The Beginner’s Guide to Essential Erotic Thrillers

If 'Deep Water' leaves you wet, wild, and wanting more, fear not: we've got a list of movies to tide you over.
Deep Water

Scoff if you must at the erotic thriller — that genre based in sticky fumblings, killer mistresses, and a fast and loose relationship with the MPAA. Sure, it’s on the seedier side, but you can’t argue with the entertainment factor. Erotic thrillers have got it all. And by “all,” we mean a rich cinematic tradition of pulling the rug out from under love-struck fools and dames in way over their heads.

Cinema — or American cinema at the very least — grows more and more prudish by the day. Film Twitter has decided to debate the value of sex scenes at least bimonthly, like the world’s least interesting book club. But the erotic thriller lords have provided, recently: a new steamy and sinister feature is on the block.

Deep Water marks the return of director Adrian Lyne after two decades away from the big screen. It’s been a long absence, but if Disney being too afraid to give the film a real release is any indicator, this steamy romp is worth the wait. Adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, the film features Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck as a married couple who get caught up in some deadly mind games.

With decades and decades of verifiably delightful trash to choose from, narrowing the list down to 16 titles was no easy feat. Even among the filmographies of Deep Water’s lead duo, there are some gems we had to leave on the cutting room floor (seek out Ana de Armas’ breakout, Knock Knock, if you dare!).

With all that said, whether you’re new and curious or a hardened vet, here are 16 movies that define the erotic thriller genre.

Double Indemnity (1944)

All erotic thrillers share a genetic lineage with the film noir — that smoke-choked bordello of detective fiction churning with red herrings, duplicitous dames, and tall tumblers of whiskey. Surveying the scene, one classic film noir emerges from the fog as the erotic thriller’s closest ancestor: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. With a script co-written by Wilder and the infamous Raymond Chandler, the movie tells of a love-struck insurance salesman who finds himself ensnared in the charming clutches of an unhappy wife looking to bump off her inattentive husband.

Buzzing with infidelity, best-laid-murder-plans, and plots upon plots, Double Indemnity is an oldie, a goodie, and an essential watch for anyone looking to see where the erotic thriller genre got its spark. (Watch Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat if you want to see the strength of the family resemblance!). (Meg Shields)

Available to rent.

Marnie (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock’s career spanned half a century and produced some of the most influential films of all time. But with so much ground to cover, it’s natural that some of his work is more well known than others. When most people think of Hitchcock, they probably think of his films from the ’40s and ’50s, mysteries and MacGuffins, maybe a blonde or two. And don’t get us wrong, these mid-career films have plenty of erotic tension, vague insinuations, and train travel implications. But Hitch’s later films are where we really see the freak flag fly.

And it flies highest with 1964’s Marnie. The film stars Tippi Hedren as the titular serial thief. When she’s found out and blackmailed into a marriage with Sean Connery’s Mark, the film breezes past psychosexual and into straight-up disturbing. Parts of Marnie can be hard to watch, but if you’re looking for an early erotic thriller that is willing to provoke and push boundaries, Marnie’s the way to go. (Anna Swanson)

Available on Peacock.

Belle De Jour (1967)

We’ve already hinted that no erotic thriller watchlist is complete without a séjourne to the genre’s spiritual home country: France. Indeed, while the American erotic thriller certainly has its own distinct Yankee stink, the whirlpool of sex, lies, and violence has an indelible continental streak.

Enter: Belle De Jour, a marital tragedy couched in the guise of a journey of self-discovery. Directed by the father of cinematic Surrealism himself, Luis Buñuel, the film follows Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), a seemingly mild-mannered woman whose dreams stray into fantasies of dominance, humiliation, and violence. Adopting a double life as a sex worker, Séverine attempts to keep her domestic life separate from her escapades as the highly-in-demand Belle De Jour. (Meg Shields)

