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Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Erotic Thriller Documentary ‘We Kill For Love’ Celebrates 80s and 90s Thrillers [Sex Crimes]

For the first time since beginning this editorial series, we’re discussing a documentary rather than a fiction film. That’s because Yellow Veil just released a supersized documentary about the history of the Erotic Thriller called We Kill For Love: The Lost World of the Erotic Thriller (2023).

Clocking in at 163 minutes, this is a thorough, occasionally indulgent documentary written and directed by Anthony Penta. The doc uses a framing device featuring an archivist character, played by Michael Reed, cataloguing countless VHS tapes and watching “Suspect Interviews” (aka talking head interviews) in his dimly lit office. These segments recur throughout We Kill For Love, and also feature voice-over narration from Penta that are partially purple prose, partially quotations from academic articles and books on the genre.

The vast majority of the documentary, however, is taken up by clips and talking head interviews. There’s a good variety of interviewees, including scholars such Linda Ruth Williams, Suzanne Leonard, Linda Belhadj, James Ursini, and Douglas Keesey, as well as screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors who appeared in the films themselves. The mix is overwhelmingly white, but the gender diversity does skew female, which is in keeping with the character focalization of the DTV Erotic Thrillers they’re discussing.

Penta loosely adopts a historical approach to chronicle the rise and fall of these films, and further breaks up the documentary with chapter headings such as Film Noir, Femme Fatale, The Big Bang, The Boy’s Club, A New Genre, Gothic/Romance, The Red Car, and What Killed the Erotic Thriller? Depending on the subject, some of these are more substantial than others.

As this editorial column has investigated, the genre’s roots in film noir played an integral role in defining the conventions (character and narrative beats) and iconographies (visual aesthetics) of Erotic Thrillers. A great deal of attention is paid in the first two chapters to the influence of femme fatales in Double Indemnity and Body Heat, though the battle of the sexes is a topic that persists throughout the documentary.

Several high profile films are examined (based primarily on their cultural footprint) such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and 9 ½ weeks, though We Kill For Love also includes extended looks at unexpected titles (Poison Ivy 2: Lily) and many DTV titles (Temptress, Night Eyes, Scorned 2). The latter category is also where the vast majority of the talent involved in the production hail from, such as Kira Reed Lorsch, Tané McClure, Monique Parent, Andrew Stevens, Nancy O’Brien, and Jodie Fisher. These were stalwarts of the industry in the late 80s and early 90s when the subgenre was at its peak.

Many of the writers and scholars highlight the themes and influences of Erotic Thrillers, while the talent offer anecdotes about working conditions, fame and fandom, and the value of DTV thrillers in the industry at the time. Younger audiences will undoubtedly be amused by the heavy focus on camcorders and VHS tapes, though as Williams notes: “the way that people were consuming erotic thrillers (at home, on video) was what Erotic Thrillers were about.”

We Kill For Love does a particularly good job of explaining the themes of the genre to newcomers, such as the obsession with wealth, the focus on voyeurism and watching, as well as key visual identifiers like the red convertible, mirrors, doubles, and blondes.

For those with an awareness of Erotic Thrillers, there are hidden gems that offer additional insight into its popularity. The financials, in particular, are fascinating. One of the reasons DTV Erotic Thrillers became a video rental staple is because stores desperately needed content to stock the shelves. Producers of these low budget indies could recoup costs once sales hit 25K copies and, since video rental outlets didn’t distinguish between mainstream studio titles and DTV, there was steady work and plenty of profit to be made. Some producers, such as Fred Olden Ray, were so prolific that they were required to used pseudonyms on projects to ensure buyers didn’t grow tired of seeing them.

There’s one extremely amusing sequence as Penta highlights how producers were forced to get creative when films were released internationally. VHS tapes are piled on top of each other, highlighting not just the interchangeable names and box art, but also how DTV sequels (some actual successors, some mere cash-grabs) cannibalized each other’s IP in an attempt to goose sales.

We Kill For Love falters around the two hour mark, right around the time it focuses on Playboy properties. While the gamut of high-end titles released by the bunny house merit discussion, this chapter mostly exists to highlight how this era provided brief financial security for directors and actors. Considering the film’s runtime, this lengthy section either needed more substantial content or it should have been edited down.

It’s also the last major section before the documentary explores the fall of the genre, which feels like the doc delaying the inevitable. We Kill For Love eventually names four distinct causes for the demise of the Erotic Thriller: 1) Market saturation 2) Competition from studios 3) Focus on big mainstream titles, and 4) the growing consumerist interest in owning a collection of DVDs, instead of renting tapes.

There are also some surprisingly topical discussions in the documentary. Late in We Kill For Love it’s revealed that the perception of Erotic Thrillers in popular media (and politics) has retroactively shifted from erotica to soft core porn until eventually its detractors labeled it straight up pornography. This wasn’t helped by the influx of porn stars who were hired as body doubles and actors in the genre’s twilight years. Meanwhile budgets were slashed and producers’ demands resulted in a shift away from narrative in favour of increased sex scenes.

As the doc wraps up, issues of race and queerness are briefly introduced, but these are mostly left unexplored. Despite featuring no shortage of clips featuring women making out and multiple titles with Black actors, there is a distinct lack of interest in discussing these elements. This extends to the interviewees themselves: while there is gender parity, the lack of other diverse representation is a glaring omission and a missed opportunity, particularly considering how all-encompassing the doc is in other areas.

Overall, We Kill For Love is a worthwhile documentary, especially for audiences who have only a passing awareness of Erotic Thrillers. The narrative is a bit unwieldy and there are some unusual choices on what gets highlighted, but We Kill For Love offers welcome recognition of the powerful role DTV female-centric thrillers played in the late 80s and early 90s.

4 out of 5 skulls

Sex Crimes is a column that explores the legacy of erotic thrillers.

The post Erotic Thriller Documentary ‘We Kill For Love’ Celebrates 80s and 90s Thrillers [Sex Crimes] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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