The Fifty Shades series, beginning with Fifty Shades of Grey, was one of the most widely mocked of the 2010s, consisting of three films released between 2015 and 2018, based on three books all published in 2011 and 2012. The novels were considered guilty pleasures by some readers and bafflingly awful by others, though it could well have been the case of there being no such thing as bad publicity, given the notoriety got people talking.
As such, a trashy trilogy of erotic novels became a cultural phenomenon, and then the movie adaptations proved similarly successful (at least when it comes to the box office; neither the book nor the film series did well critically). For fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, or anyone wanting comparable films (because of similar themes, smuttiness, or to scratch a so-bad-it’s-good itch), the following movies may well be worth cautiously recommending.
Updated October 13, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
Whether they’d like to admit it or not, some people are undeniably interested in finding other movies like Fifty Shades of Grey. Movies like the Fifty Shades trilogy are likely to provide more silly romantic drama and thrills, though there are also quality movies based around erotic/sexual themes that more or less show the right way for such things to be handled in film. Whether they’re comparably so-bad-they’re-good or actually genuinely good, the following represent movies similar to Fifty Shades of Grey, in some way or another.
15 ‘365 Days’ (2020)
Among all the non-English movies and shows available on Netflix, few titles created as much of a stir as 365 Days. It’s a Polish erotic thriller/drama, and is also based on a series of books that feature explicit content that proved controversial, though it’s fair to say that 365 Days pushes things further than Fifty Shades of Grey. The latter is known for dealing with BDSM quite graphically, but the former makes things worse by having kidnapping and threats of violence play a role within the sex.
It’s the kind of ground that can be covered in a movie if it’s done carefully or in a well-thought-out manner, but the execution here leaves a good deal to be desired. Those who don’t mind seeing a movie push even harder than Fifty Shades of Grey into dangerous waters (while also being arguably worse from a filmmaking perspective) might find this an interesting cinematic train wreck, but maybe anyone else should stay clear.
14 ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ (2017)
Well, it’s a no-brainer to say that Fifty Shades Darker – the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey – is a more than comparable film. The plot sees Christian Grey attempting to get Ana Steele into his life once more, only for Ana to request certain things out of their new relationship if things are to work out. The dynamic shifts a little, and all the while, people from Christian’s past re-emerge to make life difficult for him and Ana.
It’s kind of just more Fifty Shades of Grey, so anyone not on board with that first movie won’t have much fun here, either. For what it’s worth, critics were even less impressed by this sequel, because while the original got a 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, Fifty Shades Darkerreceived a measly 11%.
13 ‘Nine 1/2 Weeks’ (1986)
Nine 1/2 Weeks is far from a great movie, but at least attempting to make a mainstream steamy romantic drama in the more conservative 1980s has to count for something. It follows a woman getting wrapped up in a relationship with a man who frequently plays all sorts of sex games with her, which complicates things over time, of course, because this is a movie.
It’s a film with a certain amount of infamy for showing what it did when it did, but maybe similar movies that have followed since have made it look a little milder in comparison. Still, without Nine 1/2 Weeks, the landscape of American erotic movies might well look very different, so for that it can be thanked or quietly cursed, depending on how you feel towards such titles.
12 ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
Stanley Kubrick was so meticulous a filmmaker that his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, took 12 years to come out, as his penultimate movie, Full Metal Jacket, was released in 1987. The wait was probably worth it, because Eyes Wide Shut made for one hell of a final artistic statement, being an uneasy mystery/thriller about one man unraveling after he feels his marriage is starting to fall apart.
It needs to be stressed that in no way is Eyes Wide Shut anywhere close to being so bad it’s good, and can only be compared to Fifty Shades of Grey due to both films having explicit content and storylines that revolve around sex. While Eyes Wide Shut is too unnerving to be called a true erotic thriller, it is an example of how to explore sexual themes through filmmaking in a way that feels unique and eye-opening (perhaps even to a wide extent).
11 ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992)
Basic Instinct wasn’t the only thriller that saw Michael Douglas play a character who got wrapped up in a dangerous affair, but it was probably the most provocative. Douglas plays a police detective investigating a murder, and subsequently getting a little too close to a seductive woman who may be the killer.
Paul Verhoeven is a director who loves excess, and no one could accuse Basic Instinct of lacking in that department. It’s all very over-the-top and in-your-face, but in a way that feels a little more fun – or at least self-aware – than outwardly disgusting or offensive… so long as you know what you’re in for before watching.
10 ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ (2018)
The title of the third and final Fifty Shades movie makes it very easy to make jokes about critics (or cinema in general) finally being freed from the series. The journey being over didn’t make critics any more charitable, though, seeing as Fifty Shades Freed shares a Rotten Tomatoes score with its predecessor: 11%.
Overall, it’s ironic that the three films collectively could not even score a 50 out of 300, given 24 + 11 + 11 gets things to a pitiful 46 out of 300, or just over 15 out of 100 on average. So, more like “15 Shades of Grey.” Why talk about numbers? Because the Fifty Shades movies are boring and no one seems to care about them now they’re done and dusted. The plot of the third movie isn’t even worthy of being talked about, seeing as its tagline was “Don’t miss the climax.”
