Mother’s Boys (1994)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Femme Fatale (2002)

Brian De Palma’s late-career erotic thriller Femme Fatale opens with an exquisitely staged diamond heist, set during a red-carpet movie premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. It ends with an all-in commitment to a sitcom-level cliched Twist that zaps any remnants of prestige or intelligence from that refined opening locale. Those two bookends—a pretentious Art Cinema patina and an intellectually bankrupt gotcha! plot twist—perfectly frame what makes the movie such sublimely idiotic fun. Femme Fatale is preposterous, lurid trash from the goblin king of preposterous, lurid trash. De Palma imports his refined visual acrobatics into the cheap Paris Hilton-era fashions of the early 2000s, and the result is just as impressively crafted as it is aggressively inane.

The opening image of Femme Fatale finds then X-Men villain Rebecca Romijn lounging naked in a French hotel room, watching a classic noir (1944’s Double Indemnity) on a cathode television. Even without the way the title underlines the femme fatale tropes of the noir genre, the audience instantly knows she’s bad news because she shares the same slicked-back bisexual hairdo Sharon Stone sports in Basic Instinct. Romijn pulls off the Cannes diamond heist by distracting her mark with bathroom-stall lesbian sex. She then double-crosses her fellow thieves, and struggles to protect herself (and her loot) in a world where she slinks around with a target on her back. Luckily (very luckily), she’s able to escape by stealing the identity of a French civilian who looks exactly like her (because she’s also played by Romijn); she just has to hope that a snooping slimebag paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) doesn’t blow her cover, or else she’ll have to seek her own revenge for the betrayal. The rest of the film is a convoluted tangle of blackmail, double-crosses, strip teases, and unearned plot twists. It’s all so cheap in its Euro trash mood & straight-boy sexuality that it’s a wonder De Palma managed to not drool directly on the lens.

Story-wise, Femme Fatale is only remarkable for its perversely laidback pace. It’s shockingly unrushed for such a tawdry erotic thriller, allowing plenty of time for relaxing bubble baths, leisurely window-peeping, and little cups of espresso between its proper thriller beats. Otherwise, the film would be indistinguishable from straight-to-DVD action schlock if it weren’t for De Palma’s pet fixations as a visual stylist and a Hitchcock obsessive. All of his greatest hits are carried over here: split-screen & split diopter tomfoolery; suspended-from-the-ceiling Mission: Impossible hijinks; shameless homages to iconic Hitchcock images like the Rear Window binocular-peeping. The mood is decidedly light & playful, though, especially in the flirtatious deceptions shared between Banderas & Romijn. In that way, it’s a lot like De Palma’s version of To Catch a Thief: beautiful movie stars pushing the boundaries of sex & good taste in a surprisingly comedic thriller set in gorgeous European locales. The difference is that Hitch’s film is a carefully crafted Technicolor marvel, while De Palma’s is only elevated a few crane shots above a Skinemax production. Both approaches have their merits.

I wish I could say that there’s some pressingly relevant reason to recommend this film to new audiences. The only contemporary connection I can bullshit on the fly is that its stolen identity sequence recalls the recent Hilaria Baldwin nontroversy in the press, as Romijn’s titular conwoman is publicly exposed for faking a French accent for seven consecutive years (even to her husband). The truth is that I only watched this because it’s one of my few remaining blind-buys from the pre-COVID days when I would collect random physical media from nearby thrift stores. The copy on the back of that DVD is so dated in its relevancy that, just under its “Fatale-y Attractive Bonus Features” section (woof), it includes an America Online Keyword for the poor dolts who might want to research the film on The Web but need the extra guidance. That early-2000s-specific insignificance speaks to the film’s broader appeal. This is disposable, amoral trash that would be totally lost to time if it weren’t for the over-the-top eccentricities of its accomplished horndog director. What would normally be an anonymous entry into a genre comprised mostly of cultural runoff instead feels like a significant cornerstone of De Palma’s personal canon.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #85 of The Swampflix Podcast: Indecent Proposal (1993) & Adrian Lyne’s Erotic Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #85 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-fifth episode, James drags Brandon back into the sordid realm of Adrian Lyne’s erotic-thriller melodramas of the 80s & 90s, including Indecent Proposal (1993), Fatal Attraction (1987), and ​9 1⁄2 Weeks (1986). Enjoy!

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-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet