February saw the death of an auteur, the likes of which the film industry may never see again. The man in question – 70-year-old writer/director/producer/actor Zalman King – was a veritable legend amongst fans of softcore erotica with artistic aspirations. That might explain the lack of coverage in the mainstream media.

King’s passing heralds the end of a specific type of upscale sex film. A sub-genre that mixed attractive people pretending to get it on with gauzy aesthetic touches – diaphanous white curtains blowing in the breeze, horizontal slats of light shining through window blinds, unbelievably large numbers of candles, etc. Sometimes you got all three elements at the same time against an aural backdrop of wailing saxophones.

The best known of these is, of course, the 1986 Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger film Nine 1/2 Weeks. Written and produced by King, the film was a flop in the US on its original release, but a huge success in Europe. Since then, this story of a beautiful but naive young woman meeting a handsome stranger and embarking on an odyssey of sexual discovery has gone on to find fame on first video and then DVD.

Female empowerment
This concept of a glamorous woman finding self-empowerment through erotic encounters with an enigmatic stranger is one that King would return to again and again. Witness Sherilyn Fenn’s debutante giving up her posh lifestyle for a roll in the hay with a carnival worker in 1988’s Two Moon Junction; Carré Otis’ lawyer exploring her limits with a self-made millionaire in the following year’s Wild Orchid; or Audie England’s struggling writer finding inspiration in a series of sexual encounters in King’s 1995 adaptation of Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus.

This premise also formed the cornerstone of his biggest hit, the US cable TV series Red Shoe Diaries. Clocking up 66 episodes between 1992 and 1997, the steamy show followed a simple template established in the pilot movie. Here, David ‘The X-Files’ Duchovny plays a bereaved man who finds his dead fiancée’s diary and learns of an affair she had with a construction worker during their engagement. Duchovny’s character subsequently returned in the framing sequence for each episode, reading tales of passion that women sent him in response to a newspaper personal ad.

As with King’s movies, Red Shoe Diaries carved out a sizeable female audience. And it is this that marks out his work as being so different from the his contemporaries. While the likes of screenwriter Joe ‘Basic Instinct’ Eszterhas popularised erotic thrillers aimed primarily at men (and which frequently tied explicit female sexuality to ‘damaged’ characters, if not complete psychos), King always sided with his female protagonists.

So, while King’s work is often characterised by its leadenly plotting and laughably bad attempts at cod-poetic dialogue (‘He made love like he worked on the street – tender as a jackhammer’), there’s also plenty he should be commended for. Not least, bringing a touch of class to erotic movies and making them something you didn’t always have to feel ashamed about owning.

And, while King has passed away and there’s little chance of seeing his like in cinema ever again, the impact of his work continues to live on in modern cable TV, where the likes of HBO’s True Blood are on hand to serve up couple-friendly kinkiness. Only here you get well-written dialogue and vampires, too.

Are there any other film genres you mourn the passing of?
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This column first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Home Cinema Choice