BR: What the Peeper Saw / Diabólica malicia (1972)

March 20, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Very Good

Extras: Standard

Label:  VCI

Region: A

Released:  February 16, 2016

Genre:  Giallo / Suspense

Synopsis: A newlywed suspects her stepson may have murdered his mother, and now has eyes on her!

Special Features:  Theatrical & TV Trailers.




After making a striking formal debut as the titular tiny tot in Carol Reed’s superlative musical Oliver! (1968), Mark Lester gradually progressed from family fare to suspense thrillers with scripts in need of a likeable pre-teen, starting with John Hough’s Eyewitness / Sudden Terror (1970), a baroque remake of the classic boy who cried wolf classic The Window (1949), and Curtis Harrington’s Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971).

Although he could still pass for 12, he was enlisted as the creepy son determined to drive his stepmother mad in the neo-giallo What the Peeper Saw, directed by James Kelly with reportedly additional Italian-language material by Andrea Bianchi. (Neither VCI’s sparse sleeve notes nor any online data clarifies the depth of Bianchi’s involvement in the project.)

The term neo-giallo applies in this case because although not quite a classic giallo – the inspiration is reportedly the classic rotten child thriller The Bad Seed (1956) – it has the veneer and sleaze of a standard giallo, from Stelvio Cipriani’s lovely main theme and score to the sun-baked Spanish villa which gave Kelley the perfect excuse to have lead actress Britt Ekland in a bathing suit. There’s also highly inappropriate fantasizing, but we’ll get into that shortly.



Peeper has recently married Paul (Hardy Kruger) finally settling down with new and 20 years his junior wife Elise (Ekland). Son Marcus (Lester) is on vacation, supposedly done with a year of school and ready to experience a semblance of a family after his mother’s (literally) shocking death by electrocution-in-a-frothy-hot tub.

Much of what transpires is back & forth unease & mistrust, with Elise convinced pre-teen Marcus has adult desires for her. Her initial ignoring of naked Marcus placing his palms on her clothed chest is just the start of Peeper‘s icky through-line, including peering through loose floorboards while his parents have sex, and eventually offering details of matricide in a game of strip poker with his stepmumsy. Like bereft mother Hortense in Bad Seed, Elise takes to drinking, widening the rift between herself and Paul, with her frustrated hubby escaping more often than he should to Paris for business to avoid further discord.

Much of the script’s first half consists of badly written exchanges and awkwardly structured scenes which add to the film’s strange mood instead of pushing the plot forward and deepening the psychologies of the newlyweds. No one’s sympathetic – Paul’s an idiot, Marcus creepy – and although Ekland is often cited as the weakest cast member, it’s more Kruger, and initially Lester until that strip poker bargaining session, where conflict, perverse behaviour, and sharp dialogue wakes up the actors. Lester’s demureness becomes hard and unpleasant as Marcus gloats and reaffirms he’s very much a killer and comfortable taking it farther, while Ekland conveys a woman too inexperienced with any children to deal with a kid she’s forced to call her own; her decision to acquiesce and strip down is to get information and understand Marcus rather than offering herself for some illegal behaviour.

That implied union only happens in a dream sequence that’s clearly a state of her delusion, although it’s followed by a mess shots that attempt quite amateurishly to convey a woman having a complete crackup, and necessitating medical intervention. (Elise’s suspicion that Marcus is trying to killer her pops up like a non sequitur, if not a hastily scribbled scene.)

Kruger’s own scenes are wooden and banal, but the film suddenly returns to its groove in a tightly written, shot, edited, and performed interrogation between psychiatrist Dr. Viorne (excellent Lilli Palmer) and Elise, chiseling away at Elise’s multiple facades to find her weak spots and turn them against her in a game of sharp wordplay. It’s the film’s best scene and shows there were areas where the better writer among the four (maybe chief screenwriter Trevor Preston) was determined to transcend the film’s otherwise messy plotting.



It is curious that instead of leaving Elise in the loony bin to steep in her own madness under heavy sedation, she emerges healthy and fully recovered, taking Marcus on an ordinary parental walk which has her exacting sudden (if not spastic) revenge. Elise is the moral hand that metes out punishment just like the bolt of lightning which strikes Christine dead at the edge of a dock in Bad Seed. Both films feature horrible children, but instead of being shrill and theatrical, Lester plays his demon child as subdued, much like Jonathan Scott-Taylor’s measured version of teenaged Damien Thorn in Damien: Omen II (1978).



Released in 1972, Peeper was trimmed for its UK release and subsequently withdrawn from circulation in the late 1970s, and VCI’s Blu-ray is the first uncut edition after the film’s grey market circulation on VHS in full screen versions. A comparison between one version on does show slightly more visual information on the frame bottom, but the 1.85:1 matting on VCI’s copy isn’t especially tight, and feels natural for a matted widescreen theatrical exhibition. There is visible DNR in some scenes, but it’s an adequate HD transfer that offers good details and stable colours. (The full screen version, however, features a different title sequence that removes shots of Paul’s plane arriving at the airport.)

Two trailers round out the disc, but it’s a shame there’s no commentary track for this neo-giallo which featured an international cast that also included Harry Andrews (Play Dirty, Theater of Blood) as the British headmaster who expelled Marcus for killing a dog. Co-director Bianchi later directed his own bad seed epic – the utterly sleazy Malabimba (1979) – and the more formal giallo Strip Nude for Your Killer / Nude per l’assassino (1975).

Lead director James Kelley wrote comedic material for several British TV series plus Sidney J. Furie’s Doctor Blood’s Coffin (1961), the child kidnapping thriller Tomorrow at Ten (1963), and murder thriller Blind Corner (1964). Kelley’s brief shift to directing came with The Beast in the Cellar (1971) and What the Peeper Saw (1972), and his next & final credit was writing the murder mystery W (1974) for director Richard Quine.

Mark Lester appeared in the Italian heist film Senza ragione (1973), and after the period film The Prince and the Pauper (1977) retired from acting until 2018’s Finding Driscoll and 1066. Lead screenwriter and prolific TV writer (Ace of Wands, The Sweeney, The Fox) Preston’s last credit is Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003).

Britt Ekland’s next films would be the cult film The Wicker Man (1973) and the superior (and more comedic) James Bond hit The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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