I’ve been thinking a lot about the erotic thriller’s migration from movie theaters to streaming services. Unless you’re lucky enough to catch French exports like Knife+Heart or Double Lover at a local film festival, most modern audiences’ exposure to the erotic thriller genre is going to be through straight-to-streaming releases like Netflix’s Deadly Illusions or Amazon Prime’s The Voyeurs. If there’s been a low-level resurgence of the erotic thriller in recent years, it’s already reached its direct-to-video nadir, where streaming services are playing the part of late-night Skinemax broadcasts while sex has completely evaporated from public screenings at the American multiplex. There’s no clearer indicator of this decline in theatrical exhibitionism than Disney’s handling of the upcoming film Deep Water. Originally planned for wide theatrical distribution under the 20th Century Fox banner, Deep Water is a mainstream erotic thriller with legitimate movie stars that’s now going to be quietly dumped onto Hulu, as if Disney is ashamed to let their freak flag fly in broad daylight. What makes that last-minute change in distribution model so symbolic of the state of the erotic thriller is that Deep Water was directed by Adrian Lynne, whose heyday titles Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and 9 1/2 Weeks essentially defined the genre. There used to be space in the theatrical market for Adrian Lynne’s mainstream erotic thrillers to become widely discussed watercooler movies; now they’re something we’re supposed to enjoy in private with the blinds closed so no one can see our shame.
One major blow to the erotic thriller’s theatrical distribution was the box office failure of the 1994 Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle Mother’s Boys, a financial loss that nearly obliterated Miramax. That bomb was one of Miramax’s first major releases after its mid-90s Disney buyout, the exact kind of studio gobbling that’s now allowing Disney to hide Adrian Lyne’s latest on a subsidiary streaming service. Mother’s Boys may have appeared to be a dime-a-dozen in its heyday, but I honestly think contemporary audiences missed out on a great time at the movies. It should have been a hit. Yet even this traditional erotic thriller blurs the lines between what’s theatre-worthy vs. what’s straight-to-video content in its own way. It’s high-style 90s trash packed with the kinds of recognizable movie stars & over-active camera trickery that are usually too big for direct-to-video budgets. At the same time, it’s also directly inspired by real-life Betty Broderick tabloid headlines (recognizable even in Curtis’s spiky blonde haircut), positioning it as a major studio mockbuster of the made-for-TV “movie event” A Woman Scorned. Personally, I found it to be more explosively entertaining than even the revenge-pranks half of A Woman Scorned: Part 1, but it’s still very much playing around with a psychotic-ex thriller template that’s been reserved for television broadcasts & streaming services since the erotic thriller was pushed out of theaters. To put it plainly, Mother’s Boys is the Lifetime thriller perfected.
Jamie Lee Curtis stars as an unhinged, sadistic mother who terrorizes her kids & husband (an architect, naturally) after abruptly disappearing for three years. She wears outrageous couture clothing, enjoys martinis in her bubble baths, and treats herself to unwanted sexual advances on her still-healing, single-father ex just for the pleasure of watching him squirm. The traditional erotic thriller elements are in watching that poor man (Peter Gallagher) resist the temptation of backsliding into their old red-hot sexual dynamic at the expense of the much healthier romance he’s sparked up in her absence. Like many a Michael Douglas character, it’s his job to resist her sexual charms and then violently punish her for her transgressions in a grand display of Hays Code morality. Those plot machinations almost feel like obligatory genre markers that (failed to) make the movie easily marketable, though, since most of its central drama involves Curtis’s relationship with her titular boys. While her estranged husband must resist her offers of mind-blowing sexual favors, their oldest son must resist her training to become a little sociopath molded in her image. It’s bad enough when she’s manipulating the three children to turn against their father’s new fiancée (mostly by bribing them with junk food & Gameboys), but by the time she’s purposefully traumatizing the oldest so he becomes mommy’s little sociopath, the movie transcends the limitations of the erotic thriller genre to become something uniquely upsetting. It’s fabulous, reprehensible stuff.
If there was any positive outcome in the shift from the theatrical erotic thriller template to its made-for-TV equivalent, it’s that the Lifetime movies tend to center the psychotic woman’s POV instead of her male victim’s. If Fatal Attraction was a two-night “movie event” like A Woman Scorned instead of a traditional theatrical release, Glenn Close would’ve been the main-POV character instead of Michael Douglas, and it likely would’ve been better off for it. Even though Mother’s Boys was designed for theatrical distribution, it was way ahead of the curve there. Curtis’s psycho-wife monster remains a kind of volatile enigma the entire runtime (what exactly was she up to for the three years when she abandoned her family?), but her over-the-top sexual & vengeful theatrics are given a lot more attention than Gallagher’s exhausted response to them. Direct-to-video erotic thrillers also usually have more freedom to dip their toes into outright softcore pornography than their theatrical foremothers, since they aren’t subject to the browbeating of the MPAA. I’d gladly sacrifice that Playboy Magazine-level titillation to be able to see movies as deliriously trashy as Mother’s Boys on the big screen again, though. Our current theatrical distribution market is a little too sanitized & predictable, more concerned with selling audiences on the nostalgic comforts of familiar IP than testing the boundaries of their good sense & good taste. We need to get a little more comfortable watching our horned-up, amoral trash out in public again. It makes for a fun night out, even if we all rush home to shower directly after.