In many ways, Basic Instinct is the template, the Rosetta Stone if you will, of the star quality of Michael Douglas. He is a scumbag. But he is too dumb to be truly hateable. Disclosure, which came out two years after Basic Instinct, pushes this thesis to, and beyond, its limit, sending the aforementioned thesis cartwheeling over the edge of the limit itself. How scummy and stupid can you make Michael Douglas and still have him be a protagonist worth rooting for? Taking things way, way too far, Disclosure is what happens when you turn the 90s erotic thriller dial up to 11. We would encourage letting out a couple of “yikes” and “this ain’t it chief’s” while you get a load of this plot summary: set in the burgeoning tech mecca of Seattle, a computer specialist (Douglas) is sued for sexual harassment by his former lover-turned boss (Demi Moore) after she sexually assaults him. Hoo boy.
“Why would I want to watch that?” you ask. Look, full…uh…disclosure, Disclosure is “not good” and “features sexual politics as antiquated as its childish vision of technology.” But, if you want to fully understand the seedy underbelly of the late 20th Century erotic thriller, you have to pinch your nose and reckon with Disclosure’s “women be making up sexual harassment claims” bullshit. There’s an absolutely wild VR sequence in it for the brave.
Available on DIRECTV.
To Die For (1995)
While To Die For isn’t necessarily a “sexy” movie, it and Basic Instinct go hand in hand in the “icy ambitious blondes” department. Gus Van Sant’s 1995 thriller follows Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) whose name sounds way too similar to “Sharon Stone” for us not to mention it. Stone wants one thing and one thing only: to become a world-renowned news anchor. And Stone is used to getting what she wants. What she lacks in intelligence she more than makes up for in determination and unflappable focus. Which naturally means getting rid of anything…and anyone who stands in her way. Filled with cold hearts and twists, this is a double bill, well, to die for.
Available on Hulu and Pluto TV.
Okay, so once again we find ourselves pressed to give the caveat that this is “technically not a very good movie.” But look: mid-90s erotic thrillers want the chaotic energy that Jade has. Directed by William Friedkin and written by Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas, Jade is, as the kids say, too bananapants to disappoint. (Legend has it that Friedkin considers Jade his favorite of all his films, which we 100% believe to be true).
Set in San Francisco, Jade tells of an Assistant District Attorney (David Caruso) assigned to crack the case of a mysterious sex worker known as “Jade” who may (or may not) be killing wealthy men during their engagements. With lines like “Cristal, Beluga, Wolfgang Puck…it’s a f***house” and “I do the f***ing, I never get f***ed!” Jade is an essential jewel in the (probably sticky) tiara of the erotic thriller. This film is riddled with sex pests and is an absolute catastrophe. In other words, if you like Basic Instinct, Jade is a must.
Available on Amazon Prime, Paramount Plus, and Pluto TV.
There is connective tissue between film noir and 90s erotic thrillers. And a part of that musculature has to do with the way both parties deal with the sticky character trope of the “dangerous woman.” In film noir, she’s the femme fatale; a vampy maneater who charms our square-jawed hero into morally ambiguous territory. Meanwhile, 90s erotic thrillers tend to take this character trope to a bonkers extreme. Namely, that sexy women be murderin’.
The Wachowskis’ debut feature is explicitly interested in challenging and subverting the femme fatale formula, arguably in a far more mature and mindful way than the vast majority of its erotic thriller cohort. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) isn’t just a sensual side piece, she’s the main character and the smartest person in every room she’s in. And if the queer paratext in Basic Instinct felt a little strange and male gaze-y to you, definitely give Bound a look.
Available on Hulu, Paramount Plus, Paramount+ Amazon Channel, Epix, DIRECTV, and Sling TV.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
We’ve seen people claim Eyes Wide Shut is a horror film and a Christmas movie. So why not claim it as a 90s erotic thriller? Oh, what? Because it was directed by Stanley Kubrick it has too much class? Dream bigger, friends!
The very best erotic thrillers (in our humble opinion) should all resonate, at least spiritually, with the Sum 41 song “In Too Deep.” In Basic Instinct, Nick is but a pawn in the larger, big-brained girl fight taking place between Catherine and Beth. He’s barely following the plot and tumbling headfirst into peril with naught but two brain cells and a penis. Is Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) any better, or brighter, than him? Absolutely not. Eyes Wide Shut is a film about two people thinking about cheating on each other. Alice (Nicole Kidman) merely imagines her tryst, while Bill yes-and’s himself into a secret sex society patronized by New York’s elite. Does he think about the consequences? Nope. Does he stop to ask himself if any of this is a good idea? Again: nope. He may have a medical license, but Doctor Bill is as horny and confused as they come. Bless him.
Available on HBO Max and Tubi
Cruel Intentions (1999)
If ever there was cause to doubt that cinema’s teens could play the game of duplicity as well as their adult counterparts, it was before Cruel Intentions came along. The juvenile riff on Dangerous Liaisons — or Les Liaisons dangereuses, if you’re nasty and/or a literary purist — centers on the offspring of Manhattan’s elite. When bad boy Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) strikes a bet with his venomous stepsister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar, excellent at playing against type) to seduce the chaste Annette (Reese Witherspoon), it all seems pretty straightforward, if not exactly respectable. But then feelings and conspiracies arrive to complicate things. The film sways from being deliciously vindictive to schmaltzy at times. But that’s exactly what makes it so distinctively 90s and such a darkly comedic classic.
Available on Max Go, DIRECTV, and Cinemax Amazon Channel.
Femme Fatale (2002)
Close readers may have noticed that these films are usually listed in chronological order, but the truth is that this time we saved the most audacious for last. While this 2002 thriller might not be Brian de Palma‘s best movie, it does encapsulate the peak of his sensibilities to title a film Femme Fatale. Delivering the product as advertised, the film follows the bewitching Laure (Rebecca Romijn), a jewel thief who strikes at the Cannes Film Festival, double-crosses her team, and then finds her doppelganger in Paris.
When paparazzo Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) becomes drawn into her web, Laure’s scheme starts to unravel… or does it? The film toys with audience expectations like a cat playing with a mouse and it knows how to strike with a similar bite. Led by a whirlwind performance from Romijn, who wields her sensuality like a katana and channels a sense of coolness even when being unabashedly chaotic, the film is a thrill ride that we guarantee you’re not prepared for. Just hold on tight and try to keep up.
Available on Fubo TV.