During the late 2000s and early 2010s, the erotic thriller took on new life as a black genre – spearheaded largely by Obsessed, a remake of Fatal Attraction, the flagship film of the original erotic thriller cycle. This time around, we’re presented with a black couple who are harassed by a white woman, setting the stage for the black erotic thriller’s peculiar preoccupation with white women as antagonists. More specifically, these thot thrillers, as they might be called, tended to frame white women as obstacles to the black middle-class – guardians of suburban whiteness, or of suburbia itself as a form of whiteness that by definition excludes black folk.
Obsessed foregrounds this anxiety about black upward mobility from the very first scene. We’re introduced to Derek and Sharon Charles, played by Idris Elba and Beyoncé Knowles, as they step foot inside their new house for the first time. While we never see their old house, this appears to be a big step up in the world for them – the kind of Los Angeles suburban mansion that you normally see in films by Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, where it’s virtually always associated with the white moneyed class. Derek and Sharon slow dance in the entry foyer, and then move through every room up to the attic, caressing on the floor of the bedroom, but withholding from sex, since they’re really making love to the house here – ravishing its floor plan and sightlines before the removalists arrive with all of their furniture.
We then shift to a montage sequence that juxtaposes Sharon, as she unpacks the furniture, with Derek, as he drives to his work at a finance company. The moment he arrives, he’s stricken by Lisa Sheridan, a new temp worker, played by Ali Larter. Lisa flirts with him immediately, weaponizing her body so aggressively that it feels like she wants to systematically destroy his marriage, his family, and his middle-class status, rather than just sleep with him. Larter does a great job of conveying what might be described as whiteface here, embodying the black perception of white woman as barriers to suburban aspiration. She’s more machine than woman, driven by an insatiable appetite for destruction that makes her considerably more robust and resilient than Glenn Close’s counterpart in Fatal Attraction. In her wake, straight white men are reduced to cucks, and gay white men reduced to gossips.
There’s no doubt that Derek finds Lisa alluring – and he’s no stranger to workplace romance, since that’s how he met Sharon in the first place. Still, he remains relatively restrained, meaning that Lisa has to verge into full-blown assault to have her way with him, effectively date-raping him after she slips an intoxicant into his drink at a work function, and then forces herself upon him in the bathroom. Unlike Michael Douglas’ character in Fatal Attraction, Derek has very little agency here, meaning it’s easier for him to restore his dignity, disavow his flirtation and adopt a more moralistic tone in the second act. This is probably the weakest part of the film, since it takes us away from Larter’s hallucinatory performance, and lets Derek off the hook too easily, leaving us in an atonal and muddled zone that mainly focuses on Sharon, presumably because Beyoncé’s contract specified she was in the majority of scenes.
While Beyoncé contributes some good material to the soundtrack, she’s not the best actor, so these middle scenes drag – that is, until we’re presented with two more problematic white women. This time around, they’re well-meaning white women, rather than overt antagonists, but that just throws them into relief as terrible gatekeepers for the perceived rage of white women. On the one hand we have Detective Monica Reese, played by Christine Lahti, who’s initially sceptical of Lisa’s threat, but eventually comes around to Sharon’s viewpoint. Then, we have Samantha, a babysitter played by Scout Taylor-Compton, who lets in Lisa while Derek and Sharon are out for the night. With an inept policewoman and a gullible babysitter, the film’s primal fear is realised – a white woman claiming a black child, and a black household, as her own space. After entering the house, and then trashing the house, Lisa takes Derek and Sharon’s child, and leaves him in their car, vanishing into the night as quickly as she arrived.
Like Glenn Close’s similar incident in Fatal Attraction, the point here isn’t that Lisa wants to abduct the child, but that she can infiltrate any space that Derek and Sharon consider to be private or sacrosanct. In this horror movie, the white woman is coming from inside the house – she’s so inextricable from suburbia that she’s capable of haunting any and every upwardly black mobile space. From that angle, Lisa’s relative absence in the second act works quite well, generalising and abstracting her into the hallucinatory spectre of white women that preside over a certain black fantasy of suburban aspiration. Director Steve Shill captures this succinctly into the recurring images of the hedge, an emblem of middle-class security, that anchor every establishing-shot of Derek and Sharon’s house. Just before her home invasion, Lisa strokes this hedge like it’s a pet, or even a part of herself, so secure is she in her ownership of the suburban spaces, and the Hollywood tableaux, that Derek and Sharon have co-opted.
This paves the way for an abbreviated and intensified third act, in which Lisa and Sharon fight their way through the house, repeating the opening movement from front hallway to attic. The fight choreography is terrific here, anticipating Beyoncé’s more militaristic and masochistic music clips, as the film finally returns to the flamboyance of its opening scenes. Just as Lisa weaponised her body in the first act, she weaponises the house in the third act – the white woman and the suburban house have become one and the same – as she literally breaks the attic apart to combat Sharon, who has to straddle the beams to remain balanced.
In the final scene, Lisa falls through the planks herself, and reaches out a hand to Sharon, who catches her, and tries to pull her back up through the attic floor. However, in the defining image of the film, Sharon realises, to her horror, that Lisa is determined to pull her down in the same motion she uses to pull herself up. Lisa is using Sharon for leverage, unable to conceive of her own upward movement without Sharon’s downward movement. Even when Sharon lets go, and Lisa falls to her death, she is able to look up for one last second, through two storeys of space, to Sharon, still gazing down from the attic. This final gaze is the film, since it condenses the film’s fear of white women to a gaze – resentful, reproachful and eerily undead, looking up from the nadir of downward mobility, and from the depth of this downward trajectory, with an undying assurance of superiority, even or especially at Lisa’s most abject. Upward mobility, this gaze assures us, is, and always will be, a white experience.
In this final scene, we not only see the genesis of the black erotic thriller, but a reworking of an older slasher trope. In franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween, the white masks of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers stood for an undead white paternalism that was so monstrously integral to suburban middle-class life that it had to be externalised and disavowed as a slasher. The black erotic thriller transplants that slasher figure to white women – we see it in the direct quote of Halloween at the end of No Good Deed – and in doing so, converges the misogyny of the erotic thriller with the misogyny of slasher horror. The result is a weirdly hallucinatory space in which white women alone are responsible for racism, but also a gloriously camp vision of white woman as charismatic suburban maleficents that comes as a refreshing riposte to the more tasteful misogyny these spaces usually entail.