Oh, the sleazy thriller—one of my favorite guilty pleasures of cinema. It’s a specific subgenre of movies that never really got their due. They’re sometimes referred to simply as erotic thrillers, though that doesn’t entirely do them justice. It also doesn’t do justice to the fact that many, if not all, of these films have major horror vibes. Sure, they’re not your usual Friday the 13th-style slashers, but there’s still often some serious slashing going on, be it with an ice pick, hunting knife, or whatever other sharp implement is handy.
The plots of these films have a lot of similarities: there’s almost always a major crime committed, usually murder, usually in the vein of film noir. Some kind of courtroom or law enforcement drama is often involved. There also tends to be a super dysfunctional romance at the heart of the plot. Because all good love stories have got homicide in there somewhere, right?
Another one of my personal favorite hallmarks of the sleazy thriller is that the films frequently include a few fantastic actors who were either rising in the industry at the time, or ones who were already established and arguably should have known better than to star in such sleazy material. But they starred in these films anyway, and the world is a better—and sleazier—place for it.
The heyday of this unfortunately short-lived subgenre was the 1980s and 1990s, though every once in a while, you can find an entry outside of those decades. Still, that era most definitely gave us the best of the films.
So for those of you who would like to expand your horizons outside of the traditional horror canon, here are five sleazy and stylish thrillers with some very brutal vibes.
Basic Instinct (1992)
Although it became a bit of a punchline in the 1990s for that one particular scene, it’s easy to forget that Basic Instinct is actually a wholly lurid yet surprisingly fun film. Sharon Stone plays a gorgeous novelist who might just be committing murders like the ones in her books, while Michael Douglas plays the detective who needs to catch her in the act before he falls completely in love with her. Like many of the movies in the subgenre, it’s got some problematic elements (case in point: do all bisexuals in movies have to be evil like Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell?), but the crimes at the center of the plot are definitely nasty enough to lean fully into horror territory, so give this one a watch or rewatch the next chance you get.
Jagged Edge (1985)
Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges star as a dogged attorney and her client who’s suspected of one very grisly murder, and—wouldn’t you guess it?—the pair quickly fall for each other in the middle of his homicide trial. The opening death scene alone qualifies this film as being in some serious horror territory, but the tension throughout as Close’s character falls for Bridges’s charming playboy is downright unnerving. The fabulous Robert Loggia, who costars as Close’s private detective buddy, earned an Oscar nomination for his role, lending this film a bit more class than it probably deserves, but either way, it’s a movie that’s most certainly stylish and sleazy and one that earns its place on this list.
To be fair, this is probably less of a horror film than any other entry here, but it’s also one of my favorites, so I’m shining a light on this oddball little movie from 1991. And what a sleazy movie it is: it’s got lots of infidelity, objectionable attorney tactics, and an unsavory porn ring subplot that includes a character called Bulldozer.
Undoubtedly, though, the best part of Defenseless is its top-notch cast who all come with some serious pedigree: Barbara Hershey, an Oscar nominee and Emmy winner, plays a befuddled lawyer who’s always getting mixed up with the wrong man. Sam Shepard, another Oscar nominee and a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the cop who’s falling for her, even though he suspects she’s mixed up with murder. Mary Beth Hurt, a three-time Tony Award nominee, is Hershey’s childhood friend whose husband is sleeping with both of them and possibly a whole lot of other people too. The thing that makes Defenseless work so well is that despite its more ludicrous elements (and there are an overabundance of ludicrous elements), the cast fully commits to their roles and turn in super fun performances that exude chemistry. If you’re going to seek out just one movie from this list, make it this one. You might not love it, but it’s certainly one truly outlandish ride.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
The humdinger of sleazy thrillers, this is perhaps the most legitimate film on the list, solidified by its six Oscar nominations. Fatal Attraction is usually categorized as a drama or thriller, but I’ve always been eager to classify it as a horror movie. There’s stalking, obsession, and even an unfortunate pet bunny that ends up in a boiling pot. Michael Douglas’s Dan learns the hard way that Glenn Close’s Alex will not be ignored after a short and ill-advised affair. Director Adrian Lyne who was also at the helm of Flashdance, Indecent Proposal, and 9½ Weeks was the king of sleazy films in his day, and Fatal Attraction is absolutely among his best. If nothing else, infidelity never looked so downright unappealing.
Body Double (1984)
Another film with an inexplicable porn ring subplot, this might be the most straightforward horror film on the list. That being said, it’s most definitely sleazy in all the best (and worst) ways. Director Brian De Palma channels classic Hitchcock in this story about a struggling actor who witnesses a gruesome murder through a telescope, all while adding a major dose of voyeurism and bloodshed. Melanie Griffith steals the show as Holly Body, even earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process. It’s definitely not a movie for the squeamish—the depiction of some of the female characters has not aged well—but Body Double remains a strange and sleazy little film that’s very much worth watching, if only once.
Dishonorable Mention: Boxing Helena (1993)
So full disclosure: I’ve still never seen this film. It’s been my white whale movie for years now, since it’s not available anywhere on streaming. But from the sounds of it, Boxing Helena most certainly fits the bill for sleazy horror: a lonely, unhinged surgeon (the late and creepily great Julian Sands) becomes sexually obsessed with the cold Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) and imprisons her in his mansion after a hit-and-run accident, only to slowly but surely transform her into his own personal Venus de Milo.
It’s weird, sleazy, and for now, out of reach for streamers, but keep your eyes peeled, because hopefully, one day it will show up on the queue.