There's an apocryphal legend that the most rewound scene in cinema history is from the 1992 erotic thriller "Basic Instinct" starring Sharon Stone.
It's from the interrogation scene where Stone's character, Catherine Trammel, stymies a room full of male investigators with a salacious leg cross.
Writer Abbey Bender, who's written quite a bit about the genre of erotic thrillers, told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA" that not only is that an iconic cinematic moment, but it's also a hallmark of the erotic thriller.
"It's the kind of scene where it's so absurd, and you're watching this, and you're like, 'Who would do this? This is crazy," Bender said. "At the same time, it fits because these movies are built on these crazy actions, and that's what makes them escapism."
Bender suggests the erotic thriller genre was born out of noir films and peaked in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Obviously, (film noirs) were very much the template for the erotic thriller. And the erotic thriller owes a lot to it. I think what makes it different is how erotic thrillers are a bit more explicit," Bender said. "You could bring in these more modern themes of yuppie culture and women in the workplace and things that were becoming more common then. So, it's basically like the film noir template meets the trashiness and more explicit sexuality and the social and cultural concerns of the 80s and 90s."
A prime example of this is the 1987 film "Fatal Attraction" starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. Bender said this film perfectly displays the Reagan era contradiction of political conservatism clashing against cultural boundary pushing.
"Glenn Close is obviously like this iconic femme fatale, and she clearly disrupts Michael Douglas' very yuppyish existence. But then at the same time, at the end, it's like all the family unit getting back together," Bender said. "It's a happy ending for this family even though they've been through a lot, and I think that very much embodies that Reagan era. There's like this trashiness, but at the same time, the family can still be together and it's fine and put this woman in her place."
The erotic thriller expands the femme fatale archetype by giving these women the ability to harness their sexuality for power and doesn't always doom them to tragic fates.
"The femme fatale is obviously quite rooted in male fantasy and is depicted as the homewrecker or the person who throws the man's life off track," Bender said. "But what I love about the femme fatale character is that there's always this sort of level of con artistry to her that I find really interesting. She's able to sort of gain people's confidence and keep them eating out of the palm of her hand just from being sexy and being smart."
Take for instance Neve Campbell's role of Suzie Toller in 1998's "Wild Things" starring opposite Denise Richards. The movie updates the classic noir blonde v. brunette rivalry by pitting Campbell's Goth identity against Richards' rich and popular girl. By the end of the film, Toller subverts all expectations to gain the upper hand.
"She doesn't have as much money. She's not from a stable background. And it turns out she is the smartest person of all. And that really appealed to me, the idea of the outsider who can infiltrate these spaces and be able to get away with things because they're being underestimated for whatever reason," Bender said.
"I think that there is always this idea of the woman in these movies being a force that comes in from the outside and messes things up in interesting and exciting ways," she continued.
There was a stark decline in the creation of erotic thrillers post 9/11. Bender chalks this up to a more somber national mood and, to a certain degree, the increase in political correctness, even though she dislikes that phrase.
She also cites a more pragmatic reason with the increase in popularity and ease of access in online pornography.
"A large part of the decline of the erotic thriller has to do with the change in the way people would consume film and also the way, honestly, people would consume pornography. Because it is kind of funny to think that the decline of the erotic thriller really does kind of pair with when online porn was becoming increasingly popular and accessible," Bender said.
The erotic thriller thrived in home viewing markets like VHS and DVDs and premium cable subscriptions. A lot of these films, like "Poison Ivy" and "Wild Things," would launch multiple sequels that would use the branding of the first film even though the central stars weren't connected to them at all.
Ironically, it might be in the home viewing market of streaming services where the erotic thriller could make a comeback. Bender points to "Fatal Attraction" director Adrian Lyne's 2022 release of "Deep Water" for Hulu as an example of resurfacing the genre.
"I would say that's like the biggest recent one and one that's brought a lot of these conversations about the genre back into the forefront," Bender said. "It's interesting to see that streaming is our home video now and once again, erotic thrillers are something that can find a home there."