In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation had taken a bit of a battering, with the box office failure of both Marnie and Torn Curtain being blamed in some circles on the fact that his work felt rather old-fashioned and cozy for modern audiences at a time of social change and youth revolution. Hitchcock was sung by this, but also seemed to see a certain truth in it – while Psycho, just six years earlier, had been revolutionary stuff, his films had become to seem a little formulaic and dated in more recent years. And Hitchcock was certainly aware of a new generation of international filmmakers like Antonioni, who were reinventing the form, and he suddenly felt very much behind the curve. He wanted to shake up his own style of filmmaking, which had been very much studio-bound and traditional.
In 1964, Hitchcock registered a story outline inspired by British serial killers John Haigh and Neville Heath, and initially tried to interest Psycho writer Robert Bloch in adapting the story into a screenplay. Bloch would be the first of many to find the material too disturbing, and turned the project down. Hitchcock then turned to screenwriter Benn Levy in 1966, who was less squeamish and came up with Kaleidoscope (sometimes known as Kaleidoscope Frenzy), a story of a sex killer who murders women near water. Levy’s screenplay was strong stuff, especially for the time, and Hitchcock then – unusually – did his own draft that upped the ante considerably.
The version of Kaleidoscope that Hitchcock envisioned not only had graphic, bloody sexual violence throughout and extensive nudity – something far from the norm in 1966 – but also had a killer who may be a closeted gay man, dominated by his mother, as the central character. One scene shows him being caught masturbating by his mother, and there was little left to the imagination in the screenplay’s descriptions of the sex killings. It feels like Psycho on steroids. To emphasise the nature of the film he had planned, Hitchcock shot test footage and arranged for photographer Arthur Schatz to take pre-production concept stills – both emphasised the sex and violence that Hitchcock was looking at including in the film. The footage is impressive and powerful – naturalistic, brutal, powerful.
Hitchcock intended to throw out everything he knew with this film. He’d have a cast of unknowns, shoot on locations, using hand held cameras – it would be as anti-Hitchcock a film as you could imagine. And that scared people almost as much as the visceral content. Francois Truffaut expressed doubts about the graphic nature of the story, and Universal head Lew Wasserman was horrified. Not only did the film seem far too explicit to even be released at the time, but it flew in the face of his efforts to make Universal – still known as the home of the horror film – into a ‘respectable’ studio. And the idea of Hitchcock delivering a film that had none of the Hitchcock elements that audiences expected – thus potentially damaging the public persona of the high profile director that had become something of a franchise in itself – seemed a major risk as well. The project was rejected out of hand.
Hitchcock, who had poured his heart and should into the film, was devastated, and understandably confused that having modified his style at the request of the studio, was now being told to go back and do what he’d always done.
He would eventually incorporate some elements of the film into his slightly more conventional 1972 film Frenzy (including the nudity and naturalistic style), but Kaleidoscope remains the great ‘what if’ movie of his career. While Hitchcock’s filmmaking reputation remains a lofty one (though how long it is before revisionist critics decide to cancel him is anyone’s guess), it’s intriguing to imagine what impact this film might have had. The images and brief clips are all too tantalising a glimpse into what seems a daring attempt at both reinvention and revolution.