Some of the best films push us to our limits and challenge our preconceived notions of sexual norms and mores. They go beyond the typical boy-meets-girl trope and delve into deep-seated, complex, Freudian narratives of sexual identity.
Part of enjoying a drama or thriller is deconstructing what motivates the main characters to make the choices they make. Our most basic needs and primal urges rest beneath a thin veneer of civility. Psychosexual thrillers allow us to indulge those urges on screen without fear of reprisal or judgment.
Romance is often used to sublimate many of these desires but it is the advent of the psychosexual thriller that makes for much more compelling cinema. Some of the best murder mysteries and thrillers give viewers a heightened sense of excitement with an added layer of sexual complexity.
Set against a mind-bending framework, these movies often explore the seedier parts of male sexuality and desire. They also offer a cross examination of women who use their sexuality as a weapon. Women are often duplicitous and manipulative of men in order to get their needs met. There are no innocent bystanders here.
Recurring Hitchcockian narratives about the evil that lurks in the hearts of people are prevalent throughout these films. The idea of something that is repressed and hidden being brought to light, often through gruesome and visceral imagery is also a theme that is explored. That is what makes these films so powerful. Everyone has drives and desires. These films explore how repressed desires can soon turn into the depths of sexual depravity and other Lynchian nightmares.
They are not for the faint of heart but rather the curious of mind. It’s not just about whodunit, but also about why they did it. David Fincher once said, “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar.” The following are films that are bound to leave some marks.
25. Basic Instinct (1992)
Anyone old enough to have seen this movie in theaters or remember when it was released is well familiar with the hype surrounding this film. It is easily one of the more controversial films of the 90s. Sharon Stone (Catherine Tramell) had already been established at this point but this film launched her into superstardom.
A former rock star is found tied to his bed and brutally murdered. The police find the ice pick used in the homicide right away. Det. Nick Curran (an already aging Michael Douglas) is on the scene to investigate the crime. He accidentally shot some tourists in the line of fire and is seeing a police psychologist (Jeanne Tripplehorne) so he already has a questionable record.
Naturally, the first suspect is the one of the rock star’s lovers, Catherine Tramell, who last saw him alive. Catherine is a wealthy psychologist and crime novelist whose most recent book revolves around, wait for it, a rock star being stabbed to death while tied to his bed with an ice pick. Red herrings, questionable plot devices, and one of the hottest interrogation scenes on screen are soon to follow.
Catherine Tramell was a feminist icon for some and a sadistic representation of the gay community for others. Here you have a sexually liberated woman having sex with men and women indiscriminately who is wealthy and gets whatever she desires. She’s also a raging psychopath. People are still debating the ending of this film to this day although director Paul Verhoeven has always indicated it is obvious who the killer is and regrets having to drive the that message home the way he did in the final frame.
24. Body Double (1984)
The 1980s were brimming with thrillers and whodunits designed to titillate as well as mess with your head just a little bit. Just on the heels of Scarface, Brian de Palma’s next release was a heavily Hitchcock influenced thriller starring Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith.
Wasson plays Jake Scully, an out of work actor who comes home just in time to find his girlfriend in bed with another man. Desperate to move out of his current situation, he accepts an offer from another actor, Sam Bouchard, (Gregg Henry) to take over on a housesitting job.
Sam shows Jake one of the houses more alluring features, which is a view of the sexy female neighbor who does a strip tease right on schedule every night. Jake becomes infatuated with this woman and starts following her wherever she goes. His voyeurism leads him into a world of adult films and twisted mind games only further complicated by his debilitating claustrophobia.
Lots of directors have studied Hitchcock but Brian de Palma really borrows heavily from his work. He does a good job of recreating the similar atmosphere of Hitchcock films that feature obsession and voyeurism. Even Pino Donaggio’s score will have you thinking you’re watching North by Northwest.
It is the attention to detail and the lurid obsession that Jake displays for his neighbor that keeps you wondering where de Palma is taking you. It is interesting that de Palma never revisits Jake’s feelings of being cheated on and how that impacts his obsession with this sexy neighbor. That is left for the viewer to piece together.
23. Dressed to Kill (1980)
Nancy Allen had already made quite an impression as a mean girl galore in Carrie. She is one of the more underrated actresses of the tail end of “The Movie Brats” era. This role required a little more stamina than a few of her previous efforts but she still pulls it off.
Allen plays Liz Blake, an escort, who witnesses a brutal murder while standing outside an elevator negotiating a meeting with a client. She doesn’t get a clear look at the murderer but knows that she’s a tall blonde wearing a black trench coat. The murder victim is one of Dr. Robert Elliott’s (Michael Caine) psychiatric patients. Dr. Elliott is certain that he knows whom the murderer is, but has yet to piece together what is motivating this psychotic killer.
