The Voyeurs (2021)

I’ve been seeing a lot of praise online for the supposed return to form for erotic thrillers that’s been happening on major streaming services.  While the biggest movie franchises in the world—The Fast and the Furious, the MCU, Star Wars, etc.have completely removed sex & eroticism from the movie theater, at-home streamers like Netflix have scored minor word-of-mouth hits for hornt-up trash like 365 Days and Deadly Illusions.  I think praising this ripple-sized “wave” of straight-to-streaming erotic thrillers as some kind of return to the genre’s 1980s-90s heyday overlooks a plenty of much better, riskier examples of the recent past like Double Lover, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake.  What’s being championed instead of those modern genre gems is the straight-to-VHS softcore version of that revival, which is fine.  At the very least, Netflix’s recent, self-reported success in producing mainstream home-video erotica is inspiring their competitors to make more of the stuff to attract that bored & thirsty market while it’s viable.  And now Amazon Prime has taken a swing at the erotic thriller throwback with its in-house release The Voyeurs.  I’d argue that their movie studio wing has already done a great job of bringing erotic menace back to the multiplex in much more creative, daring titles like The Neon Demon, Suspiria and, most recently, Annette.  Still, I had a lot of fun with their goofy, salacious entry into the home-video end of the genre, with all of its lustful coveting of what Netflix was doing in private.

The Voyeurs is basically Hitchcock’s Rear Window reimagined (maybe un-imagined?) for the straight-to-video erotic thriller genre, making it the second delightfully inane Rear Window homage of the year, following The Woman in the Window.  It’s much more ludicrous & consistently fun than Joe Wright’s film, however, pushing its idiotic internal logic towards a spectacularly trashy third-act climax that would be a water-cooler discussion topic for months if it were a proper theatrical release instead of a disposable streamer.  We start with a young couple (Euphoria‘s Sydney Sweeney & Detective Pikachu‘s Justice Smith) moving into their first apartment together in Montreal.  The French-Canadian substitute for Parisian lust & romance is pronounced early & often, with Montreal being introduced through its lingerie boutiques and described as “Fuck City”.  Mostly, though, it’s as cold and isolating as any major city in the North, which leads its doe-eyed Millennial protagonists to huddle up in their gorgeous apartment.  Instead of retreating into the modern incuriosity with the physical world around them that plagues most Kids These Days, they find themselves fascinated with the constantly nude gym-body couple across the street whose living room & bedroom windows are clearly visible from their own loft.  This initial curiosity quickly snowballs into full-blown erotic obsession, with many crossed lines, a surprising number of dead bodies, and an even more surprising number of onscreen orgasms. 

It’s the third act twists that really elevate The Voyeurs above the routine tedium of straight-to-streaming thrillers that get released on a weekly basis.  Its flat cinematography and the robotic mannerisms of its cast reinforce the terrifying reality that the house style of The CW has become one of the major cinematic influences of our time, but there is one major benefit to it suffering the many ills of modern streaming #content: its sprawling 2-hour runtime.  The rising-action portion of this steamy thriller hits all the exact beats that you’d expect, from the young couple’s decision to buy baby-pervs’ first set of binoculars to their inevitable escalation of making physical contact with the neighbors they’ve been spying on as foreplay.  Once all those lustful indulgences are out of the way, it’s time to teach them (and the lustful audience indulging through their POV) a hard-earned lesson through the most ludicrous mechanism possible.  And then the film goes an extra beat to allow our horny-for-the-first-time anti-heroes a chance to take revenge.  It’s a rare instance where the unrushed, over-plotted runtime that’s become standard for most modern mainstream films is actually used to its full advantage: giving the audience exactly what we want out of the genre, then pushing it into shameless, delirious excess no one really wanted or needed out of this simple tale of erotic voyeurism.  It delivers on the sexual menace promised by its premise, then stumbles around making incredibly goofy decisions in the post-coital afterglow, something we’ve all been through before.

There are a few distinguishing details that make The Voyeurs memorably stylish in its own dopey way: its soundtrack’s dream pop cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” its attempts to kink-up the intimacy of routine eye exams, its protagonist’s unlikely transformation into a rooftop superhero, etc.  For the most part, though, it’s most enjoyable as a standout example of a larger industry trend: the shameful slinking-off of the mainstream erotic thriller from public movie theaters to private maturbatoriums.  I doubt any of these word-of-mouth streamers will ever hit me the same way as seeing my beloved, filthy Double Lover with a packed, in-the-flesh film festival crowd, but I guess I have to appreciate these deliriously horny novelties wherever I can find them.  I’m always pushing for movies to be simultaneously sexier & sillier, and The Voyeurs admirably tears itself in both directions.

