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The 35 steamiest erotic thrillers

Celebrate a much-missed genre with these murderous, lusty classics

Matthew Singer
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Matthew Singer
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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Back in the late 1980s and into the ’90s, if you went to a multiplex and picked a theatre at random, chances were high that you’d end up walking in on a man and a woman having sex. The former would most likely be Michael Douglas, the latter any number of icy-cool female leads. And then, if you kept watching, someone would end up getting killed – maybe by a handgun, possibly an ice pick, or sometimes just overly vigorous thrusting. It was truly a boom period for the erotic thriller, a genre that could often be described as both ‘problematic’ and self-consciously campy, but also damn fun. But then, sometime around the turn of the millennium, they kind of just… disappeared. 

It’s hard to say if audience prudishness or cultural saturation killed the erotic thriller. In any case, earlier this year, we got a reminder of just how much we miss them. Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne came out of semi-retirement with Deep Water, a movie about Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’s  open marriage skidding off the rails and leaving several corpses in its wake. It wasn’t exactly thrilling or particularly erotic – the movie contains more close-ups of pet snails than actual sex – but it did just enough to get us thinking fondly of those films that did manage to get our blood boiling all those years ago. Here are 35 of cinema’s best erotic thrillers to get your heart rate up.

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The hottest erotic thriller movies

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William Hurt’s sleazebag Florida lawyer, Ned Racine, is the hapless dupe to Kathleen Turner’s rich, unhappily married beauty in this sweaty genre high-water mark. Turner’s manipulative bombshell, Matty Walker, is so many steps ahead of her outmatched lover – and just about everyone else in Florida – that there’s moments when you practically feel her pausing to let them all catch up a bit. The sex, of which there’s a lot, is relentless in a way that even has poor Racine complaining about the state of his neds at one point (get some more ice on there, mate). But it’s always in service to a noirish plot that director Lawrence Kasdan marshals with supreme discipline as he charts two genuinely terrible people jettisoning their morals, professionalism, pants… the lot. 

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Paul Verhoeven’s sleazebag classic doesn’t get enough credit as one of the more influential films of all-time, probably because the world would be better off without many of the movies it inspired. But that just tells you how good Basic Instinct really is – lurid and stylish in equal balance, shockingly violent while also being genuinely hot, it hits an equilibrium few in the genre ever attain. Of course, not every erotic thriller has prime Sharon Stone, whose casting as novelist-slash-suspected icepick murderer Catherine Trammel is as close to perfect as the movies ever get.

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It’s the erotic thriller that didn’t precisely start it all but did manage to codify many of its tropes. Michael Douglas is a lawyer with a seemingly happy home life that just can’t help but have a tryst with Glenn Close’s wild-haired book editor, who turns out to be, let’s say, a bit clingy. Debates persist over whether the film (and indeed director Adrian Lyne’s entire milieu) is misogynist or if there’s a feminist message buried within the histrionic screenplay. In any case, few of the movies that arrived in its wake can claim to provoke such a visceral reaction – and that’s even beyond the whole bunny-boiling bit. 

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More of a sexually-charged noir than an ‘erotic thriller’ per se, the Wachowskis’ pre-Matrix debut is nonetheless more erotic and thrilling than many of them. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly nearly melt the screen as lesbian lovers looking to defraud the latter’s gangster boyfriend, played by Joe Pantoliano. The sex scenes deftly thread the needle between titillation and realism – the directors even hired a sex educator to choreograph them, and the end result is not exploitative yet still molten hot.

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Never leave your bored wife at home with Jack Nicholson. Just one of the takeaways from a sexed-up redo of James M Cain’s ’30s potboiler that leans right into the tawdry mood of its source material (once the subject of an obscenity trial). It unites Nicholson with Jessica Lange as a Depression-era drifter and the discontented wife of a Greek roadside diner owner, in a tryst that’s first adulterous, then murderous. It’s a thriller in which consent isn’t always obvious – the affair is consummated in a kitchen table in something that initially plays perilously close to rape – and moral bankruptcy seeps from its every pore. An early erotic thriller, it’s the bad dad of the genre: even the same year’s Body Heat, another riff on the Cain novel, can’t match it for its sheer, libidinous badness.

