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10 Must-Watch Psychosexual Thrillers

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 6, 2013 at 12:37PM

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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.     

Fatal Attraction
"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
"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.

This article is related to: Features, Side Effects


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