The explosion of cinematic sex and violence in movies in the 1970s and 1980s led to the emergence of a new film genre — the erotic thriller. It was in many ways a symbol of ’80s excess: copious nudity, gratuitous violence and sex every 10 minutes or so. 

It’s the focus of We Kill for Love, a sometimes engaging but uneven documentary that takes itself too seriously. 

Available Friday on VOD, We Kill for Love dives deep into its source material. It explores the genre’s roots in depth, speaking with scholars and authors about how classic film-noir fare like Double Indemnity and the work of Alfred Hitchcock, where passion and violence intersected, evolved into a genre of which filmmakers in those days wouldn’t have dreamed — a morass (a cesspool, even, if you’re cynical) of progressively more explicit and extended sex scenes, mostly cheesy acting and cookie-cutter plots. 

Writer-director Anthony Penta does a great job targeting the giants of the genre. Actors like Monique Parent, Athena Massey, Kira Reed, Jodie Fisher, Shannon Tweed and Andrew Stevens speak at length about their experiences. Producers and directors like Stevens, Jim Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray share their perspectives, peeking behind the curtain in how they produced content that was a mainstay on video-store shelves and in late-night timeslots on pay television. 

There are great revelations regarding the economic and social conditions that paved the way for films of this type (and eventually rendered it extinct). The growth of pay cable stations into late-night programming created a need for content, as did the expansion of video stores to meet demand for new titles that stocked shelves. Erotic thrillers also could be created quickly and with low budgets, creating a high profit margin. Finally, We Kill for Love examines how the combination of easily accessible Internet porn and studios flooding chains like Blockbuster Video with copies of more mainstream films proved to be a fatal blow for the erotic thriller genre.

The documentary rolls off the rails, though, when Penta veers into pretension. He creates a narrative with an actor playing “The Archivist,” a wholly unnecessary and distractingly bad device that disrupts the film’s momentum and seems especially bothersome given the film’s nearly three-hour running time. We see a man enter a room, discovering and watching old VHS tapes he’s studying, while a muted, haughty narration (provided by Penta) drones over him. 

“The Archivist” is supposedly a chronicler of erotic thrillers, but his presence is a purposeless extravagance whose subject matter is drenched in excess all its own. It’s an unwelcome flourish, and Penta’s accompanying narration is a self-aggrandizing excuse to attract attention to his pointless, flowery prose. Sure, it lovingly describes a genre whose main selling points are breasts and betrayal, but it’s maddeningly repetitive and smacks of self-importance. At one point, Penta repeats the phrase “Danger. Romance. Seduction” four times, each slower than the last. It’s meant to punctuate the notions but it’s a useless abstraction that elicits a larger sigh with each repetition.

Then we get to the presentation of the analysis itself, compiled from experts who speak insightfully and with authority. And while interviewees are discussing films like Double Indemnity, Rear Window and Vertigo in comparison to genre classics like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, we see clips of films like In the Heat of Passion, Lake Consequence and Sins of Desire. No offense to those films, but their incorporation of themes from those earlier films is where comparisons to such classics end; they are not as apples-to-apples as their more well-known and -respected cousins.

Penta also raises and drops some threads, including a timeline outlining the number of erotic thrillers made year to year. That timeline stops at 1994, which is presumably the peak, but is dropped and never returns. 

It could be that Penta eyed adapting We Kill for Love into an episodic streaming-platform series, but there are no real transitions. Instead, it presents a nonlinear, sometimes disjointed discussion that bounces between decades with no real rhyme or reason. Where a structured genre analysis would be effective and entertaining, Penta instead uses repetitious chatter that transitions into a chat about actors in the middle of the film before circling back to discussions of the reasons why they gained such a foothold in the market, why they didn’t aim to satisfy their viewers, and why the genre petered out in the early 2000s. It all feels scattershot and disjointed.

Still, We Kill for Love is an ambitious documentary that treats its oft-maligned subject matter with a respect most audiences do not. That’s a refreshing and admirable take in and of itself but Penta loses focus amid his flourishes when a bit more tightening and attention to direct connections would’ve created a film that’s lighter, more meaningful and more watchable.