear; Stone has often sworn she had no idea her vulva was on camera. She was paid $500,000 for Basic Instinct; Douglas got $14 million, or $7 million per asscheek. But it was her star-making role. And she’s great in the sequel — no, not Basic Instinct 2, but the spiritual sequel, the 1993 Ezsterhas-penned hit Sliver, where she’s an architect who yearns to walk on the wild side (“Forget Pavarotti, I wanna go see Pearl Jam!”). —R.S.

In Ang Lee’s tale of deception and betrayal set against the backdrop of Japan’s occupation of China, sex can serve as a form of deceit or the only moment of honesty between two people. It can be an act of violence, a form of play, or an expression of desire, oppression, or love. But it always means something, even if its participants interpret that something differently. Adapting a novella by Eileen Chang, the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director uses frank sex scenes as an extension of the moral murk that envelops the film. Tang Wei stars as Wong Chia Chi, a patriotic college student drawn into a resistance group attempting to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a powerful collaborator in the puppet government ruling China. Chosen to seduce Yee, Chia Chi becomes first a victim of his cruel impulses, then his lover and intimate companion; her confusing feelings eventually leading her to doubt her mission. The film’s as uncomfortable as it is explicit, a combination that saddled it with an an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and led to Tang being exiled from the Chinese film industry for several years. But its unblinking, complex, masterfully made depiction of how sex can blind those in its grips — lust not only tramples caution but also political ideals, friendship and everything else in its path — has ensured its legacy. —K.P.

First seen naked with his back to the camera, drenched in sweat after his latest erotic conquest, William Hurt is a delectably pea-brained sex object in Lawrence Kasdan’s seminal neo-noir. His two-bit Florida real estate lawyer Ned Racine is like a sexy himbo version of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity — and the Barbara Stanwyck in this scenario is the confident, husky-voiced Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker, who sizes up her mark thusly: “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” Body Heat leans on the classic premise of a femme fatale duping a lover into bumping off her husband for cash. Ned isn’t so foolish or morally corrupt to realize that he’s not doing something wrong; Matty simply overwhelms him with her sexual wiles, which director Lawrence Kasdan stages with an explicit, plane-going-down intensity that makes Ned’s mistakes seem wholly rational. A future where Ned and Matty are free to perform nightly sexual aerobatics against the soft breeze and jangling chimes of the Florida coast sounds irresistible. If some rich stiff has to pay for it with his life, that’s a relatively small price to pay. —S.T.

A haze of humidity and sleaze looms over the Florida Everglades in John McNaughton’s 1998 thriller, a film with so many twists you don’t know who’s conning who until the credits roll. Hottie high school guidance counselor Sam Lombardo (Matt Dillon) becomes a local pariah when two of his students — rich girl Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) and trailer trash outcast Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) — accuse him of rape. But wait! Not only are they lying, but they’re in cahoots with Sam to unburden Kelly’s mom of her money and engage in champagne-soaked threesomes. People get murdered (or do they?), and two local cops know that someone is lying. It’s an erotic thriller that 100-percent goes there, fully embracing the sordidness of the genre with some memorable girl-on-girl action in a pool as Sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon) leers behind a camcorder. Bacon once said that the script was “the trashiest piece of crap” he’d ever read, which is perhaps the highest praise a film like this could attain, and you can’t deny how unabashedly salacious Wild Things is. It’s still the sort of movie that leaves you in need of a shower afterwards, cold or otherwise. —E.Ze

Maybe no erotic thriller has more of a lasting effect on culture (for good and ill) than Adrian Lyne’s ’80s landmark — even if you haven’t seen it, you know the beats. Married man Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas in his prime) has a perfectly nice life with his wife (Anne Archer), but starts an affair with wild-haired woman Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). She soon becomes unhinged and possessive; eventually, Alex boils a bunny. But to reduce Fatal Attraction to its elements is to suggest you’re missing the thrilling nuance in Lyne’s work. The ultimate undoing of Dan is not that he starts things up with the wrong woman — it’s that Douglas plays him as an egotistical fool who can’t help himself. Meanwhile, though the name Alex Forrest has become synonymous with “crazy bitch” tropes, Close gives this spurned woman a sense of depth by playing her as someone wrestling with her mental health. The duo’s chemistry is indeed scintillating, of course, and when they collide it’s a perfect match of two people who are their own worst enemies. —E.Zu

