Netflix’s intensely creepy documentary Voyeur will scare you away from motels forever

Journalist Gay Talese uncovers the nefarious tale of a crafty peeping tom

Voyeur (Netflix, BA)

In 1980, renowned American journalist and author Gay Talese received a letter from a motel-owner by the name of Gerald Foos, offering up a gem of a story.

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Foos wrote that he had purchased the Manor House motel, a 21-room property near Denver, Colorado, to indulge his voyeuristic impulses by spying on his guests from a secret compartment in the roof – and invited Talese to come down and check it out.

Enthusiastically taking him up on his offer, Talese joined him in his perverted viewing platform a few months later, where the two observed a young couple getting intimate – all in the name of journalism. But the story would not break for another 30 years as Foos would not let his name go on record, and Talese would spend decades guarding a secret in which he had become wilfully complicit.

Voyeur (Netflix, BA)
Gerald Foos (left) and Gay Talese (right) in Netflix’s Voyeur

Since Foos’ nefarious activities were laid bare by Talese in an explosive 2016 piece in The New Yorker, and later documented thoroughly in a book called The Voyeur’s Motel, they are touched upon scantly by Netflix’s unsettling new documentary Voyeur, which instead focuses more on the relationship between the two men and the questionable journalistic ethics that kept the story hidden for so many years.

Foos had reached out to Talese precisely because he thought the author would sympathise with his cause – Talese had just released Thy Neighbour’s Wife, a high profile, participatory exploration of the free love subculture in the USA in the 1970s – and he was right.

Early on in the film the journalist assures a colleague that Foos is “not creepy”, despite possessing hundreds of pages of a diary which describes in great detail how he had watched – and often masturbated to – the residents at the Manor House motel without their permission.

With little left to lose, and an apparent desire to gain notoriety for his deeply disturbing actions, Foos is an open book, allowing filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury staggering access to his life in the weeks leading up to the book’s release. He is at turns proud, creepy and oddly childlike.

The same cannot be said for Talese, who shrinks away from the film as it progresses and his journalistic practices, for which he has been richly awarded in the past , are called into question. A proud, 80-something in the twilight stages of an illustrious career, he often appears unhappy with the line the filmmakers are taking – both with himself and with Foos.

Voyeur (Netflix, BA)

Indeed, Kane and Koury do subtly take him to task for neglecting to report his subject’s crimes to the police, and for at times allowing his judgement to be clouded by a desire to break a truly incredible story.

But as character studies go, Voyeur doesn’t quite do enough to help us to truly understand the author’s actions. He plays only a bit part in the documentary’s crescendo, in the wake of a scandal that threatens to destroy both men’s credibility, and we’re left to piece together how he reconciled his own errors.

All in all, it’s a fascinating watch but those looking to see the story itself being investigated in greater depth are best directed to Talese’s original New Yorker article (although perhaps with a pinch of salt).

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Voyeur is released on Netflix on 1st December.