The Rise And Fall And Rise Again Of The Erotic Thriller

Spoilers for both the original and remakes of Fatal Attraction and Dead Ringers ahead.
Collage created by Sammy Lee. Images from Fatal Attraction and Dead Ringer
If, like me, your favourite cinematic moments involve Rachel Weisz eviscerating men with her intelligence and razor-sharp cheekbones, you’re in luck. In Dead Ringers, Weisz plays dysfunctional twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, gynaecologists and obstetricians with big plans for changing the way women give birth. They’re both vulgar and brilliant, and from the opening scene one thing is clear: to them, men are inconsequential. It’s a welcome departure from the way women have traditionally been treated in erotic thrillers — punished for their sexuality, success, or rage (often all three) — but does it signal a positive cultural shift? Or is it the exception to the rule?
The erotic thriller was popularised in the late '80s, largely as a response to the success of Fatal Attraction (1987), a film that cost $14 million to make, and brought in over $156 million at the box office. It’s a descendant of film noir, often utilising the same subdued lighting and moody colour grading to explore moral ambiguity. There aren’t hard and fast rules around what makes an erotic thriller, but the two core components are horniness and a sense of danger; often inextricably linked.
Throughout the '80s, conservatism had the Western world in a chokehold, and alongside the fear that working women might no longer need to settle down, the HIV/AIDS crisis led people to fear the consequences of promiscuity. Perhaps this is why people were so afraid of Fatal Attraction’s ‘villain’ Alex Forrest, and why they demanded that Paramount change the film’s original ending — rather than Alex taking her own life and framing the protagonist for murder, test audiences were adamant that Alex died at the hands of another. 
But, in 2023 we know better. Or do we?
Earlier this year, I was on the tram to work when I saw a billboard-sized poster for the new Fatal Attraction television adaptation flash past the window. Over a red-tinted image of a woman’s face, the words ‘I won’t be ignored’ were scrawled in white. I didn’t need to read the fine print. I didn’t need to Google it. I knew what this meant: a woman was finally going to get it right. But, unfortunately, I was wrong. So wrong, in fact, that I seriously wanted to title this piece ‘I watched all eight hours of the Fatal Attraction remake so you don’t have to’.

The show’s greatest crime is separate from its misogyny: it’s just not very horny. 

After serving fifteen years in prison for the murder of Alex Forrest, Dan Gallagher is determined to prove that he is innocent. In the original film, we see Dan attempt to kill Alex, although in the end, it’s his wife Beth who follows through. In the remake, the details of Alex’s death are initially unclear, and it takes eight very long hours for the truth to be revealed.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who hoped that a retelling of this story would see Alex Forrest as the protagonist. We now know that women don’t need to be ‘likeable’ on screen. Characters like Lydia Tár — a megalomaniacal conductor facing allegations of sexual harassment — have shown us that what we really want to watch is someone interesting, particularly when they’re completely obliterating their own life. Instead, the creators have decided to justify the original. Although it's never explicitly mentioned, Alex is portrayed as having borderline personality disorder, and Dan is still shown to be a ‘good’ guy who makes one fatal mistake. Although Lizzy Caplan’s performance as Alex is electric, the scenes in which her behaviour is retroactively justified play like the writers Googled Borderline Personality Disorder once, and got to work. Writing like this doesn’t advance the conversation on mental illness; it further stigmatises it. All of this aside, the show’s greatest crime is separate from its misogyny: it’s just not very horny. 
Dead Ringers, on the other hand, is hornier than it has any right to be. It’s also violent, absurd, horrifying, and hilarious. Rachel Weisz has more chemistry with herself than any of the actors do with each other in Fatal Attraction, and although in the later episodes some story strands are dropped or resolved imperfectly, it is visionary in its achievements. Its success comes down to two things: a sincere appreciation for the original, and a burning desire to make something entirely new. 
The original Dead Ringers was released in 1988 (a year after Fatal Attraction), and was the eleventh feature film from Canadian film director David Cronenberg, who became famous for his unflinching ‘body horror’. Dead Ringers sits somewhere between psychological thriller, body horror, and erotic thriller. One of Cronenberg’s later erotic thrillers, Crash, became a staple of the genre — Mia Vicino, West Coast Editor for Letterboxd, sums it up well here: “Watched this in the living room and now all my roommates think I want to reshape the malleable human body through the immortal steeliness of technology by doinking my car”. 
Both the original and the reimagined Dead Ringers are not entirely naturalistic, and it’s this sense of theatricality that allows for real eroticism on screen. Even when it is Rachel Weisz biting her own neck.
Despite their initial popularity, the box office (and critical) failings of Showgirls and Jade in 1995 signalled that audiences were no longer interested in a horny but scary night at the movies. Whether it was the cultural shifts caused by the rise of internet porn, or audiences growing tired of a stale male viewpoint on sex, erotic thrillers moved from being box office tentpoles (Basic Instinct, Sleeping with the Enemy, and Indecent Proposal, to name a few), to direct-to-video trash. Titles like Mind Twister and Wild Things: Foursome fall into the latter category, with posters that much closer resemble actual porn. So, what is it about 2023 that called for its renaissance?
Maybe it’s years of more diverse, female-focused sexuality on our screens, or a new generation interested in examining the relationship between pleasure and fear. Regardless, the opportunity to take what we’ve learned and reinvent a fundamentally dated genre is a clear path to redemption. Despite this, Dead Ringers and Fatal Attraction represent opposing approaches. It was Rachel Weisz herself who optioned the material for a reimagining, pitching Twice The Weisz (sorry) to Annapurna Television, and then to screenwriter and playwright Alice Birch. Together, they developed the material for a number of years before production in 2021. Conversely, it was Paramount who ordered a Fatal Attraction reboot, in an attempt to revive a selection of titles they already held the rights to. Dirty John showrunner Alexandra Cunningham was hired to pen the revival, which does explain why the show is so… soapy. 
With both series released a mere nine days apart, it raises the question: is the erotic thriller back? And while I don’t have a hard and fast answer on that, I am interested in what comes next. If the '80s gave men a chance to explore their scariest fantasies, perhaps this next decade is for the girlies. That’s my hope, anyway. Especially if it allows women to assume the central roles in these stories — roles that aren’t concerned with a man’s pleasure. Or boiling his bunnies.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!  

More from Pop Culture