HOLLYWOOD—I recently revisited a classic in the cinematic universe that not many people are aware of. It’s a film that was quite controversial when it was released in 1960, and it preceded what many consider to be the movie that ignited the horror genre, “Psycho.” However, what people may not know is that Alfred Hitchcock’s classic did not give birth to the slasher genre; it was actually a film by Michael Powell known as “Peeping Tom.” Both films came out within months of each other, but the subject matter of “Peeping Tom” left so many people unnerved that it never really got the notoriety that it deserved.
I’ll be honest, don’t try looking for this flick in stores, it will be virtually impossible to find, as I first heard and saw this flick in my film studies class nearly a decade ago. It was a movie I had NEVER heard; so for me to hear about a horror flick that predated “Psycho” was intriguing to say the least. The one thing I can say about “Peeping Tom” and many horror flicks before the 1970s is that blood was very tame to say the least.
This film is amazingly dark, creepy and quite unnerving. I can’t recall the last time that a movie left me so rattled with its score. The music for “Peeping Tom” has been stuck in my head for days since recently watching the film. I’ve always heralded John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as being the greatest; I mean that music alone sends chills down the spine, but Powell’s “Peeping Tom” gives that movie a run for its money.
The title alone forces one to have reservations about indulging in the chaos that may unfold, but think twice before making that decision. The title does not necessarily pinpoint exactly what is unfolding. The movie follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), an aspiring filmmaker who also happens to be serial killer. Hands down, this movie has one of the best openings I’ve seen in a long time. It instantly grabs your attention and that music will scare the daylights out of you. We open to see the killer stalking a prostitute, who later invites the madmen to her apartment where she is later murdered.
Now something that Powell introduces that I’m certain wasn’t prolific before this flick is the Point of View shot. This has become a common troupe in the horror genre, notably in flicks from the 70s and 80s that did their best to shield the identity of the killer. I’m not the biggest fan of this technique, but re-watching this movie, I can understand why it’s so important. This film takes a look at voyeurism, and psychology in a time period where not many were interested in seeing such dark subject matter displayed on the big screen.
Mark is a bit socially inapt; he doesn’t have the skills to interact with women, let alone complete strangers on the street. He speaks with a hesitation and for his pastime he sits at home and watches the films of the victims he murdered. His ultimate goal is to capture the emotion of fear on a person’s face as they are being killed. Yes, it’s disturbing, but we soon learn his behavior is a direct result of his father, who tortured Mark with his never-ending experiments.
One should understand our killer is not a sexual deviant, he is driven by the idea of fear; an emotion that he repeatedly endured at the hands of his father as a child and has been unable to shake those childhood tortures. As a result, it has shaped his behavior as an adult and his indulgence in what many would consider soft-core porn, with very little to any nudity at all, just risqué lingerie.
Director Michael Powell shows the audience that the camera is a phenomenal tool when it comes to filmmaking and if used correctly not only opens new doors in the cinematic world, but can leave the spectator more frightened than expected. We never actually see Mark’s face when he kills his victims, the only time we see his face in regards to an actual murder is when he kills himself. Powell’s ability to capture the suspense in this movie is unpalatable.
“Peeping Tom” is not a film about perversion; it’s a film about voyeurism. How people are always looking, spying and observing what others are doing, the sad thing is the person who is being ‘examined’ never has an idea in most cases!