The Voyeurs (2021)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.

Once upon a time, legendary director Brian DePalma essentially created the “erotic thriller.” The genre had its genesis in the giallo films of the 60s and 70s with obscure plotting, vicious murders, and sex, usually lots of all three of those things. DePalma’s transmogrification of giallo films into the new erotic thriller entailed keeping the almost explicit sex and extremely explicit violence but making the plots more transparent for mainstream audiences and adding a larger dash of comedy, as well as his trademark movie craftsmanship. DePalma is an amazing director. Who else invented an entire genre, other than perhaps George Romero and the zombie film? 

After DePalma’s seminal Dressed to Kill, other less talented folks with less money seized upon the notion of making cheap erotic thrillers. These films, mostly direct-to-video items, were a mainstay of pay services like Cinemax throughout the 80s. Cinephiles who saw names like director Gregory Dark and exploitation movie queen Shannon Tweed on the VHS box or in the Cinemax After Dark listings, knew exactly what they were getting: good looking people mixed up in a blackmail/serial killer/murder-for-love plot punctuated by gauzy softcore couplings accompanied by mist and saxophone riffs. It was a comfortable formula. 

Trashy erotic thrillers eventually lost their charm and fell out of favor, mostly do to the “been there, seen that” nature of these cookie-cutter efforts. But recently, the erotic thriller has returned with a vengeance with the dire Deep Water directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Ben Affleck and current “it” girl Ana de Armas. And then there’s the Amazon Studios film The Voyeurs, a new contender for the title of “most entertainingly trashy erotic thriller.”

After a credit sequence showing close-ups of eyes, scored to a cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” (this film’s anything but subtle), we meet Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria) and Justice Smith (Generation, Jurassic Park World: Fallen Kingdom), an impossibly attractive young couple, getting their impossibly expensive-looking first apartment together in an impossibly great location, downtown Montreal. As this is a film about these two becoming voyeurs by watching their impossibly good-looking neighbors who never, ever draw the blinds, Sweeney works as an optician. Naturally.

So far, so good. We’re playing by the rules of the genre. And as a bonus, this is all well-filmed, acted, and scored. We have a nice build up with some funny dialogue to a Cinemax After Dark version of Rear Window or DePalma’s Body Double with the couple’s spying some impossibly erotic sex in an apartment across the street and then becoming aroused themselves. Things get ramped up when the two manage to sneak a mirror into that apartment so that they can bounce a laser beam off the window and impossibly hear the other couple’s conversations. Then Sweeney sees something bad happen in the other apartment and is guilt-stricken about whether to tell the woman, who has become her friend by the near-impossible coincidence of buying glasses at Sweeney’s optical business.

If that’s not enough, this thing goes completely bat-shit, off-the-rails crazy with a huge plot twist that you’ll never see coming and is clever but impossible if you do any thinking about it. And yet there are more twists to come, including the use of a WiFi-enabled printer on a non-secure network to send messages.

Sweeney, for her part, carries the film even though she’s playing someone who makes so many sharp character turns, it’s like a stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike. Writer-director Michael Mohan, who has written and directed mostly shorts, teases the viewer for about an hour with scenes moving toward unveiling Sweeney’s sexy body (described by one character as “magnificent”; I think so too) but then stopping just short. That’s even more suspenseful than the plot itself. After all that foreplay, the film finally lets loose with Sweeney in her undraped, uninhibited glory during a two-minute sex scene. (I can’t recall another mainstream film apart from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence that features so much cunnilingus.) Let’s just say that it’s a scene destined to become one of the most viewed clips on the Mr. Skin website.

But wait. There are more plot twists to come before the last one right before the end credits roll. By now, you’ll know exactly how I’d describe them. Impossible.

So does The Voyeurs breathe new life into the erotic thriller? Definitely. Clocking in at just under two hours, it’s a tad long (so many plot twists, so little time) but never boring. For my jaded, voyeuristic eyes, the film was a nice surprise. It’s impossibly preposterous at its core, but it’s played so straight-faced by the cast and crew that it’s almost endearing in its trashiness. Making an entertainingly trashy erotic thriller was not such an impossible task after all. Sometimes films just need to be ridiculously fun. The Voyeurs is all that and more.

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