The erotic-thriller is one of Hollywood’s strangest sub-genres and a subject worthy of a whole article in and of itself, toeing the fine line between commercial entertainment and pornographic material. In the book Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller, author Nina K. Martin describes these films in the following manner: “The predominating syntax that shapes these films combines romanticised, ‘erotic’ appeal with a dangerous ‘thriller’ narrative — a ‘pleasure/danger’ principle”.
Films of this kind often achieve commercial success, including the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey, Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, with 1981s Body Heat known as one of the very finest films of the sub-genre.
Directed by the writer of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence Kasdan, Body Heat is loosely based on the classic crime story Double Indemnity. Starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and Richard Crenna, whilst featuring Ted Danson, J. A. Preston, and Mickey Rourke, the film follows a woman who persuades her lover to murder her rich husband in the midst of a brutal Florida heatwave.
Wishing for the film to “have the intricate structure of a dream, the density of a good novel, and the texture of recognisable people in extraordinary circumstances,” according to the director in a 1981 interview with Roger Ebert, Kasdan’s film is a complicated erotic thriller compiled from classic film noir ingredients.
In a later interview with the Washington Post, however, the director noted that the project wasn’t all smooth sailing, commenting: “The script is done in contemplative solitude, but the moviemaking process is chaos. It becomes your obligation to impose some kind of effective control on that chaos”. Discussing how he went about seeing to such chaos on set, he notes that lead actor William Hurt was a significant help, explaining: “He was always determined to focus everyone’s concentration on the scene to be played. And in most cases you do that one scene that day only. That’s why it’s a suicidal process unless you’re well-prepared”.
Continuing, he adds: “Our two weeks of rehearsal made it clear to me that this script I’d dreamed up alone meant all sorts of things to other people. Nobody saw it the same way. The whole thing had left my head and taken on a separate existence”.
Such stories still exist in contemporary cinema, though they were certainly inextricably linked to the 1980s when the era of the celebrity had reached its peak, as did cinematic titillation. It’s difficult to attain the same sense of shock or taboo in a modern erotic thriller when, for many, they feel as if they’ve ‘seen it all before’. Body Heat came at a time, however, when such stories were bravely put into the limelight for popular denouncement and secretive pleasure.
Sitting among the very strongest films of the subgenre, despite being 40 years old, Body Heat still carries a steamy seduction.