Director: Michael Powell
Starring: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey
When the novices of cinematic history think of the most original of the slasher genre, the obvious go-to they think of is Psycho, and with good reason, as Peeping Tom wasn’t immediately the cult sleeper hit it is today. It was pulled from theaters after a week, and was annihilated by the British film critics scene, doing to it what modern critics do to torture porn, destroying director Michael Powell’s filmmaking career within the country. This however did not stop it from making an impact. Watching it now, one can easily draw the connections to films like Repulsion as well as both editions of Maniac, with its vague digressions into uncertain pasts and the way they create a violent and disturbed protagonist. Peeping Tom certainly has a place amongst the predecessors of the serial killer genre.
But the greatness of Powell’s film is not limited by its influence. Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks create what might seem a source of cheap thrills on the surface, but underneath is one of the many great cinematic commentators, daring the modern critics to rank it in the same breath as Sunset Boulevard or the more recent Birdman. Martin Scorsese himself said that this film and the legendary 8 ½ are the two films that are ultimately the most “about” directing, saying that Peeping Tom captures its “aggression,” which makes way for the understanding that the camera itself in films is always a lurking, lingering figure; from conversations to lovemaking to murder, the camera in every movie is the omnipresent third figure. Vertigo did it first with James Stewart’s private investigator, but the documentation of cinematic voyeurism is continued here through the use of an actual camera.
Yes, in this slasher film, the weapon is a video camera. It opens up with a man with no discernable face, and with a camera in his jacket, filming a prostitute. We go back and forth between the man’s point-of-view and the camera’s. When this psychotic antihero reaches the prostitute’s room he kills her with an unseen object, later revealed to be the tripod leg of the camera. Yes, it sounds silly, but it is done not out of a desperate desire for a unique way to kill someone, but so our killer, played disturbingly yet sympathetically by Carl Boehm, can see the final terrified and dying expressions of his victims.
In the remainder of the film, a seemingly normal and semi-romantic plot unfolds as we delve into the psyche of Mark Lewis, the murderer-in-question. He is pestered and aroused by his downstairs neighbor, Helen, played peppily by the youthful Anna Massey. She spends her own 21st birthday trying to learn more about Mark, uncovering his love of photography and videography, and learning of his directorial aspirations.
Anyone who’s seen a psychological slasher knows the drill from this point. Mark wants to be better for Helen, but his past and his compulsions make him feel powerless in ceasing his violent acts. It’s not what happens in the film, but how it happens, paired with the sprinkled nuances by the film’s writer and director, respectively. Like Norman Bates, who haunted our cinemas and our nightmares in the exact same year as this film, there are brilliant subtleties and suggestions that imply a tortured past behind Mark Lewis’ camera. His father made him a guinea pig for his psychological experiments which revolved around fear and trauma, and Mark still watches the videotapes of these tragedies. There’s also a recording by Mark’s father of a young Mark reacting to his mother on her deathbed. In this moment the audience, the apathetic third party of intimacy, is the boy’s father. We can only assume that Mark Lewis’ existence is not only a tortured one, but a very lonely one; his father withdrawn, cruel and apathetic, and his mother taken from him at a young age. Helen’s mother is a blind woman, but she knows there’s something disturbed underneath Mark’s façade, as if Powell is letting us know that there is much more to people than what we can see plainly.
Critics and scholars have in more recent years rejoiced over Peeping Tom, giving Mark Lewis the psychoanalysis he so desperately needed in the film. Some have interpreted Mark’s actions as carrying on the experimentations of the father, some have seen the camera as a phallic symbol of uncertain masculinity, some have seen his female victims as an unleashing resentment toward the mother that was never there. All can agree, however, that the multiple perspectives of what’s truly present in a film is an aspect of having a quality screenplay.
While the film is implicative and carries stoic strength in its screenplay and direction, it is anything but pretentious. Along with its plot that could be used for a pulp fiction novel, there is also a fair share of small jokes amongst its characters, and a good amount of melodrama in its player’s interactions. In its cinematic juxtapositions, its influence, and all its possibilities for analysis, this film being unbeknownst to the general public is almost as insane and tragic as the life of Mark Lewis.