Another month, another important film viewed from my list of 12 Classics for 2016/ the Blind Spot Challenge. I left the most disturbing (so I’d been told) movie on my list to watch around Halloween time, and it was truly an unsettling horror, but of a different kind: a stylish slasher movie with hardly any blood, sex or violence, but one with a deeply unsettling message about the nature and dangers of voyeurism.
It’s a shame this picture pretty much ended producer-director Michael Powell’s career, because it is impressive, fascinating, and ahead of its time (tame and arty by today’s horror standards). The story, written by Leo Marks, is about Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), a serial killer, camera assistant and budding filmmaker who, as a youth, was hopelessly warped by his father’s perverted experiments into provoking the human fear response. Adult Mark (who “has his father’s eyes”) takes that work further by recording his victims’ (and finally his own) reactions to and moments of death. Mark works at a massive Pinewood-like movie studio, and helps shoot porn on the side, so he has no shortage of women to prey on, including an aspiring actress (Moira Shearer) who agrees to an ill-fated after-hours shoot with Mark. He rents out the rooms in the huge house his father left him, and falls in love with his tenant Helen (Anna Massey). She’s a trusting (sometimes to the point of being dangerously dim), sweet woman, the one good thing Mark likes and respects, and therefore refuses to film, see frightened, and kill.
I read up a bit on Peeping Tom’s reception, marketing and release, mostly as compared to Hitchcock’s Psycho, the hit released the same year, and which on the surface seems so similar. Both made by British directors, both featuring very human monsters: meek, polite, stunted, desperately lonely, painfully awkward men. Both murderers fixate on female victims due in great part to being warped by unnatural parental influence. But even with more violence in Psycho and both movies getting a similar critical bashing, Peeping Tom was pulled from theaters right away and went widely unseen for decades. Powell was criticized for making such a drastic turn away from his more traditional films, but he made an elegant one here too, a smart, classy, rich, colourful, beautiful thriller that pulls us closely into a killer’s psyche, crimes and guilt. We see through Mark’s eyes and camera, and peer over his shoulder to watch his murder footage with him. Powell involves us in watching and creating all the seedy stuff, and puts the drives and effects of film-making, forbidden acts and voyeurism on the same level. We’re allowed very little distance from Mark, plus it’s easy to feel sympathy for him, whether through Helen’s eyes, her questioning of and critique of his upbringing and hope of reforming him, or through Boehm’s riveting performance that creates a killer so pathetic, tentative, wounded, and self-aware.
Marks’ father (played by Powell, with little Mark played by Powell’s own son, blurring the lines between film and reality even more) wired the house for eavesdropping, so Mark records all his tenants on top of constantly peering through their windows. He’s curious about the lives of others and craves intimacy through the act of witnessing and recording. More disturbing than Mark’s serial killing is the statement this movie makes, that film is voyeurism and we as consumers are just as addicted to peeping into strangers’ lives, always hoping someone’s captured a new twist and ever more gripping and daring imagery.