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10 Psychosexual Thrillers To Get You Ready For Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects'

by Drew Taylor
February 6, 2013 12:37 PM
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Psychosexual Thrillers

This weekend, "Side Effects," Steven Soderbergh's final theatrical film, opens nationwide. An uncanny psychosexual thriller set against the backdrop of the pharmaceutical industry, it stars Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Rooney Mara, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and is, per our review, more than worth your money this weekend. While the film twists and turns and hops through genres, Soderbergh's been open about the movie being something of a tribute to a particular brand of psychosexual thrillers, with "Fatal Attraction" cited as one of the inspirations for the director.

So, to get you ready for "Side Effects," we thought we would run down ten great examples of the genre, some of which likely inspired the "Side Effects" team, and all of which are worth checking out to varying degrees. Read it with someone you love. Or someone you're sleeping with on the side who will undoubtedly have a psychotic break, boil your pet rabbit, and try to kill you. Either way.

Psycho Janet Leigh
"Psycho" (1960)
While Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Psycho" is often cited as the principle building block for the slasher genre, inspiring everything from "Halloween" to "Silence of the Lambs" (a film also based in part on the real-life exploits of infamous serial killer Ed Gein) it also could be cited as one of the first honest-to-god psychosexual thrillers. The psycho part is spelled out in the title – most literally it refers to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nebbish loner who ruthlessly kills young women who have the misfortune of checking into his seedy roadside motel. He's got a serious (and here's where the sexual part comes in) Oedipal complex; falling in love with his mother, digging up her corpse (after he poisoned her), and assuming her personality to carry out his devilish deeds. His sexual repression unleashes murderous consequences, triggered, during the course of the movie, by young Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who is nothing but sex – her introductory scene has her engaged in an unmarried (!) midday tryst. Even her underwear color betrays her – after she's stolen a substantial mount of money from her job, her bra turns from virginal white to seamy black. It's pretty heady, progressive stuff, especially for 1960, excuted by a master of suspense at the top of his game. It doesn't quite feature the love triangle aspect that is a common staple of the genre, although you could argue that a triangle of sorts forms between Leigh, Perkins, and John Gavin, as Marion's slightly wooden (but determined) lover. Oh, and there's always Mother...

Body Heat
"Body Heat" (1981)
Scott Z. Burns has cited Lawrence Kasdan's sexually charged riff on "Double Indemnity" as one of his chief inspirations on "Side Effects," and it's easy to see why. "Body Heat," which marked the directorial debut from Kasdan (then primarily known as the writer of fantastical blockbusters "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Empire Strikes Back"; George Lucas returned the favor by serving as an un-credited producer here) and the first performance from Kathleen Turner (in a role that would help define her career and cloud it in a smoky haze of sexuality), concerns a skuzzy lawyer (William Hurt), who strikes up an affair with Turner, who is the wife of a powerful local businessman (Richard Crenna), with deadly consequences. The film's Florida location gives it some sticky-sweaty Southern Gothic overtones, like a Tennessee Williams play that happens to have a role for Mickey Rourke as a prototypical domestic terrorist who gives Hurt a homemade bomb. The location isn't the only thing that is hot in "Body Heat;" the sex scenes have a singular, explicit power, aided in part by Bond composer John Barry's slinky, jazz-tinged score, the dewy cinematography of Richard Kline and Turner's raw, fresh-faced allure. She is so gorgeous, so unrelentingly sultry, that it's easy to see why men would do very bad things just to keep her.  

Body Double
"Body Double" (1984)
If there's a king of the psychosexual genre, then Brian De Palma should probably be the one to wear the crown. Beginning with his debut feature, "Murder A La Mod" (1968) and continuing through to "Passion" (which will be released later this year), De Palma has been working over themes of obsession, violence, and betrayal, in particular during a string of profitable and highly controversial movies in the '70s and '80s. (Detailed lovingly in the recent, pseudo-academic book "Un-American Psycho" by Chris Dumas.) While "Dressed to Kill" might be the most psychosexual of his psychosexual heyday, there's something sleazier and steamier about "Body Double," his unheralded classic from the period, that was unjustifiably thrown under the bus for perceived misogynistic undertones and what critics viewed as too many lapses in logic in De Palma's dreamlike narrative. (He's admitted some things in the movie just don't work.) But it's for all these reasons, not in spite of them, that "Body Double" is such a whacked-out delight. Like "Dressed to Kill," which liberally cribs from "Psycho," "Body Double" finds De Palma riffing on Hitchcock, in this case "Rear Window," with a struggling actor (Craig Wasson) agreeing to housesit for a friend. After her watches a woman get killed (in a sequence that caused the public outcry – she gets speared by a giant phallic drill), he's drawn into the underground world of Los Angeles pornography. (It was originally intended as a micro-budget film with an NC-17 rating.) "Body Double" is goofier than "Blow Out," De Palma's masterpiece, but it's still a sparkly crown jewel for the king of the psychosexual thriller.     

