Sunday, October 30, 2022

#2,853. Peeping Tom (1960) - The Films of Michael Powell


Before I launch into my review of Peeping Tom, I want to take a moment to discuss proto-slashers. In a nutshell, proto-slashers are movies that predate the slasher films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s - Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, etc - that feature elements which would eventually become synonymous with the slasher subgenre.

In fact, two of the finest proto-slashers ever produced were released in 1960: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Both are considered spiritual ancestors of the slasher film, with many of the tropes that would come to define that particular subgenre, yet each informs the slashers that followed in a very different way.

Mark (Carl Boehm) is a troubled young man. Subjected as a boy to experiments conducted by his scientist father, who was studying how fear affects children, Mark is himself now fascinated with fear, to the point that it has turned him into a killer.

And his weapon of choice is a movie camera! A cameraman employed by a London-based studio specializing in low-budget films, Mark turns his camera (a gift from his father) on his targets, filming them in what would prove to be the final moments of their lives, then heading home to develop the film and watch it back. His secondary job – shooting risqué photos of scantily-clad girls for the owner of a local news agency – provides him with potential victims.

Mark’s life takes an unexpected turn, however, when he meets and falls in love with Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant who lives on the first floor of his building (Mark is the landlord, actually, though he usually keeps to himself). His newfound feelings for Helen inspire Mark to seek treatment for his “condition”, but can he cure himself before the police catch up with him?

Directed by the great Michael Powell (Black Narcissus, Age of Consent), Peeping Tom is as much an exercise in voyeurism as Hitchcock’s Rear Window; Mark (played superbly by Carl Boehm) uses his beloved camera to shoot and capture for posterity the murders he commits (his tripod is equipped with a knife, which he uses to stab his female victims in the neck, all as his camera is rolling). More than the actual killing, he gets enjoyment out of watching the murders on film (it’s in this particular fascination that the movie gets its title; Mark is a Peeping Tom after the fact).

In addition to its similarities with Rear Window, Peeping Tom has quite a bit in common with another Hitchcock film, released the very same year: Psycho. Besides being proto-slashers, both feature main characters who have been damaged by their parents; Mark’s father is the cause of his disorder, while Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, has some definite mommy issues. What’s more, we like both Mark and Norman; they are shy and socially awkward, yet we connect with them on an emotional level, and understand, even pity, the predicament they find themselves in.

Yet it’s in this very aspect that the two films also differ from one another. We like Psycho’s Norman Bates before we know what he is; there is a major reveal at the end of the movie that casts Norman in an entirely new light (and even though Psycho is over 60 years old, I won’t spoil it by saying anything more about the ending). We like Norman up to the point of that reveal.

In Peeping Tom, we know what Mark is in the first 10 minutes. The opening scene features the murder of a prostitute (Brenda Bruce), and though it was shot in POV (another slasher trope), the very next scene has Mark sitting in his apartment, watching a film of the murder we just witnessed. Right off the bat, we realize Mark is the killer, and yet we like him anyway! Even as the film progresses, and Mark continues to stalk and murder innocent girls, we find ourselves hoping he can get help and live happily ever after.

In this way, Peeping Tom is more of a proto-slasher than Psycho. In the ‘80s, audiences went to see the Halloween and Friday the 13th films not to root for the final girl, but to see the creative ways in which Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees would finish off their victims. Viewers connected with the killers, not the prey, much like we connect with Mark in Peeping Tom.

The fact that it is also a masterpiece, made by an immensely talented filmmaker at the top of his game, puts Peeping Tom on a level that few movies - slashers and proto-slashers alike - ever reach.
Rating: 10 out of 10

1 comment:

Lord Phantasma said...

I'm typing this minutes after finishing the film, and I have to say that I was completely blown away by it!

There was undeniable cinematic artistry throughout, with an engaging cast of characters to boot. I LOVED the actress who played Helen, and while Mark was no Norman Bates, he was stil far above average. That I was convinced to care so deeply about his fate was a testament to the writing and acting on display.