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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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"Fatal Attraction" (1987)
Arguably the "Citizen Kane" of the psychosexual thriller genre (it was nominated for six major Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director), "Fatal Attraction" was hugely influential – spawning countless imitators and serving as Steven Soderbergh's principle inspiration for "Side Effects." Yes, the psychosexual elements are great and super intense, but the domestic stuff has just as much resonance. Michael Douglas, as a somewhat morally ambiguous New York City lawyer, has a wonderful home life with his wife (Anne Archer) and adorable daughter. Then one weekend he decides to screw around with the hot but deranged woman (Glenn Close) he meets at a party and later has to work with. That's when things go south and she exemplifies the "psycho" part of psychosexual thriller. A cautionary fable for the soulless Reagan era, "Fatal Attraction" was marvelously directed by perennially underrated stylist Adrian Lyne, who makes sure the "psycho" stuff is really nuts and scary (the wrist cutting is still intense) and the "sexual" stuff is really hot (and pretty graphic for 1987 – that elevator blowjob, wowee). Like De Palma's movies and later "Basic Instinct," "Fatal Attraction" had its detractors, including noted feminist writer Susan Faludi, who resented the one-dimensionally insane portrayal of Close's character and the movie's more ambivalent attitude towards Douglas' sins. (An early cut of the movie had a more resonant ending for Close but test audiences didn't respond well, which resulted in a massive, three-week reshoot that drastically altered the climax.) It's one of the biggest psychosexual thrillers of all time and still the best. Who wants rabbit stew?

"Bound" (1996)
As The Wachowskis proved with "The Matrix," with elements borrowed from old kung fu movies, off kilter Japanese anime, and yellowed cyberpunk novels, they're very good at combining things they love into new and exciting packages. With "Bound," they did that on a much smaller scale, handily referencing psychosexual thrillers from the '80s with older film noir and detective novel influences and a healthy dose of gay S&M culture to create the striking, frequently brilliant debut Stripped down to its bare minimum (the movie's budget was probably less than an average episode of "Game of Thrones"), the movie concerns two women (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon) who become lovers and then hatch a plot to steal $2 million from Tilly's thuggish mobster boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano). That's pretty much it – but the lesbian angle, especially at the time, was pretty revolutionary, even if earlier thrillers, particularly "Basic Instinct" from a few years before, played with a similar concept. (The depiction of homosexuality in "Bound" is much more positive, the film serving almost as a response to the less progressive elements of Verhoeven's film). Even on a tiny budget, The Wachowkis were able to make super stylish film (they love their black-and-white checkered floors), and the actors fully commit to the characters, even when things become increasingly violent and bizarre. A psychosexual thriller with a heart, "Bound" still holds up fairly well.

"Dead Ringers" (1988)
Just thinking about "Dead Ringers" gives us the willies. Based, very loosely, on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twins who were found dead in their Manhattan apartment together, David Cronenberg's film sees Jeremy Irons play twin gynecologists who fall for the same woman (Genevieve Bujold) and become psychologically unwound. While it has its roots in real life, there are a number of fantastical, Cronenberg-ian elements in the movie, like the doctors' obsession with "mutant women" and their artfully designed tools for working on them. Plus the movie sometimes feels like a literal exploration of the themes that Hitchcock (and later De Palma) worked over so well, particularly the obsession with the "double" – made flesh by having the lead characters be twins. Irons, for his part, is absolutely flawless (his performance secured him an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a Cronenberg player), giving each brother their own set of tics and psychological traits. As the movie descends into madness, it keeps its cool. Unlike most psychosexual thrillers that become more frantic as the movie progresses, "Dead Ringers" glides along, something that makes it even more unnerving. Mutant women need love too.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)
When director David Fincher decided to throw his hat into the psychosexual thriller ring, he went big. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," an adaptation of the ridiculously popular Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson, is a psychosexual epic – one with dozens of characters, action that takes place over two separate time periods, and a title sequence that suggests the evil, S&M version of a James Bond movie. The movie is built upon the uneasy relationship between a defamed publisher (Daniel Craig) and a punkish, possibly autistic computer hacker (Rooney Mara), who are hired to solve a decades-old murder mystery. Everything about "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" fits the genre, including the relationship between Craig and Mara, which often becomes darkly sexual but could never be described as romantic (there's a great moment where he's struck by a thought in the middle of sex but she doesn't let him stop until she gets off); there's even a love triangle aspect because Craig is also bedding his editor, played by Robin Wright. (In the book he sleeps around even more.) Mara, in her first big lead role, absolutely owns the very difficult role (including nebulous sexuality that oscillates between affairs with women and men) -- she is Lisbeth. There are, of course, doubles, too, plus incest, Nazism, torture, rape, revenge and a serial killer who, once he's got Craig tied up, purrs, "I've never done a man before. Unless you count my father." Fincher clearly loves these types of stories (he's also a noted "Chinatown" obsessive) but wanted to make something bigger, bolder, and more unrelentingly brutal. He succeeded.

"Jagged Edge" (1985)
Notable for being the first psychosexual thriller written by prolific, highly paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas -- who would go on to exemplify the very best ("Basic Instinct") and the very worst ("Sliver," "Jade") of the genre -- "Jagged Edge" is sexy and smart, mostly for setting the genre's conventions against the backdrop of a courtroom drama. (It should be noted that in his lengthy and ridiculously entertaining biography, Eszterhas bemoans all of his thrillers as utter garbage, unfairly so.) After his wife is murdered (and the word "bitch" is scrawled in blood near her corpse), Jeff Bridges is accused of murder (by a slimy district attorney played menacingly by Peter Coyote). Glenn Close is the flashy lawyer hired by Bridges to clear his name, and they of course eventually sleep together, even though their relationship should be totally professional and, oh yeah, he's accused of murder. But hey, the heart wants what the heart wants. "Jagged Edge" is aided by its snappy script (you can see why Eszterhas would become such a sensation in later years) and some truly wonderful performances, particularly by Close, Bridges, and Robert Loggia, playing a private detective Close hires to investigate the case (a performance that netted Loggia an Oscar nomination). While somewhat less substantial than "Basic Instinct" or "Body Heat," "Jagged Edge" is still one of the best psychosexual thrillers from the period and, at the very least, is certainly far superior to "Jade" or "Sliver."  

Thoughts? Your pick for best "psychosexual thriller"? Sound off in the comments below.

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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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