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A cold shower is almost essential after watching Jacques Deray’s Gallic thirst trap, loosely remade as A Bigger Splash with less sexy results.It’s warmed by the Sirocco and the megawatt sex appeal of its ludricously good-looking cast, as Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin exchange sultry vibes by the pool of a Riviera villa. It’s all fun and games until someone gets horribly drowned in the pool. There’s no mystery over the murderer here – La Piscine is altogether too hot to bother keeping you guessing – but it’s all about the undercurrents: the way libidos and egos clash and catch fire under the Mediterranean sun.

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Sharon Stone was the ’90s’ definitive femme fatale, but Linda Fiorentino came close to stealing the crown with her turn as a telemarketer-turned-criminal-sexpot in John Dahl’s neo-noir, which is shockingly high quality considering it debuted on HBO. As its trashy romance novel title implies, the producers were hired to crank out a typical softcore blood-boiler but ended up with one of the decade’s most beguiling character studies. Critics lobbied for Fiorentino to receive an Oscar nod, but she was deemed ineligible since the movie premiered on television.

The Handmaiden (2016)
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Park Chan-wook’s best film to date is an ornate puzzle box of a thriller that’s unafraid to end on a gratuitously erotic note, presumably to reward the guy with sweaty hands at the back of the cinema for working his way through all the twists and turns. The gossamer touch with which Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong transplant Sarah Waters’s novel, ‘Fingersmith’, from Victorian England to Japanese-ruled Korea is matched only by its endlessly gripping, wildly stylish long-con storyline. Even the production design is ridiculously sexy. 

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Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel about the sexual gamesmanship of the rich and amoral received its best cinematic adaptation from Stephen Frears, the famously talky English director who truly seemed to understand the book’s biting wit better than any of the other previous attempts. Glenn Close and John Malkovich, as the borderline sociopathic aristocrats Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, volley screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s stinging dialogue around like a shuttlecock, as the former lovers enter into a wager with some truly, ahem, cruel intentions.

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Before being cuckolded by Diane Lane in Unfaithful, Richard Gere’s breakout role had him doing the cuckolding as a high-end escort who gets involved with a politician’s wife and then mixed up in a murder plot. Hollywood had dealt with movies about male sex workers before, of course – namely Midnight Cowboy – but director Paul Schrader brings a lavish sheen to the proceedings that manages to capture the vibe of the ’80s when the decade had barely started. Gere also famously goes full-frontal, in one of the first instances of male nudity in a major studio film.

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The most sexually explicit film on this list, Alain Guiraudie’s much-praised queer thriller truly puts the ‘cock’ into ‘Hitchcockian’. The setting – a nudist lake in Provence shaded by pine trees – is a playground for relaxation, cruising and murder, as the buff Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) falls under the spell of killer Michel (Christophe Paou). It’s that same combustible crossover of sex and death that powers all the best films in this genre. Still, surely only a French film would be unafraid to suggest that sex might just be worth getting killed for. 

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An update of Dangerous Liaisons for teenage millennials, Cruel Intentions plays like a precursor to those YA-oriented TV dramas that take themselves so seriously they end up unintentionally hilarious. Only here, the humour is a bit more knowing. Transposing Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel to a New York prep school, everyone is young, rich, beautiful, ridiculously named and a total asshole, with step-siblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) being the most superlative in each category. Sebastian wants to bang Kathryn, and to do so, he must first deflower angelic virgin Reese Witherspoon. Hijinks ensue… dangerous hijinks.

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Brian De Palma isn’t often mentioned as one of the masters of the erotic thriller, but he’s made several movies which, if not definitively ‘erotic thrillers’, explore the intersection of violence and sex with searing intensity. Body Double fits most neatly into the genre. One of De Palma’s unabashed Hitchcock homages, here he mashes up Rear Window and Vertigo, replacing Jimmy Stewart with a claustrophobic actor spying on the erotic dancer across the way and updating the psychosexual undertones for the dark and scuzzy ’80s. 

