10 Must-Watch Psychosexual Thrillers

This weekend, “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh‘s final theatrical film, opens nationwide. An uncanny psychosexual thriller set against the backdrop of the pharmaceutical industry, it stars Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Rooney Mara, and Catherine Zeta-Jones and is, per our review, more than worth your money this weekend. While the film twists and turns and hops through genres, Soderbergh’s been open about the movie being something of a tribute to a particular brand of psychosexual thrillers, with “Fatal Attraction” cited as one of the inspirations for the director.

So, to get you ready for “Side Effects,” we thought we would run down ten great examples of the genre, some of which likely inspired the “Side Effects” team, and all of which are worth checking out to varying degrees. Read it with someone you love. Or someone you’re sleeping with on the side who will undoubtedly have a psychotic break, boil your pet rabbit, and try to kill you. Either way.

“Psycho” (1960)
While Alfred Hitchcock‘s masterpiece “Psycho” is often cited as the principle building block for the slasher genre, inspiring everything from “Halloween” to “Silence of the Lambs” (a film also based in part on the real-life exploits of infamous serial killer Ed Gein) it also could be cited as one of the first honest-to-god psychosexual thrillers. The psycho part is spelled out in the title – most literally it refers to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nebbish loner who ruthlessly kills young women who have the misfortune of checking into his seedy roadside motel. He’s got a serious (and here’s where the sexual part comes in) Oedipal complex; falling in love with his mother, digging up her corpse (after he poisoned her), and assuming her personality to carry out his devilish deeds. His sexual repression unleashes murderous consequences, triggered, during the course of the movie, by young Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who is nothing but sex – her introductory scene has her engaged in an unmarried (!) midday tryst. Even her underwear color betrays her – after she’s stolen a substantial mount of money from her job, her bra turns from virginal white to seamy black. It’s pretty heady, progressive stuff, especially for 1960, excuted by a master of suspense at the top of his game. It doesn’t quite feature the love triangle aspect that is a common staple of the genre, although you could argue that a triangle of sorts forms between Leigh, Perkins, and John Gavin, as Marion’s slightly wooden (but determined) lover. Oh, and there’s always Mother…

“Body Heat” (1981)
Scott Z. Burns has cited Lawrence Kasdan‘s sexually charged riff on “Double Indemnity” as one of his chief inspirations on “Side Effects,” and it’s easy to see why. “Body Heat,” which marked the directorial debut from Kasdan (then primarily known as the writer of fantastical blockbusters “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Empire Strikes Back“; George Lucas returned the favor by serving as an un-credited producer here) and the first performance from Kathleen Turner (in a role that would help define her career and cloud it in a smoky haze of sexuality), concerns a skuzzy lawyer (William Hurt), who strikes up an affair with Turner, who is the wife of a powerful local businessman (Richard Crenna), with deadly consequences. The film’s Florida location gives it some sticky-sweaty Southern Gothic overtones, like a Tennessee Williams play that happens to have a role for Mickey Rourke as a prototypical domestic terrorist who gives Hurt a homemade bomb. The location isn’t the only thing that is hot in “Body Heat;” the sex scenes have a singular, explicit power, aided in part by Bond composer John Barry‘s slinky, jazz-tinged score, the dewy cinematography of Richard Kline and Turner’s raw, fresh-faced allure. She is so gorgeous, so unrelentingly sultry, that it’s easy to see why men would do very bad things just to keep her. 

“Body Double” (1984)
If there’s a king of the psychosexual genre, then Brian De Palma should probably be the one to wear the crown. Beginning with his debut feature, “Murder A La Mod” (1968) and continuing through to “Passion” (which will be released later this year), De Palma has been working over themes of obsession, violence, and betrayal, in particular during a string of profitable and highly controversial movies in the ’70s and ’80s. (Detailed lovingly in the recent, pseudo-academic book “Un-American Psycho” by Chris Dumas.) While “Dressed to Kill” might be the most psychosexual of his psychosexual heyday, there’s something sleazier and steamier about “Body Double,” his unheralded classic from the period, that was unjustifiably thrown under the bus for perceived misogynistic undertones and what critics viewed as too many lapses in logic in De Palma’s dreamlike narrative. (He’s admitted some things in the movie just don’t work.) But it’s for all these reasons, not in spite of them, that “Body Double” is such a whacked-out delight. Like “Dressed to Kill,” which liberally cribs from “Psycho,” “Body Double” finds De Palma riffing on Hitchcock, in this case “Rear Window,” with a struggling actor (Craig Wasson) agreeing to housesit for a friend. After her watches a woman get killed (in a sequence that caused the public outcry – she gets speared by a giant phallic drill), he’s drawn into the underground world of Los Angeles pornography. (It was originally intended as a micro-budget film with an NC-17 rating.) “Body Double” is goofier than “Blow Out,” De Palma’s masterpiece, but it’s still a sparkly crown jewel for the king of the psychosexual thriller.     

