Do you remember Sharon Stone being interrogated by the police in Basic Instincts? Of course you do. What about Glenn Close becoming obsessive and psychotic towards Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction? These are both classic examples of the erotic thriller cycle. You may like it or not but the truth is, from the 80s to mid-90s this sub-genre of crime films found a huge success between the audiences making a name for themselves. The question I’m asking here is, who we should thank for that?
The first person we should thank is Joseph Breen. He was an American film censor who in 1934 became chief of the Production Code Administration (PCA) and at that time he had the authority to review and delete scripts or final cuts of any film. Under Joseph Breen’s supervision, passion scenes were basically removed. Adultery, seduction and rape would only be suggested while profanity, prostitution and drug addictions were forbidden. Violence was to be shown only if it was absolutely necessary to the plot and with a lot of caution. Even cops could not be showed murdered by criminals on screen and every crime had to be punished at the end of the film.
But we all know what happens when someone tells you not to touch this or not to do that right? By the mid-50s his power over Hollywood was decreasing, and everything changed in 1969 when the production code was abandoned entirely and the rating system was adopted. So by that time America was like a caveman, who had been on a vegan diet for decades. Starving for meat, literally.
The second thank you goes to, not a person but to a technologic innovation: The VCR. Thank you so much! By 1975 the VCR started to gain mass market traction and by 1980 the industry boomed. The explosion in home video technology led not only to the proliferation of low-budget sex/suspense features but to a renascence of low-budget pornography films, a lot of them.
This new cycle was using a lot of the old characteristics which had made film noir so special in the 50s (femme fatales, flash backs, detectives, etc.) but added a new key ingredient to make this new cycle a very successful sub-genre inside the category of crime films: sex
25 years after the film noir cycle ended with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), a new wave of “neo noir” films returned with vengeance in 1981 with Body Heat and a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Sex is what the new cycle was selling. Because the central figure of this new generation of crime films, the fatally alluring (often naked) body of the female star, points both toward and away from its noir antecedents. The films are less accurately called neo-noirs than erotic thrillers. And unlike films noirs, erotic thrillers were freed from the Production Code’s demands and Hollywood was allowed to present sexual relationships more frankly.
So there you go, next time you see an old VCR you can smile and say thank you.