We Kill for Love Review


Many an American teen growing up in the 1980s, 90s and even 2000s experienced a sexual awaking whilst watching a direct-to-video erotic thriller. These movies, which populated video shelves and late night cable in lieu of hardcore adult films, featured ridiculous storylines as a pretext to getting their casts naked at every opportunity. Plenty of simulated sex would follow to keep viewers transfixed. Nobody ever watched for innovative filmmaking or great acting.

We’d wager good money that director Anthony Penta also experienced erotic thrillers as a rite of passage. His debut feature, We Kill for Love, wants to chronicle the rise and fall of low rent softcore. Despite incredible access to veterans of the genre, Penta produces the most shambolic and overlong documentary in recent memory.

Dirty Deeds

Beginning in the 1980s, audiences had a growing thirst for erotic thrillers. The sexual revolution had made casual sex mainstream, though adults struggled to understand how that affected dynamics between genders. The AIDS crisis became a hangover to the wild party of newfound sexual freedom, and a resurgent political conservatism pointed to promiscuity and sexual liberation as the cause of most societal woes.

In other words, sex became scary. That anxiety led to the fascination with erotic thrillers. Audiences could watch and get turned on in the safety of a cinema, and have a moment of catharsis. These movies understood their fears of disease, shifting gender roles, and death, and could titillate and frighten at the same time. Movies like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct became mega-hits, and, at the same time, pushed the boundaries of explicit sex and nudity in film. Low-budget studios noticed, and fed the growing appetite for erotic thrillers by producing cheap movies chock-full of nudity to compete with the major studios.

Related: Eyes Wide Shut: Behind the Scenes of Kubrick’s Erotic Christmas Thriller

Penta opens his film with a framing device of a detective investigating a case by watching old videotapes in a basement. He obviously wants to recall the erotic thriller trope of voyeuristic cops investigating sexy women under gruff voiceover. This might have worked had he shown some restraint, but as it is, this prologue runs a full 10 minutes. The low production value of the scene and detective gimmick could have paid homage had it run a quarter of that time. Instead, it comes off self-indulgent and silly.

Undermining Its Own Points

We Kill for Love
Yellow Veil Pictures

That self-indulgence also sets the tone for everything to come in We Kill For Love. Penta spends long passages trying to trace the origins of softcore thrillers to film noir. At a certain point it becomes reminiscent of the proverb about the small-town preacher who always sermonized what he was going to say, said it, then reminded everyone what he’d just said.

Penta bludgeons the audience with his point, which, in the grand scheme of the film, has little to do with the main topic. He makes the same mistake again discussing the impact of Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct etc., offering anecdotes from the production of those films that have absolutely nothing to do with anything here. Though these movies demonstrated the growing market for erotic thrillers, they have little to do with the actual softcore genre Penta wants to explore.

It doesn’t help that Penta often undermines his own points. Early on, narration tells us that most of these softcore thrillers have faded from memory — under a montage of classic films such as Body Heat.

He stumbles again when he describes the genre as full of no-name actors, while showing clips and posters from low-rent thrillers featuring such stars as Eric Roberts, William Baldwin, Alyssa Milano, Anne Heche, David Duchovny, Oscar nominees Sally Kirkland and Brad Dourif, and soap stars Shemar Moore and Michael Nader. All of these actors have enjoyed career success; Penta would have made a better choice in devoting the same amount of time to major actors who appeared in softcore, rather than quashing his own thesis.

Missing the Spot

We Kill for Loave documentary
Yellow Veil Pictures

It takes a full hour for Penta to actually discuss softcore “hits,” and when he does, We Kill for Love offers a glimmer of what could have been. The director has great access, interviewing such genre staples as Monique Parent, Andrew Stevens, and Doug Jeffery. All share amusing anecdotes about their careers, though here, Penta misses a bet again. All three of the aforementioned individuals used softcore as a means to launch directing and producing careers, but the director never explores this genre-as-film-school detail. Instead, he substitutes prolonged clips from their movies.

Indeed, Penta virtually ignores the production elements of softcore altogether. A few interview subjects do mention the tight budgets and shooting schedules to the films: eight or nine day shoots for several hundred thousand dollars, for example. But We Kill for Love never offers testimony as to what the set of a softcore film felt like.

Related: Great Direct-to-Video Movies That Deserve More Love

Ignoring the production aspect seems egregious in an era more sensitive to consent, and knowledge of how predators have used the film industry to abuse actors. Did producers harass any of the men or women that made a career out of erotica? How did the actors feel shooting simulated sex scenes? How did the association with the softcore genre help or hinder their career aspirations? Despite a runtime of nearly three hours, the movie never addresses these questions.

Penta’s assertion — backed by several testimonials here — that softcore had feminist overtones because the genre told stories of feminine fantasy also registers as laughable. He ignores the fact that, though softcore did often focus on female characters, it did so in the context of titillating men. How else to explain the complete lack of male nudity or same-sex, male couplings? Lesbian sex scenes and female nudity often appeared in softcore. Penta totally ignores this double standard.

Needs More Red Shoes

We kill for love director
Yellow Veil Pictures

Furthermore, Penta overlooks key players in his saga. Zalman King, the impresario behind 9 ½ Weeks and the Showtime series The Red Shoe Diaries, gets only a passing mention here. He deserved much more attention: a recent episode of Karina Longworth’s cinema history podcast You Must Remember This revealed King as both the backbone of the softcore boom, and a clandestine influence on such directors as Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne.

In its biggest omission, We Kill for Love also ignores the real elephant in the room: the internet. In Penta’s telling, an over-saturation of softcore thrillers and the decline of video stores killed the genre. The director never acknowledges that with the rise of the internet, viewers gained unlimited access to hardcore pornography. Horny audiences no longer had to substitute simulated sex for the real thing.

There is probably a great documentary to be made about the softcore boom, possibly even buried somewhere among the footage here. We Kill for Love, however, is not that film. Penta has an obvious affinity for the subject, but fails to wrangle his material into a cohesive, insightful story. That shortcoming looms ever larger as the movie’s runtime drags on, accented by silly voiceover.

Maybe all the softcore clips distracted Penta from what he was doing. Next time, we suggest he take a cue from his beloved genre: get to the sex faster.

We Kill for Love lands on Streaming September 1.

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