Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I see you: 18-plus films that make a point of turning viewers into voyeurs

Illustration for article titled I see you: 18-plus films that make a point of turning viewers into voyeurs

1. The Running Man (1987)

Nobody paid to see Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the '80s for satire, much less satire poking fun at the public's bloodlust for media violence. But The Running Man, based on the novel by Stephen King, did have a fairly subversive message about the gory extremes our culture goes to for entertainment. Thankfully, this message was tucked inside the warm, cozy confines of gory entertainment. After all, surely the real-life viewers who are enjoying watching game-show contestants kill each other for sport are above the fictional viewers who are enjoying watching game-show contestants kill each other for sport. The real-life ones are consciously critiquing the fictional ones' society, so they can revel in the messy killings with a clear conscience, and a self-applied pat on the back for their discernment.

2-4. Series 7: The Contenders (2001) / The Condemned (2007) / Death Race (2008)

Since The Running Man, action-gore has gotten slicker, but the films that let people watch action-gore while looking down on the slobbering-bastard audiences who want action-gore haven't gotten any less hypocritical. In the amateurish indie Series 7: The Contenders, a reality-TV show apes and mocks Survivor and its ilk by making contestants assassinate each other. It's Battle Royale with a particularly American twist, pointing out where all the vicious schadenfreude of reality shows is headed. The Condemned and Death Race (the latter a remake of the '70s film Death Race 2000) both follow similar tactics, but with bigger explosions, as criminals are forced to fight to the death, ostensibly for their freedom. Twist number one: They're in a corrupt system that isn't planning to let them go, no matter what happens. Twist number two: Both films mock and condemn the kind of people who would watch such entertainments, while working overtime to pander to those same people. The message at hand: "You and everyone in the movie theater with you are a bunch of jerks contributing to the downfall of society by making exactly this kind of morally bankrupt, inhuman 'entertainment' possible. Hey, wanna see another guy totally explode?"

5. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The thrill of seeing The Blair Witch Project at the moment it first came out mostly came from the cleverly hyped-up possibility that it was an actual snuff film. It isn't, of course, but its effectiveness is based on how convincingly "real" it is for the audience. You have to believe these college kids are actually being haunted by terrible north-woods spirits—or suspend your disbelief, anyway—in order for this artless, occasionally dull film to "work" as a horror movie. While the concept behind The Blair Witch Project doesn't really hold up on repeat viewings, it did prove prescient for the just-blossoming Internet generation, where fantasy is fueled by stylized versions of supposedly unfiltered "reality" that anyone can enjoy privately and anonymously.

6-8. Fear Dot Com (2002) / Halloween: Resurrection (2002) / Untraceable (2008)

Similarly, a few horror films have addressed the freedom and anonymity of the Internet by implying that it's used to give real murderers an audience with an unslakeable thirst for ever-gorier thrills. Guess what? That audience is you, the horror-movie viewer. And it's your fault that people are being put into death traps in Untraceable (the more people tune in to the killer's website, the faster the victim dies), or that hot, stupid teenagers are locking themselves and a bunch of webcams into Michael Myers' family home to create an online sensation. If there wasn't an audience for these killer websites, the movies explain, they wouldn't exist. Similarly, if you didn't keep buying tickets for these movies, they wouldn't exist. But you'll get yours: In Fear Dot Com, the people who log into the titular live-torture-porn site soon die horribly themselves.

9. Funny Games (1997)

A handful of filmmakers have openly, rather than hypocritically, dared their viewers to face up to their own involvement in the ugliness taking place onscreen, but none of them have been as obvious—or as ruthlessly effective about it—as Michael Haneke. His utterly remorseless film about a home invasion by a pair of young psychopaths (and its 2007 doppelgänger, Haneke's scene-for-scene English-language remake of his German-language original) is no more grotesque than many similar thrillers; in fact, with its relatively small body count and its reluctance to show gore or onscreen bloodshed, it seems almost gentle. But the emotional brutality of what's happening kick-starts Haneke's bulletproof film-as-threat: He dares viewers to walk out rather than tolerate a scenario in which there is no hope of redemption or justice. If they leave, he wins; if they stay, he wins. There is no crueler moment in contemporary cinema than the moment when Paul, the more articulate of the two killers—and the one who asks the viewers if they're on the victims' side—literally rewrites the movie's ending rather than leaving the audience with a single thread of relief.

10. The Conversation (1974)

In films where the protagonist as well as the viewer is a voyeur, the stars must often become active participants in what they're watching, in order to save a life or prevent something horrible from happening. In Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, paranoid surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by a jealous husband to spy on his young wife and her lover. When Caul tapes a conversation implying that the couple is in danger, he feels compelled to act. But who's really in danger here? Be careful, peepers. In The Conversation, being a voyeur doesn't mean being an all-knowing, omniscient observer. Sometimes what you see (or hear) isn't what you get.