-Brandon Ledet

The Woman in the Window (2021)

I’m exhausted.  The joyless drudgery of life & work in this era of never-ending health pandemics and hurricanes has completely drained me.  I’m most aware of this general, bottomless exhaustion when I’m trying to indulge in the few simple pleasures that used to be fun, frivolous hobbies – most notably discussing movies with strangers on the internet.  I used to have an endless enthusiasm for sharing & combating opinions on hot-topic movie releases online, but lately the most effort I can muster is recording my movie takes on this self-published blog, where I know they’ll be politely ignored.  A large part of the disconnect I’m feeling between the movies I’ve been watching and the Online Discourse surrounding them has to do with social media’s addiction to red-hot, extremist, Galaxy Brain takes.  The last couple years of COVID-era labor & tedium have left me numb to most pop culture stimuli, so it’s getting increasingly difficult to pretend that every single release needs to be immediately sorted into either the Best Movie Ever or the Total Garbage categories.  Most movies are unremarkable, especially when viewed outside the sensory-immersion ritual of experiencing them at a proper cinema.  All I’m really looking for here is a pleasant way to pass the time between shifts at the office.

To that end, I’ll confess that I cannot match the enthusiasm of either the overwhelming consensus that The Woman in the Window is an embarrassing failure or the minority reclamation of it as an underappreciated trash gem.  Joe Wright’s adaptation of the post-Gillian Flynn paperback thriller has had its own exhausting travels from concept to screen, initially planned as a theatrical release through 20th Century Fox but instead landing a COVID-flavored streaming deal with Netflix.  That twisty distribution path has been widely perceived as a fall from grace, saddling The Woman in the Window with the perception of being a major studio misfire worthy of internet-wide jeers & mockery.  I wish I could join the chorus of trash-gobbling genre nerds who’ve pushed back on that pre-loaded consensus opinion, praising the film as delightfully preposterous pop art with a fun, distinct sense of style.  I just can’t help but find both positions to be an exaggeration of what The Woman in the Window actually is.  It’s low-key, wine-buzz fun as a Lifetime thriller version of Rear Window, but not enough of a hoot to make the effort of defending its honor worthwhile.  Forcing it into either a Best or Worst category feels like a desperate attempt to conjure Discourse out of thin air – a distinctly modern, thoroughly embarrassing form of alchemy.

There are many classic thrillers directly cited onscreen throughout The Woman in the WindowGaslight, Laura, Dark Passage, etc.—but Rear Window is its clearest, most dominant source of inspiration.  Amy Adams stars as a nosy, isolated neighbor who can’t tell if she’s witnessed a murder through the next-door family’s window or if mixing obnoxious amounts of red wine with her new behavioral meds is causing her to hallucinate.  Not to spoil too much in a review of a movie that was hotly debated and then promptly forgotten months ago, but the answer is both.  Wright submerges the audience in his spaced-out, reclusive heroine’s wine-tinted POV to the point where the physical existence of all events, suspects, and “helpful” side characters are highly questionable.  Each performance outside of Adams’s woman-on-the-verge protagonist borders on the comic absurdism of a dream sequence or an improv sketch.  Adams often wakes up from her heavily medicated blackouts visually immersed in the Turner Classic Movies that loop on her TV screen.  There is no point in attempting to solve the mysteries of either the murder at hand or the circumstances of its drunken witness’s past.  All you can do until the story sobers up is occasionally cackle at Wright’s overreaching attempts at visual style, while taking note of all the better-realized mystery thrillers he cites onscreen as reference.

If there’s anything especially embarrassing about The Woman in the Window‘s mediocre, straight-to-streaming pleasures, it’s in the amount of big-name talent needed to pull it off.  Beyond wasting the typically powerful screen presence of actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, and Brian Tyree Henry on roles with no significant impact, this big-budget Lifetime howler was also penned by Tracy Letts and scored by Danny Elfman – two legends in their respective crafts.  The prestige of those contributions doesn’t really change the fact that the movie is reasonably cromulent as a passive entertainment.  I’m not even sure Wright was aiming his ambitions much higher than that anyway.  The most pivotal scene in the entire film features Adams and Moore as two moms getting wine drunk on Halloween night, which I feel like is a perfect illustration of the film’s target audience.  Watch it when you want something lightly suspenseful and highly silly that won’t tax too much of your brain power before your job or your kids or the general malaise of living on this hell-planet zaps the rest of it out of you.  It’s not worth much as a topic of online conversation, but it is a mildly entertaining way to spend 100 minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

