Although it became fully defined in the 80’s and its origins can be traced back to decades before, if there’s one genre that could be considered synonymous with the 90’s it’s the erotic thriller. On the Hollywood side of things, Michael Douglas was the king and Sharon Stone the queen of the genre and even a screenwriter like Joe Eszterhas became a household name thanks to his scripts for films like Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993) and William Friedkin’s criminally underrated Jade (1995). Then there were the numerous direct to video/late night cable (“Skinemax”) B-films usually starring the likes of Shannon Tweed, Shannon Whirry and Maria Ford. It was virtually impossible in the 90’s to be channel surfing late at night and not encounter such films or be browsing through a video store and not come across numerous films of the like with enticing cover art to go along with the provocative titles. It was however, an 80’s film that is usually credited with for starting the erotic thriller craze. Despite essentially being a Reagan-era version of Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971), Fatal Attraction (1987) nonetheless captured the cultural zeitgeist and as a result many producers saw dollar signs. One such producer was Roger Corman who’s Concorde-New Horizons unleashed Body Chemistry, a film that was not only at the forefront of the 90’s erotic thriller boom but also one of the best and a film that would become a calling card film of sorts for its director, the undervalued Kristine Peterson.
Sex researcher Tom Redding (Marc Singer) is tasked with acquiring a lucrative contract for his lab from Dr. Claire Archer (Lisa Pescia), a fellow scientist with big money connections. While researching sexual response, Tom and Dr. Archer embark on a passionate affair with Archer taking Tom to his sexual limits, although soon Tom, a happily married father begins to have regrets and ends the affair. Dr. Archer and her overactive libido however arn't exactly ready to stop, and Tom soon finds himself in a dangerous situation, relentlessly pursued by a sex maniac determined to have him no matter what.
Body Chemistry isn’t a film that’s going to be recognized for having the most original screenplay as the storyline is admittedly very similar to Fatal Attraction which is clearly why Corman green-lit the film in the first place, however with Peterson at the helm the film becomes much more than just a mere cash-in. An apt analogy would be that Body Chemistry is to Fatal Attraction what Night Train Murders (1975) is to Last House on the Left (1972). Similar set-up’s, different agendas. Ultimately, Fatal Attraction was a piece of Hollywood fluff who’s psychological interests were fairly surface level whereas in Body Chemistry psychosexuality comes to the forefront resulting in a much darker film. Peterson is clearly fascinated by the idea of sexual power dynamics and control, taking the film down some obsessive and fetishistic roads involving S&M and sex tapes and Peterson slyly avoids any hypocritical moralizing by never picking sides. Another thing that sets the film apart from Fatal Attraction is the motivations of the antagonist. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s character Alex mentally unravels as a result of unrequited love. Lisa Pescia’s Dr. Archer however is simply a raging nymphomaniac who’s motivations for the majority of the film are purely sexual. This makes her not only a more interesting character but more dangerous as its clear she’s getting off in more ways than one in her tormenting of Tom. Pescia smolders in the role radiating sexuality and mystery and also the danger that comes with those qualities. The perfect femme-fatale.
Interestingly, despite belonging to a genre known for going direct to video, Body Chemistry did get a theatrical run and was actually Corman’s highest grossing domestic theatrical release for Concord and went on to spawn not one but three sequels, although unfortunately Peterson didn’t return to direct any of them and all three went direct to video. Pescia however did return for Body Chemistry 2: Voice of a Stranger (1992) which was directed by Adam Simon who would go on to direct the fascinating IFC documentary The American Nightmare (2000). Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction (1994) and Body Chemistry 4: Full Exposure (1995) were both directed by exploitation legend Jim Wynorski and starred 90’s erotica regulars Shari Shattuck and Shannon Tweed respectively. The sequels are entertaining for what they are however had Peterson stuck around the series really did have the potential to be something special. Much like her debut feature, the psychological slasher Deadly Dreams (1988), Body Chemistry is an example of Peterson elevating the material beyond what is normally expected from the genre while at the same time fully embracing the genre, delivering all the sleazy thrills any successful erotic thriller must contain along with some perverse humor. Body Chemistry is a stylish, sexy and perfectly cast erotic potboiler with an excellent psycho in Claire Archer and a film that would cement the obsessions that would define Peterson’s best work.