It may come as a surprise that Alfred Hitchcock — one of the world’s most respected filmmakers, widely considered “The Master of Suspense” — sometimes had great difficulty getting a new film project off the ground.
Although we all know about his successes (PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, NOTORIOUS, REBECCA, and on and on), there are few cineastes out in the world who have possessed the ambition to track down all 58 of Hitch’s films. His career stretched from the early 1920s to the late 1970s, and there were a lot of fascinating misfires along the way.
In the 1960s, Hitchcock began to experience a level of commercial success that he had previously not encountered throughout his career. Given his spot in the public eye, Hitch impishly took on the role of pop provocateur, attempting to push the envelope both in terms of aesthetics and in content — it’s difficult to describe the edgy impact PSYCHO had on American audiences in 1960, merely because it contained a shot of a flushing toilet. This edginess kept Hitch a household name… but it didn’t necessarily translate to box office success.
Indeed, Hitchcock had two flops in a row in the 1960s — MARNIE (1964) and TORN CURTAIN (1966) — and decided that, like PSYCHO, something was needed to shake up cinemas again.
Inspired by the new naturalism coming over to America (where he lived at the time), and by director Michaelangelo Antonioni’s RED DESERT in particular, Hitchcock was inspired to make a more grounded, realistic horror film — this time about a necrophiliac serial killer. The film was meant to be terribly violent, and would very likely have been Hitchcock’s first R-rated film; that honor he would later earn in 1972 with FRENZY (in fact, “FRENZY” was the original working title for this new project).
Hitchcock wrote up a treatment for the film — under the title KALEIDOSCOPE — and mailed it to his compatriot and interview buddy François Truffaut, who winced at the story’s depiction of violence. The treatment described the exploits of a psychopathic bodybuilder, who murders and assaults women by lakes and waterfalls, and is eventually lured to his destruction by an at-risk policewoman.
Despite advice to the contrary, Hitchcock actually began shooting some test footage for this project.
KALEIDOSCOPE was, to put it in modern language, meant to be perhaps the very first “found footage” or “mockumentary” film. With photographer Arthur Schatz, Hitchcock staged some nudity-laced, crime-scene-like photos of the film’s potential victims — which, having seen them, may have indeed been too edgy for modern American audiences. Additionally, they shot some handheld motion picture scenes, wherein women were stalked.
It was even proposed that there was to be no sound in the film; the actors were to be unknowns, and the performers seen in the test footage are still unknowns to this day.
KALEIDOSCOPE was meant to be one of the darker, edgiest horror films ever made — it was, essentially, made to have the same sort of raw, fleshy terror as something like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but with a classier and more experienced art director at the helm. It was meant to look like it was discovered after the fact, having been filmed by an unnamed voyeur who somehow had access to the dark sexual murders depicted.
It’s been tirelessly repeated that films make us into voyeurs — and many films go further to indicate to the audience that they are indeed watching. Michael Powell’s 1960 film PEEPING TOM does this masterfully, as does Hitch’s own PSYCHO. KALEIDOSCOPE was to take this mirrored contemplation and push it to the next possible extreme — we would be seeing the film through the eyes of a literal voyeur, and we would be horrified at the level of sexual violence on display.
As can perhaps be predicted, Hitchcock was told by producer Lew Wasserman that a film like KALEIDOSCOPE wouldn’t sell to mainstream audiences. Perhaps it was too sexual; perhaps it was too violent. Most likely, the producer knew that Hitchcock would be pushing a new, odd aesthetic into an unaccepting marketplace. In short, KALEIDOSCOPE would be too daring for its own good; the notion of a “found footage horror film” was simply not something studios were willing to risk in the late 1960s.
Wasserman pushed Hitchcock toward other projects — and his next film ended up being TOPAZ, released in 1969. It was Hitchcock’s third-to-last film.
Of course, horror fans knew that found footage reigned over the marketplace for a considerable amount of time, and there have been hundreds of such films released following the success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. I know, there were other precedents — but PA was the kickoff of it a “trend.” It would be difficult to say if this trend would have eventually taken hold long ago — if Hitchcock had the chance to blow the genre open as early as 1968 or ’69.
We can only imagine what KALEIDOSCOPE would have been… although that test footage above gives us a good idea. It’s likely that Hitchcock, in addition to being the Master of Suspense, would have been considered even more of a daring experimenter than he even now has credit for.
Hitch likely loved his success and his reputation as a provocateur — but he was also a filmmaker first and foremost. KALEIDOSCOPE would have been his most ambitious horror film… so it’s pity it never got made.