John Dahl’s neo-noir extraordinaire dares to ask the question: What if you took the most mercenary femme fatale in film history, and made her the hero? A praying mantis in spiked pumps, Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) manages a telemarketing firm with an iron fist; she also has her husband (Bill Pullman) stealing and dealing pharmaceutical cocaine from his hospital job for extra cash. When he brings home the loot, however, it’s Splitsville for Bridget. Stopping in upstate New York on her way to Chicago, she momentarily sets her sights on a young, dim-witted stud named Mike (future director Peter Berg) who she meets in a bar. And suddenly, our opportunistic friend sees not just a patsy but an even bigger potential payday on the horizon. From a score so illicitly, after-hours jazzy that it almost sounds like a parody of erotic-thriller music to Fiorentino’s career-defining performance, this high mark of the genre remains one lean, mean ’90s noirish delight. Yet what you probably remember most about The Last Seduction is its centerpiece of a sex scene, a highly athletic endeavor that features Bridget calling the shots while clinging to a fence. Years later, Berg recalled that while he and Dahl tried to figure out how to choreograph the sequence, Fiorentino listened patiently on the sidelines. Then, apparently already in character, “she threw down the cigarette, looked at me, told me to shut the fuck up, take my pants down, and get up against the fence.” The rest is, well, history. —D.F.

Park Chan-wook first made his name with violent provocations like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. But when he turned his attention to Sarah Waters’s 2002 historical novel Fingersmith, the South Korean director delivered something not just daring but also shockingly erotic — a tale of perverts and sapphic hookups, ingenious double-crosses and true love found in the most inhospitable of environments. Set in Korea in the 1930s when the country was under Japanese occupation, the film follows Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a beautiful thief who teams up with a forger (Ha Jung-woo) to swindle an heiress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She become Hideko’s handmaiden, but complications ensue once the thief develops feelings for this isolated, unhappy young woman. Flashbacks, revelations and torn loyalties ensue. The twists never stop, but the film’s biggest surprise was that Park was ready to dream so boldly, crafting a puzzle-box erotic thriller so entertaining, luminous and depraved that it signaled a new chapter in an already-singular career. He doesn’t skimp on his trademark bloodshed and virtuosic set pieces — it’s just that they’re now tethered to an achingly romantic drama that was easily the kinkiest movie at the arthouse that year. —T.G.

It’s possible no two actors have ever shared more sexual chemistry than Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly do in Bound. From the moment Gershon’s ex-convict handywoman Corky locks eyes with Tilly’s slinking gangster’s moll Violet in an elevator, the fire between them threatens to burn a hole through the screen. Eventually, they’ll consummate their mutual attraction, in a sex scene of uncommonly unbridled passion. But even before that, their encounters quiver with innuendo and tension — a simmer of raw desire that elevates Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s tightly coiled feature debut to the top of its genre.

Though it was The Matrix that would fully capture the world’s imagination, this was the movie that established the Wachowskis as gifted remixers. This ’90s neo-noir landmark is at once classical and postmodern, feeding a scenario worthy of Billy Wilder (and archetypes of Golden Age vintage) through an explicitly queer lens, with one of the most frank depictions of lesbian love seen in a mainstream movie up to that point. Working with a small budget, the filmmakers turned their limitations into strengths, building the suspense around an apartment setting as tight as the timetable. Once the women set their dangerous escape plan into motion, plotting to steal a satchel of embezzled money from Violet’s explosive mobster boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano), the movie becomes a breathless pileup of complications.

Yet more than its cruel twists of fate, more than its mounting obstacles, what drives this movie is the hunger its heroines have for each other and for more than what life has handed them both. Plenty of erotic thrillers labor to sync the audience’s libido to the characters’. Bound wants to plug us into their very souls. What could be more erotic, or more thrilling? —A.A.D.

Contributors: Jason Bailey, A.A. Dowd, David Fear, Stephen Garrett, Tim Grierson, Kory Grow, Noel Murray, Keith Phipps, Mosi Reeves, Rob Sheffield, Scott Tobias, Chris Vognar, Emily Zemler, Esther Zuckerman