Basic Instinct
"Basic Instinct" (1990)
Like many of our most beloved genre movies on this list, "Basic Instinct," which starred psychosexual thriller king Michael Douglas (who not only starred in classic "Fatal Attraction" but also "Disclosure" -- his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, crops up in "Side Effects") and a young Sharon Stone, is a very loose riff on Alfred Hitchcock, in this case the master's all-time classic "Vertigo." Like that film, "Basic Instinct" shares a San Francisco setting and a leggy blonde bombshell. Unlike "Vertigo," "Basic Instinct" features geysers of blood and explicit sexuality (which had to be toned down for its initial theatrical release to secure an R rating). Paul Verhoeven had made a similar film before almost a decade before in his native Netherlands (the more wigged-out "Fourth Man"), so the material was familiar to an auteur who, armed with a razor-sharp script by psychosexual thriller regular Joe Eszterhas, made it palpable for modern audiences. While the film is probably most remembered for its infamous leg uncrossing scene (which, given current grooming habits, would surely be even more revealing these days...), it's still a terrifically entertaining, wildly stylish movie, one in which all of the psychosexual thriller boxes are checked off (romantic triangle, accused murderer, addiction, demons in the closet) but in a way that doesn't seem perfunctory or workmanlike, but is instead definitive and galvanizing. In the wake of "Basic Instinct" many tried to replicate its creative and commercial success -- none did.

The Skin I Live In
"The Skin I Live In" (2011)
On a commercial level, Pedro Almodovar has always been woefully underappreciated, but that response became downright mystifying when, just a couple of years ago, Almodovar delivered "The Skin I Live In," a funny, sexy, scary psychosexual thriller that was entirely accessible, but ignored by too many (it was the director's lowest-grossing film in the U.S. in over a decade). It's clear from his filmography that he is deeply indebted to the works of Hitchcock but is also fond of the more arch approach of Brian De Palma. He was able to synthesize those styles in "The Skin I Live In," refining something that he attempted a few years earlier in "Bad Education," and came up with one of his very best, most darkly comic movies. Talking about the plot of "The Skin I Live In" would ruin the fun, bu the thriller is full of ripped-up psyches and sexual obsessions (taken to almost Frankenstein-ian degrees), complete with doppelgangers and murderous intent. It's also really, really hot, and really, really weird. Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodovar after close to twenty years apart, gives one of his very best performances, as a bruised cosmetic surgeon reeling from the death of his wife and daughter, while the jaw-dropping Elena Anaya is the object of his desire. The ins and outs of the relationship are revealed piecemeal as the film moves along, shifting forwards and backwards in time, with a surprising amount of poignancy. And the "big reveal" is one of the best twists in recent memory.     

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  • Jordan | December 19, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    'Stoker' 2013 directed by Chan-Wook Park is another great psychosexual drama.

  • Spanky | August 24, 2013 9:47 PMReply

    And how about The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane with Jodie Foster? Somebody stop me I keep thinking of sexy creepy movies.

  • Spanky | August 24, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    I also forgot The Beguiled with Clint Eastwood. Talk about getting turned on and freaked out at the same time.

  • Spanky | August 24, 2013 2:21 AMReply

    No love for Private Parts (1972)? This is not the Howard Stern nightmare. Anyone seen it? Love it like I do?

  • Z | February 9, 2013 1:58 AMReply

    So glad to leave Bound getting some love. I seriously study this movie for pointers on super-stylish noir directing.

    I wish the Ws would make another like this, and leave The Cloud Atlas stuff alone.

  • Z again | February 9, 2013 1:59 AM

    So glad to SEE... (typo)

  • DG | February 8, 2013 12:58 AMReply

    Skin I Live In is the most under appreciated movie of the last ten years

  • Andrew | February 7, 2013 11:03 PMReply

    This is the first one of these lists where I have seen just about every entry. Much of the 80s films i saw while becoming thoroughly fascinated with neo-noir. I had never thought tot call them "psychosexual thrillers," but apparently I am a huge fan of the genre. This is a fantastic list.

  • christine | February 7, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    Simon Killer

  • christine | February 7, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    Simon Killer

  • christine | February 7, 2013 12:14 PMReply

    Simon Killer

  • David | February 7, 2013 10:13 AMReply

    I have three personal favourite psychosexual thrillers, though I call them something a little more derogatory - Psycho Bitch films.

    Fatal Attraction
    Single White Female
    Hand that Rocks the Cradle

    As a fan of this sub-genre, I'm gonna have to check out the others I have not seen as yet, terribly underused now days, but Side Effects does sound good.

  • Alan B | February 7, 2013 1:52 AMReply

    Peter Coyote's performance in Jagged Edge makes no sense whatsoever. (Spoilers) Jesus, it's like his character woke up every morning and thought, "I am going to make everyone suspect I'm a killer ... for no damn reason."

  • Fred | February 6, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    Unfortunately, Irons did not net a nomination for "Dead Ringers." I remember this vividly because he topped my Best Actor list of that year and I was enraged at the omission in favor of all the "safer" work (Hoffman, Hurt, etc.)

  • Fred | February 6, 2013 2:36 PM

    Correction: (Hoffman, Hanks, etc.), was clouded by all the other wins and noms for "Accidental Tourist" that bleak year at the Oscars.

  • Lilly | February 6, 2013 1:49 PMReply

    The Paperboy!

  • criterion10 | February 6, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    Eyes Wide Shut and Blue Velvet are two of my personal favorites. Crimes of Passion is a guilty pleasure of mine as well.

  • G | February 6, 2013 12:58 PMReply

    Fairly sure Anthony Hopkins didn't play Norman Bates...

  • RP | February 6, 2013 1:36 PM

    Just a brain fart, chill. It's not like anyone actually thought that.

  • Eponymous | February 6, 2013 1:01 PM

    Even for you guys, this is ridiculous. For shame.

  • Arch | February 6, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    Given the recent death of Nagisa Oshima (and Wakamatsu's last year) it's kind of surprising not to see a single Japanese movie here.

  • Xcess | February 23, 2013 3:58 AM

    I was thinking the same thing Arch.

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