The Folly and Fascination of Body of Evidence and the ’90s Erotic Thriller Boom

Among the scattering of more nominal physical media releases this week in the UK is a surprise blu-ray offering of Uli Edel’s mostly-forgotten 1993 skin-flick Body of Evidence; an erotic thriller capitalising on the then-rising tide of such pictures in the wake of notable successes such as Adrien Lyne’s 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, Steven Soderbergh’s breakout sex lies and videotape and Paul Verhoeven’s gung-ho Basic Instinct. Edel hardly has the auteur reputation of the directors listed above, who used the genre to springboard themselves into the public consciousness, and revisiting Body of Evidence its not hard to understand why that is. But he did have something that the masses surrounding him didn’t; Madonna.

Nowadays Madonna’s capital has waned somewhat. Just this week she lost the studio backing for her hands-on biopic starring the immensely talented Julia Garner, with rumor suggesting that Madge’s own erratic social media presence has poisoned her prospects. But, circa 1993, she was still the reigning Queen of Pop and a deliberate provocateur, having caused stirs with her coffee table Sex book the previous year, not to mention a decade at the top of the charts and on MTV as a symbol of female sexual autonomy. With her urge for film stardom well established – in spite of her dubious abilities as an actor – her transition into the risqué world of the erotic thriller was all-but inevitable.

Body of Evidence is a fairly staid courtroom drama masquerading as something salacious. Rebecca Carlson (Madonna) is arrested on suspicion of murdering her wealthy husband by fucking him to death (a self-recorded act, no less). Plucky lawyer Fred Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) offers to represent her but struggles to resist his client’s allure and sexual appetite. Along the way the movie throws up all manner of improbable high-profile guest appearances, from Julianne Moore (not then the acting royalty she would become) to Anne Archer to Frank Langella. Indeed, taking onboard Dafoe’s presence, Body of Evidence offers a bizarre embarrassment of riches orbiting its stunt-cast star (who acquits herself admirably here, for the most part!).

I remember hearing about Body of Evidence first on the radio, on a long car journey with my father back from visiting my half-sister. A piece picking at the film for its supposedly explicit content, deemed controversial at the time. My 10-year-old interest was piqued. I didn’t then know movies could even be sexy; something I was really only just coming to understand. It would be another 3 years before the BBC aired the film late at night. I had remembered this radio segment and had a breathless sense of anticipation to see what the fuss was all about. And while the sight of a topless Madonna rocking back and forth on the laps of Dafoe and others turned out to be a formative viewing experience, the surrounding film both disappointed and repelled.

Watch Body of Evidence | Prime Video

Much like Madonna’s coffee table antics in ’92, there’s a try-hard mentality to Body of Evidence that is anything but seductive. Rebecca spouts god-awful dialogue about sex in the animal kingdom, touches herself in a sequence set to laughably histrionic music that sounds like it was borrowed from an Exorcist sequel (and god her fingers seem long and bony), while elsewhere the water-cooler talk sequences of her dripping candlewax onto Dafoe’s torso or straddling him atop broken glass did little for my teenage libido. Forget sexy, Body of Evidence is mostly plain awkward. Charmless and chemistry free, eager for press but actually too straight-laced and coy to really deserve any. Meanwhile, its courtroom drama unfurls like an uptight, middle-class episode of Jerry Springer. Dark-hued and dour, its a puzzle of a film, and not an intellectually invigorating one.

But it is emblematic of a fascinating phase in Hollywood’s semi-recent past. These days Hollywood is defiantly conservative and sexless. Mainstream cinema – even thrillers outside of the Disneyfied blockbuster blueprint – will shy away from seeming like they want punters to show up on the grounds of sexiness or intimacy. Social media, meanwhile, seems to trot out the “why are there sex scenes in cinema” take on roughly a monthly basis. Who are these people, quite frankly, who don’t believe sex is relevant in life and art? Not just for the sake of enhancing emotional and psychological connections to and between characters, but simply for its baser, voyeuristic pleasures? This writer considers himself on the ace (asexual) spectrum, but it can still be a draw to see beautiful bodies on screen together…

Anyway, I digress…

Modern Hollywood doesn’t see this as a need to be sated. Perhaps because cable TV services and internet porn sites are considered the reasonable alternatives. But it has rendered mainstream cinema as a risk averse landscape. Of course these days – quite rightly – there’s a greater understanding of the actors’ needs on a shoot like this. The need for intimacy coordinators, for safe sets. These are worthwhile considerations. In the late ’80s and early ’90s – the pre-internet days – things were evidently different. And while cable thrived on tawdry erotic thrillers during this cycle, the mainstream was equally enamored, as the aforementioned success stories proved. Now, when something even approaching the trashy standards of old arrives (see Adrien Lyne’s return last year), corners of the internet come out salivating in praise of this bravery, caught up in a fever of nostalgic horniness. Maybe the need is still there. The odd roll of the dice notwithstanding, maybe Hollywood has grown too gun-shy to gamble on it.

And yet, strangely, Body of Evidence remains a comfort watch for me. In spite of it’s oft-awkwardness, in spite of it’s oft-dullness. Nowadays I’m returning more for Dafoe than Madonna (although I maintain her first two albums are peerless). Perhaps it is that connectivity to my teen years. A strange nostalgia for when something like this was anticipated. The same nostalgia invoked in those excited by Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck cosying up in Deep Water. These movies served a purpose then – trashy, voyeuristic escapism over airport paperback storytelling – just as they do now. Laughable or lamentable, the erotic thriller boom was a wild time the likes of which we may never see again outside of reissues and memories.

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