Fatal Attraction: When Erotic FAILS Thrill

After Fatal Attraction blew up the box office, Michael Douglas emerged as the face of mainstream erotic thrillers. His alignment of masculinity with deficiency and his ability to elicit lust from women elevated him into a figure of sovereign power.

Last year, Adrian Lyne tried to recapture this magic with Deep Water. But his latest romp is neither erotic nor thrilling.

Basic Instinct

When it comes to taboo-busting thrillers, few films can rival Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 Basic Instinct. Featuring a game of Tomcat and Kitty between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, this darkly phobic tale about a murder suspect and her police interrogator has gone down in film history as one of the most influential mainstream erotic thrillers.

The film caused a huge stir upon its release for its explicit sexuality, violence and depiction of bisexual women and lesbian relationships. Its most famous scene is the police interrogation in which Stone’s character, Catherine Tramell, flashes a little of what she’s got between her legs to her interrogator. It was a moment that changed the way erotic thrillers were made.

Of course, Basic Instinct also has a murder plot and plenty of scenes of sex that go right up to the line between titillation and distaste. That’s why the film was such a hit in its day, and it still continues to spark conversation today. Luka Magnotta drew heavily on the movie when he murdered 33-year-old Jun Lin, saying that he painted his screwdriver silver because it resembled the ice pick used by Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell to kill her lover.

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Verhoeven, a Dutch director known for his sci-fi work and his ability to push buttons, tapped into the American audience’s desire to be shocked. His use of style and ambiguity opens up the film to multiple interpretations, and it’s a treatise on power games and sexual violence that is both seductive and a bit disgusting.

Basic Instinct 2 doesn’t have that same intellectual curiosity and appeal. It relies on a formulaic story and over-indulgent sex scenes to get the job done. While the film may have some shock value, there’s not much of a thrill. The film’s plodding 2-hour run time and uncharismatic cast don’t help. The film is also riddled with scenes of characters talking back and forth to each other. And when anything remotely sensual does threaten to enter, it’s usually interrupted less than a minute later by something as mundane as a police siren or someone brushing their teeth.

This sequel isn’t as good as the original, but it’s still a good erotic thriller that plays with your head and gives you a rush until its unsatisfactory ending. And like the original, it boasts a fabulous score from Jerry Goldsmith.

Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction is a rare movie that dominated the box office and the cultural conversation of its time. It launched three books (including Susan Faludi’s feminist classic Backlash), spawned countless thinkpieces, watercooler chitchat, and even introduced the term “bunny boiler” into our lexicon. And yet, while it may have pushed some boundaries at the time, its ultimate effect is that of cautionary tale.

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The new Netflix version of the 1987 film—directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Glenn Close and Joshua Jackson—seeks to continue that legacy by examining the toxicity of the marriage/work/motherhood triangle that defines the story. Rather than the erotic thriller that many would expect, the show focuses on the psychological toll of Alex’s obsession. In the end, she kills herself—but not before doing much damage to a family that could have otherwise been whole.

The show’s structure—toggling between two timelines that parallel each other and offer narrative rewinds of key moments—is meant to deepen the audience’s understanding of the story. But it ends up confusing and feels like a sledgehammer hit of Jungian filler. And it’s hard to place what fears this 2023 version is trying to address: a fear of women taking power or of the danger of male-dominated society? Maybe it’s a fear of telling the story of a straight white man facing the consequences of his actions without a safe net of an existing IP.

It’s a shame, because Close and Jackson are both great, but the show is ultimately a failure on its own terms. The first act is strong, but it’s hard to believe that the show could sustain itself for eight egregiously padded hours.

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In the end, it doesn’t even achieve the satire of Joseph Ruben’s adroit 1987 film The Stepfather, wherein a nameless itinerant antihero moves from household to household seducing divorcees and stealing their family units until they inevitably break down under his ruthless scrutiny. There’s not a hint of that satire in the new Fatal Attraction.

Dan may be a dubious character—the first in a long line of questionable protagonists that Michael Douglas would play, including Gordon Gecko in Wall Street and Nick Curran in Basic Instinct—but the movie does suggest that it’s toxic culture that enables these kinds of behaviors. It was released in a moment when second wave feminism had largely succeeded, but traditional dichotomies between whore and housewife still persisted in different garb, and attempting to transgress them was punishable by death. That sentiment is still valid today. But a modern remake should seek to challenge it, not play into it. Instead, it’s just a cheesy retread.

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