Spend enough time charting the corners of any subgenre and you’ll quickly discover that not all entries are created equal. Due to the sexually charged nature of Erotic Thrillers, a common mistake that Hollywood suits make is believing that so long as there’s an adequate amount of sex and skin, the mechanics of the plot and the characters don’t matter.
What’s wild about Richard Rush’s 1994 film Color of Night is that it both does and does not fall into this trap. There is sex, yes, and it is ridiculous, but the carnal relations are condensed into a single part of the film, leaving long stretches of the thriller without its accompanying eroticism. And while there are a few murders, the thrills are also spread out and tend to be fleeting.
Which begs the question: without the sex and without the thrills, what becomes of an Erotic Thriller?
Color of Night follows New York psychologist Dr. Bill Capa (Bruce Willis). When a patient named Michelle (Kathleen Wilhoite) dies by suicide during a session, Capa loses his ability to see the color red (though this proves mostly immaterial to the character or the plot).
Capa takes a mental health sabbatical and travels to Los Angeles to visit his colleague Bob Moore (Scott Bakula), who has a regular Monday night group therapy session with a deep bench of character actors. These include Lance Henriksen as widowed detective Buck, Brad Dourif as OCD lawyer Clark, Lesley Ann Warren as kleptomaniac sex addict Sondra, and Kevin J. O’Connor as entitled painter Casey. There’s also a young man named Richie (played by Jane March in unconvincing drag) who is diagnosed with a “gender identity problem” and “social phobia” that prompts him to stutter.
All of the patients are implicated when Moore is killed by a masked killer in a glorious slow-motion sequence that plays like a homage to Argento. Alas, none of the patients make for compelling murder suspects or red herrings because Billy Ray and Matthew Chapman’s script hardly develops anything unique or interesting about them aside from their malady (or vice, as the case may be).
As previously discussed, Erotic Thrillers are indebted to the characterizations and sexual politics of Film Noir, which were often fronted by a cop, private investigator, or journalist. The films use this character to drive the narrative forward: collect clues, interrogate witnesses, and eventually finger the culprit.
Alas, that description doesn’t fully apply to Capa.
Capa is soft-spoken and wounded, so although 1994 Bruce Willis is extremely charismatic, this character makes for a bland – and often resistant – detective. It makes sense given his grief over losing his patient, but it renders too much of the film passive and uninteresting.
And then there’s the narrative’s shoddy foundation: not only would Capa not be allowed to live in Moore’s mansion following the murder, he would absolutely not be permitted to take over the man’s practice in order to break patient confidentiality for Ruben Blades’ aggravating Detective Hector Martinez.
This suspension of disbelief would be easier if Ray and Chapman’s script did anything to bring the film to life. Aside from Moore’s death sequence and the discovery of Casey’s corpse in his palatial artist loft later, the film’s only other thrilling moment of action is a drawn-out car chase on the Los Angeles freeway. And while Rush’s use of mirrors to create interesting depth of field and framing is notable, it can’t elevate a plodding script.
And then there is Color of Night’s lack of sex. In addition to doing it on the kitchen counter, the film features sex scenes in both the pool and the shower (ie: a feminine hygiene disaster waiting to happen). But that’s it. These scenes are appropriately hot, yes, but they also feel surprisingly tangential and removed from the other storylines. At times, it seems as though they have been included simply because sex is an expectation of the subgenre.
March’s female-presenting character Rose is the object of Capa’s lust, but she’s hardly a femme fatale, nor is she a particularly interesting suspect in the mystery. Instead, Rose/Richie exists primarily as a component of the queer sexuality at the heart of the film’s “twist.”
As mentioned, Richie is played by March in unconvincing boy drag, but unlike other Erotic Thrillers of the era, Color of Night doesn’t entirely devolve into transphobic/queer panic. While the hyperbolic medical diagnosis of Richie as a “genuine nut case” and “volatile and dangerous” is completely incongruous with the experiences of transpeople, Ray and Chapman subvert expectations when it is revealed that Rose/Richie is not the killer (That would be Andrew Lowery‘s Dale, their psychotic older brother).
In the film’s climax, we learn that after Richie died by suicide, Dale forced Rose to impersonate their dead sibling against her will. Over time this caused her to develop something akin to dissociative identity disorder, hence the reason why she assumed different personas when she dated each member of Moore’s group. Rose still identifies as female, however, and Dale is very clearly the killer, and therefore the film’s true villain.
In a way, Color of Night partially side-steps Hollywood’s problematic tendency of demonizing queer sexuality or playing into outdated tropes about transwomen as killers. While it doesn’t excuse the false sentiments made about Richie, the film’s “twist” has aged better than other Erotic Thrillers such as Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Stripped to Kill.
Queer elements aside, Color of Night’s greatest weakness is its disinterest in developing characters beyond stock, one-dimensional tropes. The film would have been better served by either beefing up the role of a few of its exceedingly talented character actors or leaning into the smutty intrigue of the subgenre and making the narrative a proper sexual thriller (or both).
By straying too far off the well-established path of its predecessors, the film ultimately fails to satisfy. Color of Night is primarily a bland mystery with too few thrills and too little sex to qualify as a serviceable Erotic Thriller.
Sex Crimes is a column that explores the legacy of erotic thrillers, from issues of marital infidelity to inappropriate underage affairs to sexualized crimes. In this subgenre, sex and violence are inexplicably intertwined as the dangers of intercourse take on a whole new meaning.