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Before emerging from semi-retirement with 2021’s bewilderingly tepid Deep Water, Adrian Lyne put an appropriate bookend on not just his career but the erotic thriller craze he helped kick off 20 years earlier with this story of a bored housewife (Diane Lane, burning with both desire and guilt) who enters into an dangerous affair with a hot rando, despite being married to the American Gigolo himself, Richard Gere. Unfaithful effectively brought the genre full circle, and Lyne could’ve screwed off back to his castle or whatever knowing he went out on top. Instead, he just needed to come back to tell us about Ben Affleck and his pet snails. Pity.

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Dennis Quaid is a corrupt but charming New Orleans cop whose colourful nature reflects his hometown. Ellen Barkin is the city’s hot but rigid District Attorney. Opposites attract and all that, and sparks are soon flying. But their blossoming romance is swiftly derailed when they both fall into the crosshairs of a dangerous crime boss. With a script from Beverly Hills Cop writer Daniel Petrie Jr, The Big Easy is a breezy delight, but Quaid and Barkin have a chemistry that makes their love affair genuinely steamy.   

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Paul Schrader’s very loose remake of the 1942 Val Lewton classic is something like a sexy American Werewolf in London, in which two siblings (Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell) share a curse that transforms them into literal bloodthirsty felines when their sexual desires become too enflamed. It sounds silly, but it’s also seriously sensual, owing to Kinski’s smouldering presence, the throbbing Giorgio Moroder score and David Bowie’s great theme song. 

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Like most of her young life, Drew Barrymore’s transition from talented child star to adult actress wasn’t exactly smooth, but this early ‘90s take on Lolita stands out as a highlight of her wilderness years. Barrymore plays a troubled 17-year-old named Ivy – get the title now? – who befriends an angsty teen (Sara Gilbert) then plots to seduce her dad. It’s a bit unsettling how well Barrymore slides into the role of a pouty vixen not even a decade after ET, but the kitschiness lightens the mood enough to make the movie entertaining trash.     

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Is it our imagination or were ’90s thrillers a competition between Michael Douglas and Tom Berenger to see who could play the most horndog middle-aged men? Berenger got a humdinger of a role in this psycho-thriller directed with a typical instinct for slow-burn tension by Das Boot’s Wolfgang Petersen. He’s an architect who has a car accident that leaves him with amnesia and (yes) a whole new reconstructed face, plot devices that, while not exactly Hitchcockian, treat those willing to just go with it to a ripe and highly enjoyable twist-athon. Along for the ride are Bob Hoskins as an old-school gumshoe and stars-of-the-moment Greta Scacchi and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as femme fatales. 

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Few modern filmmakers are as adroit at (or, frankly, even interested in) capturing the intoxicating promise of sex as François Ozon. And none of his films are as sexy as this one, a movie so erotically charged, you’ll want to throw a bucket of cold water in its face (it had to be recut to avoid being the dreaded NC-17 rating in the US). It follows an English crime writer (Charlotte Rampling) to a villa in the south of France, where she holidays alongside her publisher’s sexpot daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). If you’ve seen La Piscine, you’ll recognise loose parallels in the seductive tale of sex, murder and fantasy that unfolds. The ambiguous ending won’t be for everyone, but it works just fine for us.

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In the strictest genre terms, Angel Heart isn’t precisely an ‘erotic thriller’ – it’s more a hallucinogenic triangulation of pulpy murder mystery, psychological thriller and occult horror. But it belongs on this list for one reason: the wild, blood-stained sex scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet that nearly got the movie slapped with an X rating. It’s the only explicit sexual content in the movie, but its heat radiates outward, rendering the rest of an already fairly depraved exploration of sin, guilt and the literal Christian devil almost pornographic by mere assocation.  

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The most blasphemous entry on the list goes to Paul Verhoeven, who pricked the Catholic Church something fierce with this fiery piece of nunsploitation. Supposedly based on a historical account of a lesbian love affair in a 17th century Italian convent, Benedetta contains a lot more bonkers stuff going on than the existence of sapphic nuns, but it’s that particular plot point that pissed off religious folks the most and led to protests outside theatres. To be fair, Verhoeven is a bit extra with it – at one point, the title character carves a wooden dildo using a figurine of the Virgin Mary. Who’d expect anything less from the devilish Dutchman?