9 ‘The Room’ (2003)
The Room is a wonderfully terrible – or perhaps terribly wonderful – movie. The iconic so-bad-it’s-good movie follows a man named Johnny whose life is torn apart when his future wife, Lisa, begins cheating on him with Mark, a man whom viewers are repeatedly told is Johnny’s best friend.
It may have been intended to be somewhat of an erotic drama, but it’s become infamous for having sex scenes that are too uncomfortable (some masochists may call them funny) to be sexy. Undeniably, though, it is a passionate film, and though it doesn’t succeed as intended, it’s a fascinating and entertaining watch that’s more than earned the right to be crowned one of the biggest cult movies of all time.
8 ‘Twilight’ (2008)
Another widely mocked yet successful book series that was also adapted into a widely mocked yet popular film series, Twilight has a similar level of infamy to Fifty Shades of Grey. The movies are far less explicit than the Fifty Shades movies, but the hammy dialogue, contrived plots, and flat characters are comparable.
Then of course there’s the whole matter of Fifty Shades of Grey having its origin as a work of Twilight fan fiction, a piece of trivia that would forever doom the two series to be linked. Twilight truly is the yin to Fifty Shades of Grey’s yang.
7 ‘Showgirls’ (1995)
Three years after the release of Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven struck again with Showgirls, which pushed even more boundaries and went even further over the top in all areas. It follows a young dancer coming to Las Vegas with ambitions of becoming a top showgirl, no matter the physical or emotional cost involved.
It was reviled upon release, and seen as going too far in many places, though has since been critically re-evaluated in subsequent years. It’s definitely easy to view it as self-aware and perhaps even darkly comedic/satirical, making it both trashier and arguably smarter than Fifty Shades of Grey and many other comparable films with explicit sexuality.
6 ‘The Voyeurs’ (2021)
The Voyeurs is a film that’s not suitable for family movie night, given it’s a fairly provocative and somewhat modern spin on the erotic thriller genre. It follows a couple who begin obsessively spying on the inhabitants of an apartment opposite theirs, only to find doing so puts them increasingly in danger.
It might not be a great movie by any means, but it’s memorable, pulpy, and the sort of trash that might well be fun to watch with the right mindset. It’s got a bit more of a pulse than Fifty Shades of Grey at least, also being noteworthy for having some racy scenes and further cementing the popularity of its star Sydney Sweeney.
5 ‘Don Jon’ (2013)
So far, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has only directed one feature-length and non-documentary film: Don Jon. He’s best known for his acting roles, of course, but this 2013 film about a type of addiction not often explored in cinema – an addiction to pornography – sees him taking on directing, writing, and starring duties all at once.
This does make it a fairly racy romantic comedy/drama type film, but not in the traditional way, given the main driving force of the story is the protagonist trying to move beyond his addiction and find a lasting connection. It’s not perfect by any means, but it makes for an entertaining watch, with Gordon-Levitt and co-star Scarlett Johansson both turning in good performances, too.
4 ‘Shame’ (2011)
Two years before Don Jon came another film about a type of addiction that gets in the way of meaningful relationships, Shame, with the main character here being addicted to sex. His name’s Brandon – played excellently by a fearless Michael Fassbender – with the film showing his life slowly unraveling because of his inability to continue pursuing emotionless sexual activity.
It goes to some very dark places and is intended to be anything but easy to watch, though Shame does provide a powerful experience for those willing to give it a chance. It’s also one of several compelling collaborations between Fassbender and director Steve McQueen, alongside other movies like 2008’s Hunger and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.
3 ‘Love’ (2015)
The always provocative Gaspar Noé released what might be his most explicit film to date in 2015, simply titled Love. Its narrative is fairly simple and the plot doesn’t unravel in any conventional way, with this 134-minute-long movie broadly being about the relationship between two young people, and how that relationship is challenged after they begin experimenting sexually with a third partner.
The thing most people talk about when it comes to Love is the explicit sex scenes, because beyond that, there isn’t a great deal memorable or distinctive about the movie. It’s not quite as visually dazzling or creatively shot as most of Noé’s other films, but in being an uncompromising look at modern love and the role sex plays in a relationship, it’s not without merit.
2 ‘The Piano Teacher’ (2001)
If The Piano Teacher can be counted as an erotic film, then it’s an undeniably feel-bad example of the genre in a way that only Michael Haneke can deliver. It follows a middle-aged piano teacher who lives a repressed life and bottles up tremendous amounts of frustration, and what then happens when a younger man starts expressing an interest in her romantically.
It’s more of a psychological drama than a truly erotic movie that presents some kind of tantalizing or accessible look at romance, but those who want something dark might well find it engrossing. It’s an extremely challenging film, even by Haneke’s standards, but there’s a good deal to unpack for those willing to dive in.
1 ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972)
Bernardo Bertolucci made some iconic films, particularly during the 1970s, but most can also be described as intensely controversial in nature. Perhaps none of his movies are more contested and divisive than 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, which is a film that’s about a very intense and often uncomfortable relationship between a young woman and an older man that’s defined as being only sexual in nature.
It starred Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, with the Last Tango initially being controversial for its sexual content, and then later getting placed under more scrutiny because of stories surrounding its production. The latter has made Last Tango in Paris harder to watch or even appreciate in recent years, but it was a film that, from a historical perspective, did push boundaries regarding what kind of intense sexual scenes could be shown in movies.