Written by: Leo Marks
Directed by: Michael Powell
Starring: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, and Anna Massey
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Imagine... someone coming towards you... who wants to kill you... regardless of the consequences."
"Yes. But he knows it - and you don't."
"Yes. But he knows it - and you don't."
Alfred Hitchcockís Psycho is often hailed as a landmark film that signaled a new direction for horror; critics and slasher fans also note its subtle influence on the slasher sub-genre as well. Though it is far removed from the trashy films that would come to populate that body count genre, the image of a madman wielding a butcher knife and carving up unsuspecting victims was indelible, and horror hasnít quite been the same ever since. However, we have often seen that such hallmark films are often accompanied by lesser-known counterparts that were sort of up to the same thing, yet didnít carry the glory of their more famous cotemporaries--the slasher genre itself provides one such famous example, as Carpenterís Halloween often gets top billing for igniting the craze even though Clarkís Black Christmas preceded it by a few years. In 1960, Psycho was actually beaten to the punch by Peeping Tom, a British production from Michael Powell that follows the exploits of a psychologically disturbed man whose obsession with a parent has fueled his murderous impulses. Sound familiar?
Our psycho in question is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a mild-mannered member of a film crew who has aspirations of being a director. Though his actual career behind the camera has gone nowhere, that doesnít stop him from constantly carrying a camera around; a perverted voyeur, Mark especially likes to capture women, particularly their dying moments as he kills them. No one suspects him, however, and he is able to carry out a fairly normal life otherwise; this includes a budding romance with a young lady named Helen (Anna Massey) who lives in the same building as him. His traumatic childhood and his violent present clash with his desire to create a happy future, as he must overcome the demons that torment his mind.
A stylish mix of suspense, eroticism, and violence, Peeping Tom is a masterwork of psychological horror. Like Psycho, it marks a distinct change from most of the horror output from the previous decade, as the villain is no longer aliens from outer space or nuclear monsters; instead, itís just a normal guy who could easily live in the room above you. Though the genre would often take fantasy-laden and supernatural detours throughout the 60s, it also saw the rise of the madman slasher, mostly in the form of Italian giallos and other murder mysteries; all of this would of course culminate in the 70s and 80s, where there were knife and chainsaw-wielding madmen populating drive-ins on a weekly basis. Peeping Tom certainly was not the first film with a maniac (theyíve been a horror staple ever since Fritz Langís M), but it is notable in its treatment of madness.
One such innovation can be seen on a purely visual level; later slasher films (like the aforementioned Black Christmas and Halloween) are often noted for their use of POV shots that put us in the place of the killer and force us to embrace voyeurism. Peeping Tom utilizes a similar method, as weíre treated to several shots taken from the perspective of Markís camera as he stalks his victims. This not only heightens the suspense, but also serves as one of the filmís methods of placing us into Markís shoes. So many films of this type (including Psycho itself) place us outside the killer and sets us with his victims as we try to discover the identity. Peeping Tom lets us in on the secret immediately, as we know what Mark is up to when he kills a prostitute in a pre-credits murder sequence (this, of course, would become a slasher staple). From here on, we follow Mark, who is the protagonist of the film; in fact, there arenít many scenes where he isnít present. After all, he wouldnít be much of a peeping tom if he wasnít ever present, always creeping in on the scene.
As you might expect, Mark is a complex character--a very odd, off-beat man who only seems a little weird because we know what he likes to do in his spare time. To his neighbors and acquaintances, he seems to be normal, if not a little reclusive. But oddly enough, even we as viewers manage to empathize with him--we get the feeling that his actions are not completely his fault and that he wants to get better (however impossible that might be). The film seriously takes the psychological approach that Hitchcock laughed off in Psycho, as we learn that Markís childhood was dominated by a father who was obsessed with capturing his sonís fear on film. It has scarred him for life, it would seem, leaving him vacant and detached from those around him.
The super-imposed skull over Norman Batesís face at the end of Psycho confirmed that he was really just pure, twisted, evil, and that the psychologistís psychobabble was just empty words trying to find reason where there was none to be found. The madness of Peeping Tom isnít so inexplicable, and we often feel as though Mark is a Freudian victim of a psychological disorder that has caused him to conflate sex with death (another slasher staple). His wiring is obviously mixed up, as beautiful women and sexual situations urge him to kill, and the film isnít exactly subtle in its insistence that murder is a substitute as sex. Witness Markís phallic weapon of choice: a blade concealed in the leg of a camera tripod, which must be lifted and fully erect before it can penetrate his female victims. Such psychosexuality was stark in its day, and it still creates an interesting, complex portrait of a madman that has served as a template for later cinematic figures like Henry from Portrait of a Serial Killer (another slasher who enjoyed filming his escapades).
The film itself is similarly stark in a historical context--it features scantily clad prostitutes and models who are butchered in violent fashion. The film isnít explicit in its violence however, as much of it occurs off-screen; though this might have been a technique Powell used to get around censors, it also creates an interesting distancing effect. In a film about voyeurism, weíre privy to a lot of things, but not its most shocking element; the most we ever see of Markís carnage is in a long shot where we see a corpse. This perhaps forces us not to reckon with what Mark has actually done--it sort of keeps us on his side, because, like him, we can deny what heís done so long as we donít see it and linger on it.
Powell instead trades in visual shocks and gore for suspense; it comes in all the expected places and some unexpected ones too. The film obviously uses dramatic irony to heighten scenes where Mark is alone with his unsuspecting victims; we know that they should run, but weíre left sort of squirming in our chairs, wondering just when he will make his fatal move. However, we find suspense in other scenes too, such as when Mark is sort of interrogated by Helenís blind mother, whose preternatural instincts make her the only one to suspect him. During this scene, weíre treated to the sound of Markís racing heart--itís like something out of Poe, and we suddenly realize that we hope this madmanís secret isnít found out. This speaks to how effective the film is at putting our sympathy with Mark, and itís only reinforced when he also realize that we donít want Helen herself to find out--after all, he might be his one chance at normalcy.
Powellís direction is masterful; in a film about camera work, it only follows that Powellís camera is rather fluid and captures some impeccable compositions. His lens is appropriately invasive, as many of the filmís scenes are tight and intimate. This seems to mirror the name of the film Mark himself is working on: The Walls are Closing In. They are, of course, not only on Mark, but also the viewers, as Powell deftly strings them down a narrowing staircase of suspenseful scenes that lead to a tightly wound climax. Brian Easdaleís understated piano score subtly complements Powellís similarly restrained visual approach; you wonít find shrieking strings scoring every moment--instead, youíll only hear a banging of keys to highlight the high points of madness. Peeping Tom might well be a film about directing too and all of the frustration that entails; it seems as though fulfilling a sex drive isnít Markís only motivation. He also wants to carry out his fatherís work and capture true fear and terror on camera. His insistence on the perfection of this moment echoes the sentiments of any artist who has been frustrated with his work.
Powell himself certainly could empathize with his own career, as Peeping Tomís violence and perversion essentially blacklisted him and caused him to languish in obscurity despite his incredible output. His (and the filmís) reputation was recovered in later years when critics and scholars rediscovered his work; he is now revered as one of Britainís most gifted directors, with Peeping Tom often cited as his masterpiece, and rightfully so. The filmís reputation has been cemented with a release from The Criterion Collection, which gives the film the high quality presentation it deserves. The anamorphic widescreen transfer holds up well to be over a decade old, and the mono soundtrack is similarly clear, with the filmís score being reproduced especially well. The special features include a documentary entitled A Very British Psycho and a commentary by scholar Laura Mulvey. The release has gone out of print, but Criterion has made a recent habit of re-releasing their catalog on Blu-ray, so hereís hoping Peeping Tom follows suit. Itíd be sort of criminal if this one continued to languish in home video obscurity, as itís one that every horror fan should give a peep. Essential!
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