Things seem straightforward early on but the plot takes several unforeseen twists and turns. The police are not without their suspicions but they are not prepared for the psychosexual nightmare that is unfolding.
Elements of Psycho are included but de Palma presents a straight out bloodbath here. He also spares no full frontal shots of Angie Dickinson in the shower. Sex and its consequences are viewed with a critical lens in this film considering de Palma’s treatment of the subject matter in his other films. It can be a bartering tool or get you killed if you aren’t careful.
22. Audition (1999)
Takashi Miike, visually, has been able to tell stories in a way that few filmmakers can (13 Assassins, Ichi the Killer). Audition is arguably more suspenseful than horrific even though there are some violent scenes. This film invokes high levels of anxiety because it is unbelievably steady and any movement seems shocking at times. Viewers are definitely rewarded for their patience in the conclusion of this film.
Shigeharu Aoyama is a widower who has been faithful to his wife’s memory for long enough and has decided to find a wife. His friend thinks it’s a good idea to set up a fake casting call in order to find the perfect match. He pours through several portfolios but is quite stricken with Asami’s photo. As it turns out, this was an unimaginably bad decision.
To say that this is a feminist film really is reductionist because it is something much more than that. It goes beyond mere social commentary on intimate relationships and toys with the conventions of several genres at once. This is what makes the film so effective. Sensitive viewers may shy away from the film but Miike has created a masterpiece here.
21. The Crying Game (1992)
By now, many people have been made privy to the “the secret” of The Crying Game but that should not preclude them from seeing the film. Forrest Whitaker and Stephen Rea star in this thriller set against a terror plot in Northern Ireland. The IRA has kidnapped Whitaker. He suspects he is not going to survive the encounter so he gives a photograph of his girlfriend to Stephen Rea in the hopes that he might contact her some day in London.
Rea eventually makes his way to London with a new identity in tow. He finds Whitaker’s girlfriend at a hair salon and decides to get a haircut. They begin a relationship amidst secrets, lies, and plot twists that for a film of its time, were rather risqué. As brutal as some of the scenes are, the movie is quite tender in tone and really challenges viewers to let the guards down a bit.
Neil Jordan really did do something original here. The subject matter itself is not new but the way in which he treated the story and characters with some level of dignity was refreshing. It would be difficult to retool a film of this magnitude but Jordan did it right the first time and this film will always have its place in cinematic history because of it.
20. Diabolique (1955)
“Please do not reveal the ending to those who have not seen the film!” Clouzot insists in the final frame of this dizzying thriller. Sixty years later, this movie still holds up as one of the better psychosexual thrillers to date. Even after you’ve processed the plot twists and ending, it is worth re-watching.
Michael Delasalle (Paul Meurisse) is a cruel headmaster of a boys’ boarding school in France. He is not well liked by staff and students alike. His mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret) has hatched a plan along with his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot) to drown him in the tub of her home and then move the body to the school swimming pool in order to look like an accident.
Seems simple enough. It does until the body is somehow missing from the pool and Michael’s suit returns from the cleaners. What follows is a nail-biting thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end.
Many films have employed the double cross, but Diabolique raised the stakes in terms of how to do it flawlessly. There are a few scenes that are downright frightening in this film and the tension it builds keeps you on edge the entire time. Accept no substitutes. The original Diabolique will not disappoint.
19. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
This film is the first in a series of book-to-film adaptations, originally penned by Stieg Larsson. Few films have had such a standout female lead as Noomi Rapace. Emotionally crippled, yet resilient, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has a troubled past which is slowly revealed in snippets throughout the film. She is also a skilled hacker who seems to connect better with others online than in real life. Her caseworker believes he can take advantage of her. Lisbeth has other plans.
After journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is solicited by an aging business titan to investigate the disappearance of his niece forty years ago, he manages to enlist the help of Lisbeth to assist with the investigation. As the two work closely together, they uncover a grisly family secret.
The original title of the book translates to Men Who Hate Women. This is an understatement. While there are definite misogynistic undertones in the film, the resiliency and determination of Lisbeth show that women can be just as empowered as men and when push comes to shove, show just as much brutality.
18. The Skin I Live In (2011)
Pedro Almodóvar is known for his use of strong female leads and sensual storytelling. Most of his films focus on relationships and their inherent complexity. This film varies in the sense that he uses time, place, and sequence to allow the story to unfold.
After his wife burns to death in a car accident, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) invents a new type of skin that can withstand cuts and burns. He spends his days locked away in his mansion with his maid and a young, mystery woman who serves as the guinea pig for his research. As the story jumps in space and time, the shallow glimpse of what we believe has happened begins to increase in its depth.
Pedro created quite the mind screw with this film. He plays with colors in a magnificent way and that helps create a beautiful palette. The Freudian horror that emerges serves as a fine counterbalance to some of the vibrant color scheme. This is a film that sticks with you long after it’s done.