“Basic Instinct” (1990)
Like many of our most beloved genre movies on this list, “Basic Instinct,” which starred psychosexual thriller king Michael Douglas (who not only starred in classic “Fatal Attraction” but also “Disclosure” — his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, crops up in “Side Effects“) and a young Sharon Stone, is a very loose riff on Alfred Hitchcock, in this case the master’s all-time classic “Vertigo.” Like that film, “Basic Instinct” shares a San Francisco setting and a leggy blonde bombshell. Unlike “Vertigo,” “Basic Instinct” features geysers of blood and explicit sexuality (which had to be toned down for its initial theatrical release to secure an R rating). Paul Verhoeven had made a similar film before almost a decade before in his native Netherlands (the more wigged-out “Fourth Man“), so the material was familiar to an auteur who, armed with a razor-sharp script by psychosexual thriller regular Joe Eszterhas, made it palpable for modern audiences. While the film is probably most remembered for its infamous leg uncrossing scene (which, given current grooming habits, would surely be even more revealing these days…), it’s still a terrifically entertaining, wildly stylish movie, one in which all of the psychosexual thriller boxes are checked off (romantic triangle, accused murderer, addiction, demons in the closet) but in a way that doesn’t seem perfunctory or workmanlike, but is instead definitive and galvanizing. In the wake of “Basic Instinct” many tried to replicate its creative and commercial success — none did.

“The Skin I Live In” (2011)
On a commercial level, Pedro Almodovar has always been woefully underappreciated, but that response became downright mystifying when, just a couple of years ago, Almodovar delivered “The Skin I Live In,” a funny, sexy, scary psychosexual thriller that was entirely accessible, but ignored by too many (it was the director’s lowest-grossing film in the U.S. in over a decade). It’s clear from his filmography that he is deeply indebted to the works of Hitchcock but is also fond of the more arch approach of Brian De Palma. He was able to synthesize those styles in “The Skin I Live In,” refining something that he attempted a few years earlier in “Bad Education,” and came up with one of his very best, most darkly comic movies. Talking about the plot of “The Skin I Live In” would ruin the fun, bu the thriller is full of ripped-up psyches and sexual obsessions (taken to almost Frankenstein-ian degrees), complete with doppelgangers and murderous intent. It’s also really, really hot, and really, really weird. Antonio Banderas, reuniting with Almodovar after close to twenty years apart, gives one of his very best performances, as a bruised cosmetic surgeon reeling from the death of his wife and daughter, while the jaw-dropping Elena Anaya is the object of his desire. The ins and outs of the relationship are revealed piecemeal as the film moves along, shifting forwards and backwards in time, with a surprising amount of poignancy. And the “big reveal” is one of the best twists in recent memory.     

“Fatal Attraction” (1987)
Arguably the “Citizen Kane” of the psychosexual thriller genre (it was nominated for six major Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director), “Fatal Attraction” was hugely influential – spawning countless imitators and serving as Steven Soderbergh‘s principle inspiration for “Side Effects.” Yes, the psychosexual elements are great and super intense, but the domestic stuff has just as much resonance. Michael Douglas, as a somewhat morally ambiguous New York City lawyer, has a wonderful home life with his wife (Anne Archer) and adorable daughter. Then one weekend he decides to screw around with the hot but deranged woman (Glenn Close) he meets at a party and later has to work with. That’s when things go south and she exemplifies the “psycho” part of psychosexual thriller. A cautionary fable for the soulless Reagan era, “Fatal Attraction” was marvelously directed by perennially underrated stylist Adrian Lyne, who makes sure the “psycho” stuff is really nuts and scary (the wrist cutting is still intense) and the “sexual” stuff is really hot (and pretty graphic for 1987 – that elevator blowjob, wowee). Like De Palma’s movies and later “Basic Instinct,” “Fatal Attraction” had its detractors, including noted feminist writer Susan Faludi, who resented the one-dimensionally insane portrayal of Close’s character and the movie’s more ambivalent attitude towards Douglas’ sins. (An early cut of the movie had a more resonant ending for Close but test audiences didn’t respond well, which resulted in a massive, three-week reshoot that drastically altered the climax.) It’s one of the biggest psychosexual thrillers of all time and still the best. Who wants rabbit stew?

