17. The Housemaid (1960)
The degree to which a film is considered risqué really is predicated upon the period in time in which it occurs in addition to the norms of the culture that it is immersed in. By South Korean standards in 1960, The Housemaid, was not just risqué but almost a film out of time considering its content.
A composer and his pregnant wife are already drained from taking care of their two smaller children in addition to working full time. They decide to hire a housemaid to alleviate some of the burden. There is a Japanese word for “trouble” that literally translates into: two women under one roof. Nothing good can come from hiring a venomous sex kitten as a housemaid. She plays coy but is intent on seducing the husband and destroying the family
There is a 2010 remake of this film with virtually the same plot but naturally shot in color. The original has a more cynical tone and Eun-shim Lee is dynamite on screen. This South Korean gem really set the bar for thrillers of this nature and should be required viewing for film students and beyond.
16. Body Heat (1981)
This is one of the steamiest thrillers out there. A heat wave has descended upon a Florida coastal town and seems to have permeated the very being of its residents. William Hurt (Ned Racine) is an unscrupulous lawyer who seems satisfied sleeping with everything he sees between drunken binges.
Kathleen Turner (Matty White) is the envy of every man’s eye, especially when her husband is away on business. During an evening stroll out on the pier, Ned spots Matty and is determined to have her. After some teasing and playing hard to get, he gets exactly what he wants. Soon, the pair want the husband out of the way, permanently.
A lot of movies don’t have the shelf life that Body Heat does. It still holds up to this day surprisingly. It is also a great example of women using their sexuality as a bargaining chip to get what they want. That does not make it some feminist manifesto but rather a scathing indictment of the lengths that people will go to get what they want even when they are not entitled to it.
The ever-present heat adds to the atmosphere of this thriller, which makes the sex scenes all the racier. The film is rife with sex scenes but it is the plot twists that keep this potboiler moving.
15. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
David Lynch will take you deep. That goes without saying. Eraserhead has probably frightened several men away from fatherhood. Sex is always presented as something that is dangerous or leads to ill consequences. His sexually charged productions weave through a maze of psychological fear and enmity. Mulholland Dr. was understood by few and reviled by many, but this film is a critical piece in Lynch’s body of work.
Diane Selwyn takes on the persona of Betty Elms, who is on the verge of becoming a famous actress. She lives a successful life both personally and professionally. In real life, Diane is failure on both counts and wants to arrange to have her ex-lover, Camilla killed. In order to deal with ambivalent feelings about the matter, Diane fantasizes about her as the malleable amnesiac, Rita.
It is important to note here that the film was initially supposed to be a pilot for a TV show that Lynch was working on. He still refuses to give a coherent interpretation of the movie. The plot is dense and contains several vignettes that initially appear unrelated.
Cryptic imagery and symbolism surround a dreamy reality that can be construed in many ways. Are you who you pretend to be? What roles do memory and dreams play in relationships? Maybe sex can truly drive you mad. Everything is left to interpretation, although some will argue that everything you need to know is right in front of you on screen.
14. Blue Velvet (1986)
Another classic by David Lynch, this film leaves fewer gaps to fill in than Mulholland Dr. David Lynch seems to revile small town America as much as he seems to love certain aspects of it. As soon as oh so clean cut Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont) finds the ear on the ground, we know we’re in for a real cinematic treat.
One feature of this film that stands out is David Lynch’s pop sensibilities. He often includes a pop star in many of his films. Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love” is such a perfect fit for this movie as Lynch really does find love and sex mysterious after all these years. Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth) is emblematic of deviant male sexual desire and is the antithesis of the wide-eyed, innocent Jeffrey Beaumont.
Visually, this film is stunning and has some legitimately tender moments between the rape and murder. Jungian archetypes intertwine to create a psychosexual masterpiece. It is perhaps the quintessential David Lynch film and the images from this film will stick with you for years to come.
13. Sisters (1973)
This is truly one of the greatest films about the vehemence of female sexuality. While there are scenes that are horrific (you might not want to eat birthday cake again), the suspense and creepiness of the tone of the film give it just the right touch. Brian de Palma uses a split screen technique, which is not uncommon for several of his films to depict two competing sides of femininity.
Margot Kidder plays a set of twins (Danielle and Dominique). Danielle is a young fashion model who lives across the street from reporter Grace Collier (an expertly cast Jennifer Salt). Grace witnesses a murder through the window of Danielle’s apartment and quickly phones the police. They don’t believe her as she has published critical articles about their activities in the past.
Eventually, the police do arrive and canvas the apartment and find not a shred of evidence to indicate a murder had just taken place. Naturally, Grace is not convinced that her eyes have deceived her and her sleuthing leads to a grim discovery.
