(Michael Powell, 1960)
(essay by Robert)
What an absolutely perfect horror film. Peeping Tom, which was written by the polymath Leo Marks and directed by Hitchcock disciple Michael Powell, challenges the horror audience to see ourselves for what we really are. We are immediately involved with the film as Powell delivers a sincere thoughtful masterpiece while leaving us scratching our heads about ourselves.
Appropriately Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is an aspiring film director earning his way by photographing low budget smut images. He also acts as the landlord of the large family estate willed to him by his father. Lewis is a recluse- a bizarre outsider completely uncomfortable with basic human interactions. We will quickly learn that it was his father that left him with a deep bizarre obsession. Boehm is incredible as the dark and emotional killer. He draws us in to the point we can’t help pitying him feeling his anguish.
The father was a biologist focused on capturing the sensory reaction to dramatic experiences. He was also obsessed with curing scoptophilia (voyeurism). His main test subject naturally became his developing young son. Powell shows us grainy and odd home movies of Mark’s childhood: a startling wake-up scene with a lizard, mourning his mother’s death, and the natural peeping tendencies of the young boy. The bizarre tactics of father Lewis are revealed in the adult son’s illness. They also put the audience in the uncomfortable position of having to think back to our own defining moments.
Another intriguing element of the film is the fact that Lewis seems to be on the brink of success but can’t get past his weakness. This is proverbial for us as we watch and think about our own shortcomings and fears. Despite the spine-chilling presence, people like Mark. They are in taken by his calm handsomeness and shy demeanor. As a photographer, he creates a calming atmosphere and as the quite landlord, he is interesting to the young and naïve Helen. His obsession keeps him cornered however keeps him cornered and trapped. As close as it seems, his escape is out of reach. This is felt in the film’s most important scene when Mark has his run in with Helen’s mother (played wonderfully by Maxine Audley). “Instinct is a wonderful thing- a pity it can’t be photographed” she compassionately warns. As a blind woman, she is the only one who can see Mark’s danger.
The concept and overall delivery are so engaging it is easy to forget some of the specific elements that Powell uses so successfully. Not the least of these are the kill sequences in which we see the victim through Mark’s camera’s POV. The cross in the camera’s lens is like a target zoning in on each fatality’s final moments. This creates a fantastic personal effect as we zoom and almost touch the kill. Powell masterfully hides from us even the slightest gore and blood but instead taunts us by revealing his murderer and method almost immediately. He is obviously less concerned with the “who, what, where and when”. The real question he asks us is “why”?
It is also interesting to see the often referred to similarities between Powell’s piece and those of Hitchcock. Of course it was the elder Hitchcock who became the “Master of Suspense”. Powell’s film on the other hand, seemed to hit so close that it literally derailed his decorated career. This is such a shame, as it was the mild (almost non-existent) violence and the sexuality (tame by any standard today) that seemed to cast the dark shadow on the film at the time and black-balled an exceptional creative and articulate artist.
Top Horror Moments:
–The voyeur and the blind woman
-Helen sees Mark’s obsession for herself and Mark carry’s out the ultimate peep
(this film appeared on Robert’s list at #53, Jamie’s at #75, Troy’s at #44, and Kevin’s at #33)