“Bound” (1996)
As The Wachowskis proved with “The Matrix,” with elements borrowed from old kung fu movies, off kilter Japanese anime, and yellowed cyberpunk novels, they’re very good at combining things they love into new and exciting packages. With “Bound,” they did that on a much smaller scale, handily referencing psychosexual thrillers from the ’80s with older film noir and detective novel influences and a healthy dose of gay S&M culture to create the striking, frequently brilliant debut Stripped down to its bare minimum (the movie’s budget was probably less than an average episode of “Game of Thrones“), the movie concerns two women (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon) who become lovers and then hatch a plot to steal $2 million from Tilly’s thuggish mobster boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano). That’s pretty much it – but the lesbian angle, especially at the time, was pretty revolutionary, even if earlier thrillers, particularly “Basic Instinct” from a few years before, played with a similar concept. (The depiction of homosexuality in “Bound” is much more positive, the film serving almost as a response to the less progressive elements of Verhoeven’s film). Even on a tiny budget, The Wachowkis were able to make super stylish film (they love their black-and-white checkered floors), and the actors fully commit to the characters, even when things become increasingly violent and bizarre. A psychosexual thriller with a heart, “Bound” still holds up fairly well.

“Dead Ringers” (1988)
Just thinking about “Dead Ringers” gives us the willies. Based, very loosely, on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twins who were found dead in their Manhattan apartment together, David Cronenberg‘s film sees Jeremy Irons play twin gynecologists who fall for the same woman (Genevieve Bujold) and become psychologically unwound. While it has its roots in real life, there are a number of fantastical, Cronenberg-ian elements in the movie, like the doctors’ obsession with “mutant women” and their artfully designed tools for working on them. Plus the movie sometimes feels like a literal exploration of the themes that Hitchcock (and later De Palma) worked over so well, particularly the obsession with the “double” – made flesh by having the lead characters be twins. Irons, for his part, is absolutely flawless (his performance secured him an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a Cronenberg player), giving each brother their own set of tics and psychological traits. As the movie descends into madness, it keeps its cool. Unlike most psychosexual thrillers that become more frantic as the movie progresses, “Dead Ringers” glides along, something that makes it even more unnerving. Mutant women need love too.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
When director David Fincher decided to throw his hat into the psychosexual thriller ring, he went big. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” an adaptation of the ridiculously popular Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson, is a psychosexual epic – one with dozens of characters, action that takes place over two separate time periods, and a title sequence that suggests the evil, S&M version of a James Bond movie. The movie is built upon the uneasy relationship between a defamed publisher (Daniel Craig) and a punkish, possibly autistic computer hacker (Rooney Mara), who are hired to solve a decades-old murder mystery. Everything about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fits the genre, including the relationship between Craig and Mara, which often becomes darkly sexual but could never be described as romantic (there’s a great moment where he’s struck by a thought in the middle of sex but she doesn’t let him stop until she gets off); there’s even a love triangle aspect because Craig is also bedding his editor, played by Robin Wright. (In the book he sleeps around even more.) Mara, in her first big lead role, absolutely owns the very difficult role (including nebulous sexuality that oscillates between affairs with women and men) — she is Lisbeth. There are, of course, doubles, too, plus incest, Nazism, torture, rape, revenge and a serial killer who, once he’s got Craig tied up, purrs, “I’ve never done a man before. Unless you count my father.” Fincher clearly loves these types of stories (he’s also a noted “Chinatown” obsessive) but wanted to make something bigger, bolder, and more unrelentingly brutal. He succeeded.

“Jagged Edge” (1985)
Notable for being the first psychosexual thriller written by prolific, highly paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — who would go on to exemplify the very best (“Basic Instinct“) and the very worst (“Sliver,” “Jade“) of the genre — “Jagged Edge” is sexy and smart, mostly for setting the genre’s conventions against the backdrop of a courtroom drama. (It should be noted that in his lengthy and ridiculously entertaining biography, Eszterhas bemoans all of his thrillers as utter garbage, unfairly so.) After his wife is murdered (and the word “bitch” is scrawled in blood near her corpse), Jeff Bridges is accused of murder (by a slimy district attorney played menacingly by Peter Coyote). Glenn Close is the flashy lawyer hired by Bridges to clear his name, and they of course eventually sleep together, even though their relationship should be totally professional and, oh yeah, he’s accused of murder. But hey, the heart wants what the heart wants. “Jagged Edge” is aided by its snappy script (you can see why Eszterhas would become such a sensation in later years) and some truly wonderful performances, particularly by Close, Bridges, and Robert Loggia, playing a private detective Close hires to investigate the case (a performance that netted Loggia an Oscar nomination). While somewhat less substantial than “Basic Instinct” or “Body Heat,” “Jagged Edge” is still one of the best psychosexual thrillers from the period and, at the very least, is certainly far superior to “Jade” or “Sliver.”  

Thoughts? Your pick for best “psychosexual thriller”? Sound off in the comments below.

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