Available on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

Forgive the tangled mass of red string and corkboard conspiracy, but we’re trying to paint a picture: the erotic thriller’s lineage is a winding road. And one of its salacious genetic debts is paid in full to giallo, the cinematic corner of Italian genre film where crime and sex blur into one candy apple red conglomerate of sensuality and psychopathy.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is not only one of the genre’s more, uh, coherent offerings, it’s also the one with the most shared musculature to the erotic thriller boom that took Hollywood by storm in the 1990s. The titular Mrs. Wardh (Edwige Fenech), is a respectable ambassador’s wife with a dark secret: a harbored suspicion that her sadomasochistic former lover is behind a string of brutal mass killings. Torn between physical desire and self-preservation, Mrs. Wardh finds herself at the center of a much larger conspiracy as the wires between her past and current lovers begin to intersect. (Meg Shields)

Available on ARROW, Shudder, Shudder Amazon Channel, Tubi, Spectrum on Demand, AMC Plus, AMC+ Roku Premium Channel.

Body Double (1984)

Putting together an erotic thrillers list without including Brian De Palma is like living in a high rise without a high-magnification telescope: amateurish and inadvisable. De Palma’s filmography is a treasure trove of brilliant psychosexual masterpieces, but if we had to highlight just one, we have to stump for Body Double. The neo-noir riff on Hitchcock’s Rear Window follows a struggling actor whose house-sitting gig turns into a voyeur’s dream. But when the woman he’s been spying on is murdered, things quickly take a turn.

Packed to the gills with a schlocky ’80s aesthetic and meta-textual implications, Body Double balances self-parody with self-indulgence. Put it smack dab in the middle of a triple feature with De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale for the greatest six hours you could ever spend watching movies. (Anna Swanson)

Available to rent.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

This is the first Michael Douglas movie on our list, but it will definitely not be our last. It’s also the movie that earned Adrian Lyne an Oscar nomination for Best Director. You read that right. Back in 1987, this beautifully trashy morality tale about why you shouldn’t cheat on your wife was not only the highest-grossing movie of the year, it was nominated for six Academy Awards.

Part of what made Fatal Attraction so successful and highly lauded (though still controversial) was Glenn Close’s electric performance as the movie’s unhinged femme fatale. When Douglas’ Dan has a brief affair with Close’s Alex, he thinks their flash in the pan weekend of sin is the end of it, but she has other ideas and refuses to be ignored. The movie manipulates sympathies, offers some genuinely shocking moments, and thanks to the stellar performances, delivers a true cornerstone of the erotic thriller canon.

Available on HBO Max, HBO Now, Max Go, DIRECTV, Spectrum on Demand.

Single White Female (1992)

While erotic thrillers are certainly guilty of falling into an arguably misogynistic pattern of “bitches be crazy,” one thing you can’t fault the genre for is being heteronormative (the queer sensibility of erotic thrillers tends to be relegated to lesbians and bisexual women, but we take what we can get, as it were). Enter: Single White Female, Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary tale about the dangers of Craigslist roommates. But hey, when you have a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Featuring two genuinely incredible performances, by Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female is delightful high-end trash of the first order. Dog-lovers, you may want to sit this one out. (Meg Shields)

Available on Hulu, DIRECTV, Epix, EPIX Amazon Channel, Epix Roku Premium Channel.

Basic Instinct (1992)

The erotic thriller genre has several patron saints. And two of them — director Paul Verhoeven and star Michael Douglas — are part of Basic Instinct. Powered by a script that Joe Eszterhas would spend much of his career trying to recreate, and Verhoeven’s tenaciously tongue-in-cheek take on America’s unhealthy fear/obsession with sexuality, Basic Instinct has got it all.

The movie tells of Detective Nick Curran (Douglas) a volatile cop who is on the trail of a disturbing murder that looks a hell of a lot like an incident described in a book by crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). As Curran becomes seduced both by the case and its lead suspect, it’s clear that something sinister lurks behind Tramell’s cool demeanor and purported innocence. (Meg Shields)

Available on HBO Max, HBO Now, Max Go, DIRECTV, Spectrum on Demand, Cinemax Amazon Channel.

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Meg Shields and Anna Swanson: Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).