11-13. Rear Window (1954) / Psycho (1960) / Body Double (1984)

Reams have been written about Alfred Hitchcock's sadistic treatment of his female leads, and his creepy tendency to include scenes of desperate voyeurism in his best films. But when Hitchcock went down that road—which he did again and again—he didn't go alone: He took every single viewer with him. There's no need to go too far with the armchair psychology: One look at the brutal strangulation of Grace Kelly in Dial M For Murder from a camera's-eye view is enough to know what Hitch was up to. Rear Window, which explicitly has the main character as well as the viewer passively watching a monstrous murder, ups the stakes significantly. Hitchcock's triumphant statement of viewer complicity was Psycho, which made way for the slasher film, in which the audience is allowed moral distance from the villain at the expense of a substantial hike in gore and a nasty dose of nihilism. Showing that he's adept at copying Hitchcock's substance as well as style, Brian De Palma essentially remade Vertigo and Rear Window simultaneously, raising the ante with more blood, more sex, and even less possibility that viewers can escape with their self-esteem intact.

14.-15. Blowup (1966) / Blow Out (1981)

Bored sophisticates became familiar, fertile subjects for Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni by the time he made his English-language debut with Blowup, which may be why he decided to add extra urgency to their usually half-hearted search for meaning. David Hemmings plays a photographer who may have caught a murder on film. But the closer he looks at the evidence, the more elusive the truth becomes. The obsession threatens to consume him, or at least distract him from all the hard partying and casual sex Swinging London had to offer. But the murder mystery is only the most explicit example of the film's many illustrations of the disconnect between what we see and what can safely be called real. Brian De Palma played explicit tribute to Antonioni's film with the remake Blow Out. Here, it's a recording that may explain a mysterious death. For a director obsessed with watching people watching (see Body Double above, or virtually any other De Palma film), the focus on sound almost counts as restraint. But as he listens, re-listens, and remixes his recording of an auto accident, John Travolta's sound engineer hero wears the classic expression of a voyeur: He's both fascinated and appalled as his senses invade other people's lives.

16. Peeping Tom (1960)

Released in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and dwelling on many of the same themes, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is in many ways nearly as great an accomplishment, but it was received very differently. Hitchcock, who already had a reputation as something of a brute, was praised for his sinister genius; Powell, a beloved British filmmaker whose normal fare was considerably tamer, released this deeply disturbing film about a brutalized child who grows up to become a sexual psychopath, and it basically killed his career. Peeping Tom took decades to be rediscovered by critics, who finally appreciated its masterful direction, endlessly creepy mood and tone, and terrific performances. But there's no doubt that one reason it didn't succeed is that it so directly implicates the viewer in Carl Boehm's grisly killings: He secretly films his victims with a portable camera, so that audiences are forced to go along for the ride with every murder, and his murder weapon is the sharpened spikes of the tripod legs. Powell made the guilt borne by audiences whenever they view an onscreen killing more explicit than it had ever been—and they didn't like it.

17. Man Bites Dog (1992)

A combination of sly subversion and brutal violence fuels the 1992 Belgian-made Man Bites Dog, a blackly deadpan satire of how the media's dispassionate documentation of violence can all too easily slide into outright complicity. Director-actors Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, and André Bonzel play the documentary card perfectly deadpan, using their real names for their characters and even filming Poelvoorde's real mother and grandparents. Belvaux and Bonzel play documentarians following Poelvoorde's charming, though pompously pontificating, psychotic freelance thug and killer. Their status as detached observers is slowly perverted, as Poelvoorde becomes their friend and eventually their movie's sponsor, until they become active participants in his crimes. Man Bites Dog's careful use of cinéma vérité also encourages the audience to be drawn in by Poelvoorde's surface charisma and identify with him just as the camera crew does. That makes their descent into depravity, gleefully helping Poelvoorde in a particularly grisly rape and murder, all the more shocking: The monsters on the screen could have been our friends, and could even have been us.

18. The films of Lars von Trier

As cinematic provocateurs go, they don't get much more provocative than Lars von Trier. A confrontational filmmaker much in the Michael Haneke mold, von Trier has a particular genius—and a particular menace—for taking audiences at face value. He identifies particular film tropes, clichés, and stock situations, then shoves them roughly down his viewers' throats, forcing them to deal with the implication of some of their most sacred ideas taken to their logical extremes. From the notion of the long-suffering, good-hearted heroine of musical tradition to the eternally faithful lover to the wise simpleton to the time-honored woman in peril, von Trier has taken them all at face value. And in movies from Dancer In The Dark to Breaking the Waves to The Idiots to Dogville, he says to everyone willing to listen that if they like it, he'll give them all they can possibly handle. His reputation as one of the most hated filmmakers alive seems to be evidence that this approach doesn't win him many friends, but it's devastatingly effective.