The Skin I Live In (2010)
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There isn’t a ton of ‘sex’ per se in this most curious of Pedro Almodóvar curios, but it is undoubtedly a movie about kink, sexual identity and consent. Identifying the themes is much easier than describing what actually happens, though. The most basic synopsis is that Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon who claims to have invented a synthetic skin more durable than the real deal. Even if we were in a spoiling mood, attempting to explain the bizarre twists contained within this sci-fi mindbender would probably just make us ache in several different places.

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With a plot revolving around an affair between a high school teacher and his student and a possibly fabricated sexual assault allegation, this unabashedly trashy neo-noir is high on the list of movies that probably wouldn’t get greenlit today. But compared to many post-Basic Instinct erotic thrillers, which aimed for icy stylishness, Wild Things felt refreshingly skeevy, nowhere more than the motel-pool threesome between Matt Dillon, Denise Richards and Neve Campbell which every teenage boy who came of age in the ’90s probably has committed to memory.

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If there was an Oscar for twists, this Pentagon potboiler would have one perched on its mantlepiece. A breakthrough film for Kevin Costner, looking every inch the movie star in US Navy whites, No Way Out set the bar ridiculously high for all the corridors-of-power thrillers – Absolute Power et al – to come. A love triangle between Costner’s naval attaché, Gene Hackman’s Secretary of Defense and Sean Young’s doomed beauty offers some short-lived but sizzling passions that soon give way to a breakneck late-Cold War spy thriller. Young is terrific, supercharging the film with a sex appeal that makes her two suitors’ career-limiting actions seem almost logical.

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Given the limitations of his day, Alfred Hitchcock could only really explore erotic desire through subtext and innuendo – otherwise, he’d probably have quite a few films on this list. Instead, descendents such as Brian de Palma have taken it upon themselves to remake his films, adding in all the sex and depravity he couldn’t. In the case of A Perfect Murder, it’s ‘90s action mercenary Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) using the basic structure of Dial M for Murder to craft a slick-yet-lurid domestic thriller. Michael Douglas – who else? – plays a cuckolded commodities trader who hires the artist who’s been shagging his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) to kill her. But the murder goes a bit less than perfect.     

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On paper, Barry Levinson’s corporate drama reads like yet another entry in the endless line of ’90s movies where Michael Douglas’s raging libido threatens to upend his life. In this case, he plays an exec at a software company fighting a sexual harassment claim brought against him by his conniving boss, played by Demi Moore. But Disclosure is a hell of a lot weirder than its synopsis impies. The convoluted plot developments involving illegal dealings with the Malaysian government? The absolutely deranged virtual reality climax? A synth score from Ennio Morricone of all people? Sure, there’s only one real sex scene in the whole thing, but most erotic thrillers can only dream of being this bizarre.  

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Hollywood spent a good chunk of the ’90s chasing the success of Basic Instinct – including some of the folks involved with making the actual Basic Instinct. A year after the Leg Uncrossing Seen ’Round the World, Sharon Stone once again appeared in a slinky, sleazy Joe Eszterhas-penned thriller, this time as a recently divorced book editor enticed into a life of voyeurism by the young stud in her new apartment building (Billy Baldwin). Lightning didn’t exactly strike twice – the most successful element of the film was the soundtrack’s chart-topping Elvis cover by UB40 – but the movie is a bit better than its reputation holds. Baldwin, in particular, is convincing as the slimy yet charming creepo antagonist, while Stone is still at the top of her game, even if the script isn’t totally worthy of her talents. And hey, Michael Douglas may not be there, but it does have Tom Berenger in a supporting role, so it at least wins a game of ’90s erotic thriller bingo.  

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‘She mates and she kills’ is the tagline to this Bob Rafelson thriller, and no, the ‘she’ is not Scarlett Johansson. It’s veteran ‘80s femme fatale Theresa Russell, whose raison d’etre is marrying rich men, murdering them, then skipping town and changing identities. Hot on her tail is Debra Winger, a special agent increasingly fixated on bringing her to justice who ends up drawn into her web...so to speak. It sounds like a generic crime thriller you’d stumble across on cable at 3 am during a fit of insomnia, but Rafelson’s direction gives it a legitimately hard edge, and the two leads excel in their roles.   

