The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
We Kill for Love: The Lost World of the Erotic Thriller, which hits digital On Demand 9/1, is an epic deep dive into a bygone sub-genre that once dominated the drama section of your local video store. While director Anthony Penta of course covers the heavy hitters and origins of the genre in film noir. Where this doc truly shines is how it tracks the genre’s evolution in the home video age and spotlighting the smaller films, labels and stars of the flood of titles that were viewed by some as nothing more than product to fill shelf space. While Penta of course pokes fun at the tropes and thematic hallmarks of these films, he’s also sure to give us some time to hear from the stars and directors who tried to make legitimate art within the confines of their assignment.
Having spent the late nineties managing a Blockbuster (they were the only rental place in town at that point), I was more than well acquainted with a good chunk of the films mentioned and cover art showcased. I’ve also recently started a rewatch of some of the bigger titles, which was sparked in part by rewatching Paul Verhoeven’s filmography, since most of the titles have recently hit 4k. Basic Instinct led to Fatal Attraction, which led to Dressed to Kill. What is not lost on this doc is the sheer breadth of the films that were released to capitalize on this trend that was partially fueled by these bigger titles, but also the softcore nature these narratives could lend themselves to. This allowed the kinds of stores that lacked actual hardcore titles or backrooms to supplement their catalog with some skin.
I know I personally experienced the literal chokehold the Red Shoe Diaries tapes held over my suburban Blockbuster clientele who made the series one of our most rented.
The exhaustively informative doc runs at 163 minutes, and is rather uniquely structured with an noir-ish investigator looking into the sub-genre as a framing device and engine to shuttle you from topic to topic. This allows the doc to switch gears a little more seamlessly given the substantial amount of ground it covers as it transitions from clip montages of everytime a mansion was featured, to actresses candidly discussing some of their hilariously more intimate moments with their co stars. The interviews with the genre veterans, both men and women, really gives the doc its humanity, as they recount their careers, acting, directing and writing these films. Enough time has passed that most subjects are more than happy to speak rather candidly.
One shocking factoid is that given the breadth of the amount of films produced in their heyday, erotic thrillers are actually getting lost to time, since most didn’t make the jump from VHS to DVD. Given the digital versatile disc and its affordable hardcore offerings it tracks it was one of the harbingers of the end for its pricier soft-core slabs of VHS. This oddly enough echoes the bygone era of the pornographic film that met the same fate when folks could watch much sleazier fare in the comfort of their own home, thanks to the advent of home video ironically enough. This fact among others is not lost on Anthony Penta who thoroughly takes use from the beginning of the Erotic Thriller to its bitter end as a nearly forgotten genre to most.
We Kill for Love is a masterclass in the sub-genre that is as much a languished love letter, as it is a dissertation on what made the erotic thriller the juggernaut it once was. It’s a chapter of cinema Anthony Penta has thankfully captured here in an exhaustive yet entertaining peek into an industry and filmmakers that made much smaller films that once sat alongside their big budget doppelgängers on store shelves.We Kill for Love is up there with Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched in its ability to take an obscure or underrated sub-genre and not only make it accessible, but elevate it in an academic capacity to the point it’s hard to argues with its impact or importance even though we’re talking about Bedroom Eyes II.