What The Peeper Saw

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From directors James Kelley and Andrea Bianchi came the lurid, controversial psychological thriller What The Peeper Saw (1972). This Italian production became instantly infamous for its depiction of sexual interactions between Britt Ekland and Mark Lester. What The Peeper Saw deals with Oedipal themes and the nature of internal familial politics with all the sensationalism of Bianchi’s films Quelli che contano (1974) and Nude per l’assassino (1975). Neither exclusively a giallo nor a sexploitation film, What The Peeper Saw is a synthesis of these genres within the more mainstream aesthetic vernacular of an Alfred Hitchcock film.

It’s interesting that so many films of this ilk that were made in the seventies cast the children in a family unit as the psychopathic villains and the mother/mother figures as the heroic victims. Obviously this trend is a reaction to social movements and events of the day like feminism, legalized abortion and birth control. Britt Ekland, a cultural sex symbol, as the would-be mother turned martyr epitomizes the negation of the autonomy inherent to her sex symbol status in What The Peeper Saw as her character’s sanity is gradually unravelled and her beauty doubted.

These narrative machinations assume a certain misogyny that is reiterated in the camera’s objectification of Ekland’s body that, in turn, represents the Mark Lester character’s own devices and desires. Lester may have killed his mother, but he remains the lens through which the audience perceives Ekland. It’s this perspective that makes Ekland’s character a figure of pity rather than an emotive proxy for the viewer. We watch her struggle to expose the killer and lose her mind yet she constantly remains a kind of object or doll within the visual complex of What The Peeper Saw. In this case, Mark Lester’s homicidal peeping tom holds as much power over the viewer as the character does over his step-mother and father. Lester is never presented as sympathetic or vulnerable, exerting his power over the viewer in the manner by which the gaze of the camera mirrors his own. When Lester looks at Ekland and sees a fetish object, so does the camera.

What The Peeper Saw takes a rather cynical view of children as part of the social apparatus. The child is always believed while the woman is constantly doubted and villainized by social institutions. The family unit and those political structures in place to preserve it are depicted as being morally corrupt and completely inept in What The Peeper Saw. In the context of this cultural vantage point, victimization of one form or another is inevitable and wholly the fault of the party that allowed themselves to be victimized. It’s a world view that is not all that uncommon in Italian genre films of this period.

It’s this combination of cynicism and nihilism that gives Italian genre films their bite, rendering them as taboo alternatives to their softer American and British cousins. Audiences that crave their sleaze with a cruel streak continue to seek out films like What The Peeper Saw to revel in the hopeless distress of Britt Ekland. There’s a certain cathartic value to these exploitation films that one cannot really ignore. One person’s poison is another’s pleasure after all. The same is true for What The Peeper Saw.