‘Basic Instinct’ at 25: Why We Need to Revive the Erotic Thriller

     March 20, 2017


Horror is a genre that consistently finds inventive ways to approach and reinvent other genres. For instance, though the first quarter of the year is often mocked as a movie dumping ground, the horror genre has absolutely owned winter 2017 with hits like Split and Get Out reinventing the cinematic universe mapping process and the socially conscious drama by infusing them with horror tropes. Last year by this time, the most talked about film not named Deadpool was The Witch, which dropped us into a period specific colonial setting and presented the Puritan fears of an evil witch in the woods as an absolute truth.

Horror has consistently reinvented itself each decade, particularly from Psycho onward. Sure there are still your standard slashers and home invasion films being made and a few quite robustly aligned with the classical tropes, but the buzziest horror films find a new prism to enter the genre.


Image via Universal

In 1980, horror birthed a new American genre of the erotic thriller with Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. There were throats being slashed, but there were also haunting scenes of sexuality shown as psychological desperation. The body being carved to start the film wasn’t a co-ed at a party or sleepover, but instead a bored housewife (Angie Dickinson) who isn’t able to arouse her husband and instead sadly ventures to a museum with desperate hopes of an affair; she’s killed by a man wearing woman’s clothes, shortly after engaging in public sex with a stranger.

What makes the erotic thriller different than giallos—Italian slashers that often showed women enjoying the pleasures of sexuality before having their throat slit—is that they wrestle with the puritan American guilt of enjoying sex without procreation. The women are shown enjoying sex or enjoying the attention that they can receive from displaying their body in a specific way and the men and women who murder them are on a mission to eradicate pleasure because they feel none themselves or they feel shame for their desire, shame of their jealousy of those who are freer with their bodies. This shame is very much a part of our American identity; sure we peddle sex and desire and build massive industries built on them, but we frequently battle against each other for the highest moral grounds whenever a sex scandal breaks or whenever a political party tries to make it harder for women to have access to birth control but easier for older men to keep their medically infused erections insured.

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