If “Boogie Nights” had a villain, it was videotape. For the characters, the arrival of that technology put an end to a golden age of pornographic movies and spoiled the illusion that they were making art.
The documentary “We Kill for Love” counters that the home video market inaugurated a heady era of its own: not a renaissance of hard-core porn, but the boom in direct-to-VHS soft-core that peaked in the 1990s, thanks in part to demand at outlets like Blockbuster, which at least officially shunned anything rated NC-17.
These movies had a parallel production system, an alternate universe of stars (Shannon Tweed, Joan Severance) and titles that the documentary likens to a magnetic-poetry kit of recurring adjective-noun combinations: “Dangerous Obsession,” “Criminal Passion,” “Inner Sanctum 2.” As the film notes in a funny sequence, the industry also complicated life for archivists by recycling cover art and altering names.
“We Kill for Love,” subtitled “The Lost World of the Erotic Thriller” — and wittily billed not as “a film by” but “a video by” its director, Anthony Penta — makes clear that it’s primarily interested in this semi-forgotten subculture and its product, much of which never reached DVD. Enduring mainstream smashes like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct” might have similar subject matter, but they don’t quite count.
Both of those films come in for analysis, though, with the “Fatal Attraction” screenwriter James Dearden particularly thoughtful in an interview. Somewhat contradictorily, “We Kill for Love” tries to elevate its catalog of Grade-Z erotica to an ostensibly rightful place beside those hits — and even into the canon, alongside Hitchcock, “Double Indemnity” and “Dressed to Kill.” The documentary deftly mixes interviews with vintage-noir scholars like James Ursini and Alain Silver with observations by veterans of direct-to-video productions. The actress Monique Parent says her output was so prolific in the 1990s that she can’t always remember which movie is which.
These films certainly offer fodder for academics. “We Kill for Love” notes that they could only flourish once private viewing became possible, and that distribution through video stores enabled filmmakers to recoup their costs. Nina K. Martin, the author of “Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller,” argues that these neglected movies pay more attention to women: “If we only had films like ‘Jade,’ ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Basic Instinct,’ ‘Body of Evidence,’ then we would just think that women were these sexual creatures — dangerous, deadly, mysterious — and that men had to somehow be careful of them or tame them.”
Despite a game effort to vouch for the aesthetic vision of the director Zalman King (“Red Shoe Diaries”), whose daughter Chloe King appears here as a frequent commentator, the dialogue, acting and mise-en-scène in the clips does not support the notion of a lost universe of classics, or even a cycle rich enough to sustain 163 minutes of close reading — a soft-core companion to Thom Andersen’s great cinematic essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” a template that “We Kill for Love” intermittently evokes. Many of the sociological insights — about the tropes used to signify wealth and status, for instance — could apply to Hollywood equivalents.
Still, there’s something tough to resist about how “We Kill for Love” rescues works from the shadows.
We Kill for Love
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes. Available to rent or buy on most major platforms.