The Rear Window Renaissance
Exploring Hollywood’s latest obsession with voyeurism and crime
Over the past two years, Hollywood has been releasing movie after movie in which casual voyeurism of the female star leads to them being the witness in a murder plot. Let’s take a peak at this trend and analyse what it says about society.
In Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s most beloved and influential movies, professional photographer Jeff is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Manhattan. During an intense heatwave, he watches his neighbors, and begins to suspect one of them has committed murder. The iconic film has long since inspired countless filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma, who used the premise of Rear Window and morphed it into the twisted Body Double (1984). In this layered thriller, a man housesitting a villa witnesses a gruesome crime across the street. In the box office hit Disturbia (2007), which was also loosely based on Hitchcock’s classic, a troubled teen with house arrest begins to suspect that his neighbor is a serial killer.
Recently, this specific type of thriller (that over time almost seems to have become a genre on its own) is going through a notable resurgence. In 2021, Amazon Prime released the erotic mystery thriller The Voyeurs, in which Pippa (Sydney Sweeney) and Thomas (Justice Smith) move into their dream apartment. They start spying into the apartment across the street, which starts a chain of disastrous events. That same year, Amy Adams starred as an alcoholic agoraphobic that witnesses a crime at her neighbors house in The Woman In The Window. In 2022, Kimi hit Prime Video: another movie about a woman suffering from agoraphobia unraveling a murder plot.
During the summer of 2022, Watcher was released in the United States. In this thriller, Julia (Maika Monroe) — a young actress who just moved to Bucharest with her boyfriend — notices a mysterious stranger watching her from across the street, while a serial killer stalks the city. Further proving that the Rear Window-esque mystery thriller is going through a popularity spike to the point of exhaustion is Netflix’s mini-series The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window (2022). The show was sold as a satirical spoof on the aforementioned pictures, making fun of the tired tropes featured in these films.
An obvious explanation for the sudden popular demand of these type of mystery thrillers is found in the covid-19 pandemic. Over the course of multiple lockdowns, spying on your neighbors was a common pastime for many urban citizens. Logically, many writers and film studios got inspired and turned their voyeuristic fantasies into products of entertainment — now more relatable than ever — with many people still working from home. These narratives have always been perfect for film as a medium, which in itself is voyeuristic, requiring the viewer to passively watch as the drama unfolds on screen.
As is the case in Rear Window, the godmother of the genre, the camera as a tool often plays an important role in these narratives. This can be explained by the obvious connection between the photograph and the window: both are frames that capture a still image — in the case of these movies, the intimacy of domestic life. Susan Sontag once wrote: ‘to photograph is to exclude.’ The mystery in these Rear Window-esque films lies in what is excluded… what eludes the protagonist(s). Often, the characters use camera’s, microphones or amplifiers to capture, enlarge or enhance images and sounds. Most of these films operate in a morally gray area and challenge the norms and values of its characters. Both The Voyeurs and Watcher question the morality of spying on your neighbors by turning the spectator into an assailant.
An important change, however, is that in all of these recent movies the protagonist is a woman. The change in gender can be explained simply by pointing out changes in cinematic landscape, in which a shift towards female lead movies has been ongoing ever since the 2010s. But these new takes on the spy-on-your-neighbor mystery thriller aren’t merely gender-swapped. They are profoundly different, in the sense that the female character are almost always struggling with some form of psychological hardship. Notable is that the protagonists are often wealthy substance abusers or alcoholics. For example, in The Woman In The Window, Anna (Amy Adams) is a rich psychologist/landlord that misuses medication and wine to wade off processing her personal trauma.
Some critics of the book as well as the movie adaption cited her substance abuse as a cliché that is merely there to turn Anna into an unreliable narrator for the sake of the plot. In the Paula Hawkins 2015 novel The Girl On The Train, an alcoholic divorcee witnesses an affair through the window of her commuter train. Not long after, the woman she noticed turns up dead. Two movie adaptations under the same name were released, one in theatres in 2017, starring Emily Blunt, the other on Netflix in 2021. The book these films were based on was heavily marketed as the new Gone Girl, successfully hopping on Flynn’s female narrative bandwagon but using a Rear Window inspired premise. Gillian Flynn’s success sparked a trend of domestic thriller novels (and movies) in which unreliable female narrators struggle with substance abuse and psychological illnesses while trying to solve a crime. A trend which is still immensely popular.
In Steven Soderberghs Kimi, protagonist Angela (Zoe Kravitz) is a Seattle tech worker stuck at home after she develops agoraphobia. In this solid thriller, the protagonist doesn’t witness a crime by spying through a window, but uncovers evidence of sexual assault through a Siri-like device she has to monitor for work. Just as in The Woman In The Window, agoraphobia is used here to create a redemptive arc for the heroin. The gruesome crime Angela uncovers forces her out of the safe cocoon and requires her to take action. From a commercial viewpoint, one could argue that these films are simply being catered to a female audience. In a time where true crime podcasts and documentaries are most popular amongst women, perhaps the (subconscious) idea of witnessing a crime — albeit from the safety of the home — is more relatable than ever.
But to dismiss the dark psychological turmoil of these female heroines as plot convenience or a commercial motive would be too simple. Note that in these recent films, the reasons for these female protagonists to stay home are rooted in their mental health, while the reasons for house arrest in male-lead mystery thrillers in the genre are always practical. Jeff in Rear Window, for example, can’t leave his apartment because of a broken leg, and Disturbia’s Kale is homebound after court issues an ankle monitor and a proximity sensor to keep him from fleeing. This important difference proves that there is something more reflective to these narratives; they seem to reflect on the psychological state of modern women.
However, note that in most recent Rear Window-esque thrillers, it is also a woman that falls victim to a crime, which gives weight to the argument that these films merely use a familiar crime plot in order to reflect on womanhood in modern times — that these movies are collectively dissecting societal issues and fears. The Voyeurs, for example, explores Pippa’s sexuality and how a monogamous, domestic existence dulls her adventurous spirit. At first she feels morally obliged to look away when she and her boyfriend witness their neighbors having sex. It doesn’t take long though, for these moments to become a voyeuristic delight for Pippa. Aside from female sexuality, the film takes on a large array of subjects privacy in the modern age and the moral boundlessness of contemporary art.
The Woman In The Window can be perceived as an introspective look at a woman’s struggle to stay sane in times where women’s rights are under threat, especially in the US. The protagonist is constantly gaslit, deceived and dismissed. The same happens in Watcher, but this movie switches things up by turning the person being spied upon into a stalker and vice versa. This horror film has a clear anti-patriarchal message, though: it is dangerous not to believe women. Especially now men have become more clever in their ways of preying and are still supported by systems of power. In the shadow of the Supreme Court overturning Roe VS. Wade and the Amber Heard VS Johnny Depp trial, the movie gained relevance.
It seems the female-lead resurgence of the Rear Window-esque movie seems to signify an underlying fear of a society that pretends to be civilised and safe, but in reality is nowhere near. The female protagonists are slowly isolated, and can only watch as violence is inflicted on their fellow women… initally unable to intervene. Furthermore, these films seem to represent a more universal feeling of hopeless; of being powerless in the face of horror. They represent the fear of being confined and questioned, rather than believed.