The anthology film is almost as old as the industry itself. Perhaps the earliest example is D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), the director’s petulant response to wholly justified accusations of racism. Horror followed quickly, with Eerie Tales (1919) from Austrian director Richard Oswald, who is now best remembered for directing the ground-breaking gay film Different from the Others the same year. The use of a framing device was popularised in Dead of Night (1945), which remains an iconic, affecting horror film, and was an admitted influence on 2022’s Midnight Peepshow. The latest in a contemporary celebration of anthology horror – a genre revitalized by the V/H/S series – Midnight Peepshow seems to also take its cue from the Amicus offerings, in particular Torture Garden (1967), wherein five strangers visit a series of fairground attractions that promise true horrors if they are willing to pay extra.

In this film’s framing device (directed by Ludovica Musumeci), it is Valentine’s Day, and Graham (Richard Cotton) is drunk and lonely. Stumbling through Soho on the hunt for drugs, he happens upon the neon promise of the titular Midnight Peepshow. Inside, the Madame (Chiara d’Anna) directs him down the hall, where he finds three separate rooms, each with a letterbox through which he can see a woman. Expecting a striptease, he is instead offered a psychological undressing, hurtling towards a terrible revelation. A home invasion, a deadly game of Fuck Marry Kill, and a dive into the Dark Web: all this and more conspires to punish Graham for peeping. The throughline is the Black Rabbit, a website that offers users the chance to experience their deepest, darkest desires, if only they are willing to go down the rabbit hole.

The first segment, Personal Space, is the most straightforward. Directed by Airell Anthony Hayles, it follows Alice (Roisin Browne) and David (David Wayman), a married couple experiencing a rough patch. When Joe (Ocean M Harris) breaks in brandishing a gun, Alice and David have no choice but to comply with his demands. The optics of the film’s only Black character being a violent, gun-toting rapist may not have been lost on the filmmakers, as they quickly establish the influence of the Black Rabbit. David has become an unwitting performer in a fantasy scenario: a cuckolding fantasy, a rape fantasy, and the fetishization of a Black man. However, Midnight Peepshow does not celebrate fantasies. Alice feels pushed into extramarital adventures only after David cheats on her, but her punishment is just as severe as his, if not more. This sets the precedent for what is to come.

In the next booth, Graham is confronted by a bride. Scratching at a self-inflicted wound on her wrist, she recounts the second tale, directed by Andy Edwards. Entitled Fuck Marry Kill, it images the titular game as a Saw-style trap orchestrated by the Black Rabbit. Its Jigsaw stand-in, a gloating Gamesmaster (voiced by Zach Galligan), informs Helen (Miki Davis) that she must decide the fates of three men from her past: Liam (Jack Fairbank), a one-night stand; Maxwell (Jamie Bacon), her yoga instructor and former lover; and Chester (Derek Nelson), her ex-fiancé. The only segment to dabble in dark humour, FMK is also the only segment to justify its retribution theme. Sadly, the characters are weak, and on the whole, it is nowhere near as outrageous (sexually or otherwise) as it needs to be.

The third offering, The Black Rabbit, reveals Graham’s past. Inside the final room, he finds his wife, Isabel (Sarah Diamond). A year ago, apparently to spice up their sex life, Isabel asked Graham to treat her like a “cheap whore” – meaning, to pay her when they had sex. Directed by Jake West, this is the longest segment, and it dives headlong into the Black Rabbit. We are presented with a woman who wants more out of life and is punished for it. She is pushed into, manipulated, and eventually exploited by a situation she does not understand, and cannot hope to control. She – like Alice in the first segment and Helen in the second – is punished for real and perceived transgressions. The highlight of the segment is undoubtedly the chemistry between Diamond and Cotton. In fact, Cotton is consistently good throughout, capturing drunken despair especially well.

In an interview, co-writer and -director Jake West claimed that other actors “found the material too dark and disturbing” to pursue. This may well be the case, but it must be said that, for a film about sex work, BDSM, and the Dark Web, Midnight Peepshow is remarkably tame. Much of the gore is obviously fake, with at least one laughable moment of CG amputation. Visually, the juxtaposition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrations with a seedy underbelly feels shallow and overdone. There are also allusions to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which feel more appropriate, but again, they lack depth. Not to mention, using Wilde’s imagery without exploring queerness at all (beyond a decidedly chaste, unexciting lesbian kiss) feels brazen, and not in a good way. All the main couples are heterosexual, and while the film attempts to explore the oppressiveness of heteronormativity and, by extension, misogyny and patriarchy, it falls short. The overall messaging here is that women are either victims of abuse or exploitation, or they are vengeful Jezebels – and often both.

Midnight Peepshow explores desire and transgression from a clouded perspective. At no point is sex or sexual desire that falls outside the heteronormative and/or vanilla celebrated. Isabel’s sex worker roleplay has an ulterior motive. Graham’s willingness to explore toys and costumes is met with scorn. Liam’s request for Helen to use a dildo during the Fuck portion of the game constitutes one of many unfunny jokes. The film also appears convinced that all sex work is exploitative – and, by extension, that all sex workers are exploited. These women are not workers, but victims of a sex trafficking ring hidden in a corner of the Dark Web. Here, sexual fantasies are always immoral; they are tools of manipulation, or they originate from past trauma. Despite this, there is little sympathy for these victims. In the world of Midnight Peepshow, both the worker and the buyer must be punished. Perhaps the directors did not think so deeply about the implications. Perhaps Midnight Peepshow is simply a shallow exploitation film. In that case, it is not nearly sexy or sleazy enough.

We watched Midnight Peepshow at FrightFest 2022

Frightfest UK 2022 banner

Past Festival Coverage