Grace represents the new feminist of the 70s, independent and secure, juxtaposed to Danielle’s wanton exploitation of her sexuality to move about the world. He offers a critique of the consequence of the male gaze set against a vivid set piece. Sisters is a brilliant psychological thrill ride and is a must see within the de Palma canon.
12. American Psycho (2000)
The role of Patrick Bateman seems so fitting for Christian Bale. He just seems to exude that confidence bordering on something much more sinister that makes him perfect for the role. This character is detestable in this day and age where hating the 1% is cause de jure. Love him or hate him, Patrick Bateman’s psyche is still cannon fodder for debate almost two decades later.
Patrick Bateman works on Wall Street (even though you rarely see him do anything at work) and is the archetypical 1980s yuppie scum that everyone loves to hate. He is good looking, fit, has pedigree, and a penchant for chainsaws. He is repulsive, indeed, but many aspects of his life invite envy. He does what he wants when he wants.
Part of what he wants is to rid the world of what he deems undesirable or weak. Deep down inside, who wouldn’t want these things? As much as many people want to see this film as an indictment of the avarice of Wall Street and the opulence of the American elite, there is a Patrick Bateman lurking inside a great many of us.
Does it really matter whether or not the murders took place? From a purist’s standpoint, yes. From a Freudian perspective, no. This film toys with you in a way the novel cannot. As a satire, it is extremely effective but the gripping psychological components of the film are what is most compelling.
The sex scenes are almost comical as he is making love to himself as much as he does with his partners. American Psycho is a scathing indictment of materialism run rampant and what happens when one is so morally void they can only see skin deep.
11. Private Property (1960)
Drifters, whether they are alone, or travelling in packs often anchor brilliant thrillers. There is either something they are running to or away from and it will surely be unpacked neatly (or not) on screen. There are several of these films but Private Property is up in the pantheon of one of the greatest drifter films of all time.
Produced in 1960, this film was considered so taboo, the Production Code Administration refused to issue a code seal for the film. It is one of few features to be released sans MPAA approval. Some would argue it was the precursor to the Golden Age of American Cinema.
Corey Allen (Duke) and Warren Oates (Boots) are two drifters moving along the California coast. They stop at a gas station and goad the driver into giving them free soft drinks. Duke continuously hounds Boots about not having lost his virginity. He goes as far as insinuating that Boots is gay which he vehemently denies.
A cool blonde in a sharp car drives up to gas station and Duke believes he has found the perfect “twitch” for Boots to “make” it with. The new love interest, Kate Manx, is trapped in a loveless marriage and when Duke hatches a scheme to for the two to intrude on her life, temptation turns to tragedy in this psychological thriller.
Stalking, voyeurism, rape, and murder are par for the course now but were leaps and bounds from the norm in 1960. Warren Oates went on to be a giant of the 1970s in films such as Two Lane Blacktop and Badlands. Corey Allen gives a menacing performance as the sociopathic Duke. This tight, hypersexual, potboiler is worth tracking down to witness these performances.
10. The Beguiled (1971)
This is by far one of Clint Eastwood’s most unique roles as he is definitely not the hero in this story. Released in 1971 by Universal Pictures, this is a slow burn of a film that is horrific and sensual all at once. It really is a shame that Eastwood didn’t star in more films along this vein because he is excellent in this movie.
Cpl. John McBurney (McB) is an injured Union soldier on Confederate soil. A young girl finds him in the woods while searching for mushrooms and takes him back to the all-girls boarding school that she attends. The headmistress is reluctant to take him at first but changes her mind as he is seriously wounded. As McB is the only male on the grounds, the girls develop feelings toward McB and he begins sleeping with them and pitting them against each other as well.
This is another film that was considered taboo for its time but is truly a gem that any cinephile should see. Jo Ann Harris (Carol) should have been one of the hottest actresses of her day as she slinks across the screen dripping with that feline version of American sexuality that Hitchcock tried to warn us about. Fans of Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns will be in for a real surprise as Eastwood shows he can be the villain as easily as he can be the hero.
9. Stoker (2013)
Stoker is one of the most underappreciated films on the list. This is Park Chan-wook’s first English language film. It, like the protagonist, is beautiful and dangerous. This movie will leave you questioning what you just saw and why you didn’t see it earlier.
Mia Wasikowska (India Stoker) becomes estranged from her mother after her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) dies in a suspicious car crash. Soon after, the pair is visited by India’s Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Uncle Charlie is cunning, cool and appears to have a desire for more than meets the eye from his family.
This film takes you to places you may not be prepared to go. Park Chan-wook is a master of the psychosexual thriller genre but this film doesn’t serve everything to the audience on a platter, which is what makes it so fun to watch. Jump scenes and eerie symbolism are there for the viewer to piece together. Violence can be beautiful and revered while sex is vile and depraved. It is stylish and sleek but deals with the gravity of what unfolds in a manner that sticks with you long after the final frame.