The world’s oldest profession is featured in films again and again. After all, it’s been said that all stories are made from sex and war. And if that’s the case, then sex workers were always bound to be leading characters.
Sex work, however, is still stuck in the fringes of most modern cultures, and like the fringe itself, its movies can get weird. Most movies featuring prostitutes are either overly tragic or silly, and even the happy ones make questionable choices. They seem to always want us to either pity, mock, or secretly fear sex workers, and a lot of the time, they try for all three.
This list gathers ten of those movies, films about prostitutes that are just bizarre.
Related: 10 Well Known Movies With Bizarre Backstories
10 Bordello of Blood
There is no end to the weird facts about the vampire-prostitute movie Bordello of Blood, both the picture itself and its making. For one thing, the script was one of the very first ever written by a young Robert Zemeckis, better known as the writer of the Back to the Future trilogy and The Polar Express, among others. For another, a weird convergence of business deals led to this movie not being made until 1996, making this silly Dennis Miller-fights-sexy-vampires film Zemeckis’s direct follow-up to his Best Picture-winning drama Forrest Gump.
The movie itself was released as a Tales From the Crypt feature, so appearances from the ever-charming Crypt Keeper bookend it. Other than that, the film has nothing to do with Tales From the Crypt, but branding is branding. Then there’s the movie itself, and it needs to be seen to be truly believed. Essentially, it’s an hour and a half that alternates between Dennis Miller doing the usual Dennis Miller quips and sexy models luring men to their deaths.
9 The Happy Hooker Franchise
The Happy Hooker trilogy is bizarre for a number of reasons. Based on a real-life memoir, the first film follows a well-to-do Dutch immigrant named Xaviera Hollander as her questionable choices and terrible luck drag her down into prostitution and jail. Despite that synopsis, it was meant to be a comedy.
Even further, the film spawned a sequel entitled The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington and a third film entitled The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood, turning the real-life Xaviera Hollander into the Ernest of call girls. Another bizarre fact is that the third movie is about the fictional version of Hollander attempting to turn her memoir into a movie, making the third film a dramatization of the making of the first film.
8 Sin City
In Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, as in the original Frank Miller graphic novel series, sex workers are portrayed as badass, leather-clad mercenary ninjas, and frankly: it rocks. The prostitutes control their own slice of the city, a red-light district on crack known as Old Town, in which they govern themselves. They police themselves, as well, eschewing badges and nightsticks for katanas and throwing stars.
Sin City sees prostitutes in charge of their own destiny. It allows them to identify themselves as much by their fellowship and their prowess as by their profession. Even better, it gave us the moment in which Miho kills Jackie Boy and “doesn’t quite chop his head off. She makes a Pez dispenser out of him.”
7 The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a fun, light-hearted musical comedy starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. It’s also an oddly depressing story by the end.
The basic plot is the same as Roadhouse, in which a powerful local politician attempts to shut down a beloved business staffed by a crew of underdogs. Unlike Roadhouse, however, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas doesn’t win. The movie ends with the brothel, despite fighting for its existence the whole movie, being closed down for good. For some reason, Parton’s character shrugs off the loss of her life’s work just because someone proposes to her. And the other prostitutes don’t even get that; they lose their livelihood and home, receiving nothing in exchange.
6 (The Real) Pretty Woman
If asked to think up a movie about prostitutes, it’s likely that Pretty Woman would be most people’s answer. The movie is iconic, and it is remembered in part for its hopeful, happy ending in which Julia Roberts’s character is plucked from the streets and saved from her dismal life as a prostitute. Bizarrely, the original ending of the film was the exact opposite.
Pretty Woman was initially entitled “3,000,” and it was apparently too dark to be made as it was. Though the theatrical version ends with Richard Gere’s character falling in love with Roberts’s Vivian and elevating her to the high life, the original is bleak. Gere’s character simply tosses Roberts out of his limo into a dirty alley, throws her money on top of her, and speeds away.
5 The Girlfriend Experience
In 2009, acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh felt a truly bizarre itch he needed to scratch, and thus he made The Girlfriend Experience. The film is a wandering series of slice-of-life scenes about a New York City prostitute who finds herself selling companionship and conversation more than sex. It also starred then-pornstar Sasha Grey.
Fans of Grey’s earlier work might be disappointed upon watching the film, and anyone else might be too. The movie is worth a viewing if only to provoke the questions, “What are we watching?” and “Is this terrible or excellent?”
4 Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is truly a cultural landmark. The movie is often included in lists of the best films of all time and is frequently cited as one of the best in the filmographies of both Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, which is saying quite a lot. It is also notable for introducing most of the world to a young Jodie Foster, whose role in the film was an abused 12-year-old prostitute.
Iris’s character is about as tragic as any, and saving her becomes one of the only redeeming goals that De Niro’s protagonist displays. While this film is about obsession, stalking, and mental illness, it also finds an unusual sentimentality in the form of an exploited child prostitute.
3 Risky Business
Risky Business has endured in pop culture mainly for the iconic scene in which a young Tom Cruise finally gets his parents’ house to himself and celebrates by sliding across his hardwood floor in his tighty-whities. Because of that moment’s popularity, the film’s actual plot tends to take a backseat.
Risky Business is about a high-school boy running a brothel out of his parent’s house for almost exclusively high-school-age clients. Cruise’s character ends his journey by being accepted to Princeton, based almost completely on the fact that he bribed the university’s interviewer with prostitutes. For a teen comedy, it’s a bizarre premise.
2 Midnight Cowboy
If Midnight Cowboy had been released in 2021, it would still be considered an excellent film but would otherwise be unremarkable. The artistic and political climate in today’s United States would accept Midnight Cowboy as it has hundreds of hundreds of poignant dramas about lost souls and urban alienation. But Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969, and if you’re not familiar with the movie, its reception was truly bizarre.
The film stars Jon Voight as a male prostitute and makes it clear that he isn’t picky about the gender of his clients. In 1969, this earned the film an X-rating, a label that’s reserved almost exclusively for porn today. The reasoning then was its “homosexual frame of reference” and “possible influence upon youngsters.” Even crazier than a normal drama film getting this kind of rating, the X-rated movie won the Oscar for Best Picture. To this day, it remains the only X-rated picture ever to win the coveted award.
If you have not seen Frankenhooker, put it on right now. Warning: nudity, gore, and the silliest special effects ever to make it to a final cut.
Frankenhooker is a B-movie horror-comedy, and it leans into the genre’s absurdity more than most. The movie’s plot follows a scientist whose fiancé tragically dies by being sucked into a lawnmower. The scientist then decides to reanimate her using only the most attractive body parts collected from prostitutes. He kills the women with a special brand of crack cocaine he has created that causes users to explode. The reanimation goes awry, and his fiancé becomes a murderous monster.
There are more twists, including one last “horrific” surprise in the film’s last moments, guaranteed to provoke a belly laugh. If nothing else, the fact that Bill Murray once publicly said of the film, “If you see one movie this year, it should be Frankenhooker” ought to encourage a watch.