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Not as horny as some on this list, this Irvin Kershner thriller is a Peeping Tom-alike dive into the world of a voyeurism-as-art fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway) in a seedy ’70s New York that’s prowled by a mysterious killer. Written by John Carpenter and billed as an American giallo (jello, surely?), it’s about the collision of sex and violence in art in the same way that Suspiria is about learning to dance. On the upside, Dunaway and a teenage-looking Tommy Lee Jones spark as the suspect-victim and suspicious-flirty cop on the case respectively, and the supernatural overtones make it a slasher with a difference.

Dream Lover (1993)
Image: Polygram Filmed Entertainment

30. Dream Lover (1993)

If James Spader is the star of a movie, there’s a 97 percent chance his character is going to be both extremely horny and deeply insecure. And so it goes with Dream Lover, one of the better Basic Instinct cash-ins of the early ‘90s. Spader plays a horny and insecure architect who meets an alluring and mysterious woman (Twin Peaks’ Madchen Amick) at a party shortly after his divorce. The two begin a whirlwind affair that leads to marriage. Gradually, though, Spader begins to realise that her backstory doesn’t add up.

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Roman Polanski directed this dark tragicomedy about a disabled man (Peter Coyote) regaling a buttoned-down Brit (pre-Four Weddings Hugh Grant) with tales of his and his wife’s sexual adventures while all of them are trapped on a cruise together. Sounds like a nightmare, and that’s exactly what it eventually turns into. It probably played a lot kinkier in the early ’90s – indeed, critics dismissed it as perverse – but engaging performances from Coyote, Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas as Grant’s wife make it worth a reappraisal.

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A forgotten entry to the Ridley Scott canon, this police thriller involves a cop (Tom Berenger) assigned to provide protection for a witness in a high-profile mob case, who inevitably begins an affair with said witness (Mimi Rogers), to the chagrin of his wife (Lorraine Braco). Admittedly, the story is rote, but it’s carried by Scott’s signature visual style and some fine performances, particularly from Bracco, in an early role, already displaying the sharp edge she’d bring to Goodfellas and The Sopranos

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What does it say about Mark Wahlberg that his most believable role (Non-Dirk Diggler Division) is that of a psychotically possessive dirtbag boyfriend? Nothing good, certainly, but he brings real menace to the role of a brooding bad boy romancing – and then obsessing over – prissy young Reese Witherspoon. Producer Brian Grazer referred to Fear as ‘Fatal Attraction for teens,’ but it’s really more of a Lifetime stalker movie made for the late ‘90s MTV audience, with one very memorable scene on a rollercoaster that redefines ‘thrill ride.’ 

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Every generation needs its own Fatal Attraction… well, maybe ‘needs’ is too strong a word. But they all get one regardless, and for the AOL Instant Messenger era, it was Swimfan. Its plot is basic stalker-flick stuff – a high school swim star (Jesse Bradford) is ‘lured’ into what he thinks is a one-night stand with the new girl in town (Erika Christensen), until she starts eliminating everyone standing in the way of them being together – but Bradford and Christensen are very believable in their roles, and director John Polson has a way of making the formula relevant for its intended young-adult audience. 

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Of all the Basic Instinct ripoffs to roll off the Hollywood assembly line in the ‘90s, none received a worse critical drubbing than Body of Evidence. A lot of the vitriol had to do with the stars involved - Willem Dafoe, cashing a check as the Michael Douglas stand-in, and Madonna, assuming the Sharon Stone role as a femme fatale who enjoys sexing men to death. Her Madgesty, in particular, had just entered her softcore era - remember the Sex book? - and critics were just waiting to, uh, pound her, so to speak. Look, we’re not going to waste precious brain cells mounting some kind of retroactive contrarian defense of the film. But if you want to understand ‘90s erotic thrillers - and why boys of a certain generation feel slightly uncomfortable whenever mom lights a scented candle - it’s still a vital area of study.   

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