For whatever reasons, perhaps owing to puritanical societal views and an uptight body politic, films that detail eroticism are thought to be trashy, bottom of the barrel undertakings with little to offer beyond the cheapest of tawdry thrills.
But boundary-pushing films needn’t all be about T and A and little else. Why some of the directors on this list include serious auteurs like Brian De Palma (of course!), Peter Greenaway, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch.
Point being that, especially in recent times without the censorship problems that plagued Hollywood in the early days––like the Hays Code––filmmakers today can be explicit without the bête noire that plagued the original film noirs. So here you’ll find Taste of Cinema’s picks for the sexiest erotic thrillers of all time.
For the record, let it be known that to narrow this list down to a manageable 25 films was no small feat. Several worthy films; some campy (1999’s Cruel Intentions), some trashy (1992’s Poison Ivy), some culturally memorable (1992’s Single White Female), and even a few arthouse hits (like 2003’s In the Cut or 2007’s Lust, Caution) almost made the cut but alas, did not.
25. Wild Things (1998)
Director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is no stranger to exploitation cinema, and his naughty 1998 erotic thriller Wild Things, typifies the tawdry embellishments of it’s director rather well.
Wild Things isn’t a great film, but it’s game ensemble cast, which includes Kevin Bacon, Neve Campbell, Matt Dillon, Denise Richards, and Theresa Russell, are all keen on chewing the scenery and each other’s earlobes, etc., all for double-crossing, swimming pool splashing, campy glory of it all.
Deliberately vulgar and gleefully OTT, Wild Things’ “plot” involves scandal, deceit, murder, much fornication, and a beach bungalow. This is probably a film more fun to talk about then to actually watch, but it has a glossy glamor that is certain to appeal to some.
24. American Gigolo (1980)
Long before weird rumors of gerbils usurped any of his considerable thunder, Richard Gere sizzled in writer/director Paul Schrader’s steamy romantic crime-drama, American Gigolo.
As Julian Kaye, the titular gigolo of the title, Gere makes for a daring leading man, and the first mainstream A-lister to go full frontal. Julian is an LA-based male escort of the high-price variety, who becomes romantically linked with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), a married wife of a senator, actually takes the backseat––bad pun, please disregard––to client Judy Rheiman (Patricia Carr), who likes it rough while her husband watches. And guess what? Judy turns up dead and Julian is the primary suspect.
All told, American Gigolo is a stylish exercise in love and redemption that’s both seedy and slick with a finale that’s pretty sublime, too.
23. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
When noted director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens) teamed with screenwriter and playwright David Mamet–– himself just a few years shy of winning a Pulitzer for his play Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984––for an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 crime novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” neither was prepared for the considerably cold reception it would receive.
Already working against them was the fact that the Tay Garnett adaptation from 1946 with Lana Turner and Hume Cronyn was already considered as something as a classic and not even the slick casting coup of longtime Rafelson collaborator Jack Nicholson could win critical favor.
The years have been kind to The Postman Always Rings Twice, however, and drifter Frank Chambers (Nicholson) and his impassioned affair with married diner owner Cora Smith (Jessica Lange) and the older yet every bit as white-hot Madge Gorland (Anjelica Huston) makes for some lewd revelations and tragic twists.
22. Angel Heart (1987)
Sweltry eroticism beds down with neo-noir in Alan Parker’s controversial, and macabre movie, Angel Heart. Following his racy 1986 erotic thriller 9½ Weeks, Mickey Rourke made another sensual character study as Harry Angel, a New York City private investigator on a missing person case that leads to New Orleans and one Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet).
At this point in 1987 Bonet was known only for her wholesome persona on The Cosby Show, with Angel Heart she suddenly became a sex symbol, and her squeaky clean image was forever besmirched.
21. Sea of Love (1989)
Harold Becker’s (Taps) Sea of Love was largely hyped as Al Pacino’s return to filmmaker after a four year hiatus and much of the film does pander to Pacino’s scenery-chewing strengths.
As an alcoholic cuckold and homicide detective in the Big Apple, Frank Keller (Pacino) has seen better days. As he hits 20 years on the force and tries to crack the serial killings of victims all linked through singles ads in the classifieds he soon finds himself tangled up with one Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin).
There’s a lot of chemistry between Barkin and Pacino, and while some of the story may feel familiar, it’s stylish and sexy throughout.
20. The Living End (1992)
One of the pioneers of New Queer Cinema in the 1990s, LA-based auteur Gregg Araki (Totally Fucked Up, Mysterious Skin) made major waves with his third film, The Living End. Often described as a “gay Thelma and Louise,” there’s definitely some adventure and Warholian flourish in this racy road movie.
Araki regular Craig Gilmore is Jon, a talky and cynical film critic, gay and HIV-positive, he soon saddles up with a carefree drifter, also gay, also HIV-positive, named Luke (Mike Dytri).
The Living End has moments of insight, visual vibrancy, and artful eroticism, but, like many of Araki’s early films, it also has outrage, irritation, and deliberate provocation––which makes sense considering the motto of Jon and Luke is “fuck everything!”
19. Alleluia (2014)
This haunting, heady, and suggestive thriller from Belgium provocateur Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire) was partially inspired by the true-crime catastrophe The Honeymoon Killers in this 2014 surreal and sexy chiller Alleluia. Lola Dueñas is incredible as lonesome single-mother Gloria who is affected by Michel (Laurent Lucas), a sketchy manipulator with a foot fetish and plentiful sexual prowess.
Gloria and Michel are soon pulling deadly bait-and-switch schemes on vulnerable women and Du Welz goes to artistic extremes––sequences pop with color that recalls Dario Argento’s Suspiria––and zigzags into other genres; a few scenes play out like horror and then there’s a musical showstopper that is absolutely breathtaking. Alleluia isn’t like most films, it’s an orgiastic procession of sexuality, fantasy, and fears. Not to be missed.
18. Stranger by the Lake (2014)
Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) falls ass over teakettle in love with Michel (Christophe Paou) a dreamy and potentially dangerous man in this sexually explicit thriller. Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, Stranger by the Lake made a huge splash at Cannes in 2014, where Guiraudie won Best Director honors and the film also scored the Queer Palm Award (it would go on to land eight César Award nominations with Deladonchamps winning for Most Promising Actor later that year).
Combining pitch-black humor, gay sex, and tense suspense, Stranger by the Lake is an absorbing, debauched, and all-consuming white knuckler.