Peeping Tom (1960)

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More than a decade after his back to back classics The Red Shoes & Black Narcissus, British director Michael Powell nearly sank his prestigious career with a seedy horror film about a psychotic cameraman with a very peculiar sort of bloodlust (emphasis on “lust”). Due to its lurid subject matter, Peeping Tom was initially met by British critics with an absurd flood of vitriol that placed Powell’s career in immediate peril, but time has been kind to the film & it’s now regarded at the very least as a cult classic, if not one of the greatest horror films of all time. It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing ponography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho and predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.

Striking an odd resemblance to a more dapper version of Peter Lorre’s child killer in M (occasionally complete with whistling), the titular peeping Tom, Mark Lewis, is portrayed by Austrian actor Carl Boehm with an authentically creepy, lustful nervousness. Trained from a young age by his late father to not only act as a voyeur, but also to pursue the capture of fear on film, Mark is, reductively speaking, a strange bird. As his ambitions in his serial murders escalate, so do his ambitions in his photography. Discontent to merely film pin-up models as they remove their complicated lingerie, Mark dreams of one day being a director of feature films. His first step in this direction towards legitimacy is a gig as a camera operator on a production cheekily titled The Walls Are Closing In. Unfortunately for Mark, his professional ambitions & his bloodlust are intrinsically linked and, despite owning a director’s chair with his own name printed on it, he is destined to be captured by the authorities as he becomes more bold & obsessive in his choice of victims. Mark plans to begin his career in filmmaking on a fascinating little indie documentary about his own slashings & their resulting crime scene investigations. He admires his own work in the darkroom void of his personal studio, a lushly photographed inner sanctum packed with a mouthwatering stockpile of analog film equipment that Powell’s film leers over & lights with a giallo-esque palette of intensely colored lights. Just as Marks’ camera oggles drunken partygoers & couples canoodling in the dark, Peeping Tom oggles the very equipment he uses, drawing really uncomfortable parallels between Powell’s obsession with lush filmmaking & the more unsavory obsessions of his killer voyeur subject.

Mike’s one chance for salvation is a budding love interest in a downstairs neighbor, Helen Stephens, played by Anna Massey (who inexplicably reminds me of a mousier version of Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer here), an aspiring children’s book writer who lives with her bitter alcoholic mother. Their relationship is mostly a nonstarter, of course, as during their outings Mark’s mind is consistently distracted by the film developing back in his studio or passing glimpses of young couples molesting each other in the shadows. While he enjoys Helen’s company, Mark treats his missing camera on their excursions like a phantom limb & by the time he kisses the equipment goodnight, it’s painfully obvious who his true love is. Helen’s presence is more or less simply a glimpse into the more sympathetic aspects of our killer’s psyche, but her social circle also offers a view of Marks’ queerness in comparison to the more traditional square-jawed masculinity of her other beaus. Helen also provides an excuse for Mark to put his work on display. As he shows her his father’s documents/experiments of his own childhood (including what was likely his very first peeping), as well as the much more devious/criminal documents he’s been making himself, Helen acts as an audience surrogate, voicing reasonable responses like “Naughty boy. I hope you were spanked,” & “It’s horrible! It’s horrible! But it’s just a film, isn’t it?” Mark’s chillingly responds, “No.”

For all of its ghastly subject matter & general creepiness, Peeping Tom is actually great fun. Not only is there a swanky dance break provided by (legendary The Red Shoes actress) Moira Shearer, but the movie is packed with a dark sense of humor that might’ve gone by the priggish critics who initially dismissed the film on moral grounds. There’s a ton of winking, under-the-breath jokes that can be bitterly morbid, but are also genuinely hilarious. Powell’s proto-slasher is remarkable not only in its muted black comedy & phrophetic glimpses into the future of the horror genre, but also in its studied craft. Very rarely do horror films look this arty, with this much reverence for photography as a craft. Powell’s camera may leer in a way that cheaper exploitation films tend to, but it leers more at movie-making equipment than it does at half-dressed women. It’s Mark’s camera that lunges at its targets like a weapon, establishing the first person POV of countless cinematic serial killers to follow, except with a solid narrative reason for its inclusion that’s often missing from those films. Peeping Tom is the rare film of narrative, stylistic, and historical significance that plays just as chillingly fresh decades after its release as it did when it was first criminally overlooked. It may, in fact, be one of the greatest films of all time, horror or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet