Thirty years of horror: Peeping Tom (1960)

Chris: In May and June of 1960, two of Britain’s most famous and respected directors released films that centered around the murderous exploits of psychotic, troubled young men. One of those films–Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho–is considered one of the great, classic horror films of all time; a movie with scenes that are an essential part of Western popular culture and characters and settings recognized around the world.

After the jump, the other film

Chris: Peeping Tom was destroyed by critics and horrified audiences. It was ripped out of release almost immediately, and all but ended the career of its director, Michael Powell. Powell was something of a big deal at the time, having released a string of excellent films in the years immediately following the war. He’d end up directing only a handful of films after Peeping Tom, and whatever renown he enjoyed in the fifties has faded with time. But I think Peeping Tom is in every way a superior film to Psycho. The story is better, its troubled killer is more interesting than Norman Bates, and the direction is far more exciting and risky.

Tom: I’m with you 110%, Chris. I’m so glad Peeping Tom is on the list. I’d already seen it twice and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it a third time. Psycho is fine, I guess. I’ve sure seen enough homages to the shower scene to know that a lot of people were either influenced by Pyscho or influenced by movies that were themselves influenced by Psycho. But why aren’t there more movies influenced by Peeping Tom? What was the deal back in 1960 that people reacted to it with disgust and indignation? Why is Psycho the classic and Peeping Tom the cult classic?

Chris: I can think of two reasons. First, consider the setting. Hitchcock promises the viewer in Psycho that bad things will only happen to people unlucky enough to be out traveling a lonely road, stopping off at the half-abandoned looking Bates Motel. With the creepy-ass Bates Mansion overlooking the motel, if you’re stupid enough to stay there you deserve that unpleasant shower.

Peeping Tom offers us no insulation, no protection of space from the killer. He’s the guy who lives upstairs in your apartment building, the too-quiet, too-shy neighbor who keeps to himself. He’s handsome and dresses well and has a good job. Norman Bates’s victims go looking for trouble, in a manner of speaking. Mark’s victims are co-workers, colleagues, and neighbors; people just carrying on their regular lives.

Tom: I love how the movie doesn’t just offer disposable victims. We have to sympathize with the poor stand-in on the movie set before Mark kills her. To me, it’s far more effective that the shocking protagonist swap in Psycho, which is jarring, but nowhere near as heart-wrenching. Janet Leigh is a criminal on the run getting her just desserts. The poor stand-in is just another lost girl.

Chris: The other thing that makes Peeping Tom so unsettling is the depth of the killer. Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom is presented alternately as both a monster and as a remarkably tragic, sympathetic entity. We alternately react with fear, hate, and utter pity for him. Interestingly, Powell makes Mark the center of his film and that sympathy we feel for him almost makes him a protagonist, which likely confused and pissed off an awful lot of Olde Tymey moviegoers.

Tom: I imagine the bottom line is that Peeping Tom is so ahead of its time. Watching it recently, it occurred to me this is found footage before the people who “invented” found footage were even born! But beyond that, it’s really hip these days to do meta movies and movies about movies and statements on the filmmaker as voyeur. Peeping Tom anticipates all this from way back in 1960. At one point, the heroine is watching the killer’s home movies, which are weird and unsettling. He sets up a camera to film her reaction as she watches. Fifty years ago, Powell and writer Leo Marks saw a side of people that would eventually develop into a driving force on social media. They made a movie about the need to watch. And they sprinkled it with commentary on pornography and movie-making. And they put a great weird relationship at its center.

I loved Carl Boehm in the lead. He’s kind of like a less ugly, more sympathetic Udo Kier. His interaction with Anna Massey as Helen is really nice. She’s so English and horsey and wonderfully expressive! I love how their relationship develops, and ultimately drives what Mark does, in an understandable way, and not a typical “psycho killer is going to kill the object of his affection” way.

Peeping Tom has one of the best “cross down left” stage movements you’ll ever see in a movie. Helen is telling Mark about how she needs help coming up with imagery for her magic camera book. He is so genuinely eager that he crosses down left and sits on a table full of stuff next to her, obliviously swiping away the stuff on the table. It’s not played for laughs at all. It’s a great moment of genuine eagerness.

And some of the dialogue is absolutely crackling.

“I guess he won’t be doing the crossword tonight.”

“Look at the sea.”
“What sea?”

“I’d like to offer you a drink.”
“Thank you.”
“Oh, I haven’t got one.”

“You creep around like you haven’t paid the rent.”
“I haven’t.”

“Silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene!”

“I feel…”
“I can’t describe it. I could only photograph it.”

Even Mark’s very first line is a piece of clever commentary. Someone sees him filming a crime scene. “What paper are you with?” the bystander asks, oblivious to the difference between film and still photography.

“The Observer,” Mark says, not entirely lying.

Then there’s this line that make me roll my eyes when I first saw Peeping Tom: “You know what’s the most frightening thing in the world? Fear.”

But then came the reveal about what Mark used to frighten his victims. Which in turn is a reveal about what was happening to Mark as a child when you see the flashes of light on his face during the home movies. Again, what a wonderful final bit of commentary on voyeurism.

And such memorable individual scenes. The deformed model. The cut to the movie being filmed. The doomed stand-in’s dance number. Helen’s blind, drunk, and prophetic mother. And certainly the final scene, with Mark crossing his elaborately set-up dark room as the flashbulbs pop in sequence.

Chris: It’s a gorgeous movie, too. Powell super-saturated the film in primary colors and directs with a sure hand. It absolutely still holds up as an unsettling and tense proto-slasher. Although the film is 53 years old, this truly feels like a modern horror movie.

When Mark and the mother have their encounter in his film room while the movie of his murder victim is playing in the background, did you notice that her face projected on the back of his coat looks like a skull? Is that just me? Or do you think Powell noticed that too or meant to have it in there? Look:


Tom: Gah! That totally freaks me out.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)