Peeping Tom (1960) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey
Director: Michael Powell

It’s impossible to understate the importance of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in the history of horror. Arguably the first true slasher film, you can see its influence everywhere, from the films of John Carpenter and Martin Scorsese to Giallo and beyond.

Considered part of Anglo-Amalgamated’s Sadian Trilogy alongside Horrors of the Black Museum and Circus Of Horrors, the great Michael Powell’s final masterpiece was scandalous in its day and it’s portrayal of a sociopathic serial killer (before such a term existed) and themes of sadomasochism, scopophila (“the morbid urge to gaze”) and child abuse pretty much destroyed his career. Tragic enough, but it’s bleakly ironic that the film that sunk him is now rightly regarded as one of the greatest the genre has ever produced.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a young focus-puller at a London movie studio, as well as a part-time backstreet porn photographer and a near-compulsive amateur filmmaker. He’s also a deeply damaged individual as a result of being used as a human guinea pig as a child for his psychiatrist father’s experiments into fear and voyeurism. Now an adult, Mark has taken to murdering women with a knife on the end of his camera tripod and recording their terror as they die….

Peeping Tom sets its stall out right away, with Mark approaching and then murdering a prostitute, all seen through the artificial lens of his camera. There’s also a nice touch of him disposing of a film box instead of the condom box you would expect in that situation. Murder and voyeurism is sex to this man and we know it within the first few minutes.

It’s an interesting conceit as if means we spend the rest of the film knowing what he had done and what he’s capable of, meaning any empathy we have for him is hard fought for and it’s a credit to both Boehm’s layered performance and Leo Mark’s superb script that we do.

Even if we don’t get to see the act itself, what we do see of the murders themselves are brutal and disturbing, with Powell smartly using them to say something about us, the viewers ourselves. After all we’re the ones who are really watching these horrific acts for pleasure.

The actual killings are merely the tentpoles they the plot hangs on though, as it’s the little character moments that really bring Peeping Tom to life.

Things like how Mark freezes when potential love interest Helen (Anna Massey) attempts to kiss him, but as soon as she walks away in embarrassment, he lovingly caresses his face with his beloved camera, how he keeps reaching out for it when the policeman investigating his crimes is holding onto it, or how he quivers with barely controlled lust when he sees a porn actress’s disfigured face. Obviously it’s not lust for her he’s feeling, but lust to film her, to capture her pain and discomfort at her appearance.

He’s a damaged soul though and the footage of his father dropping a lizard on his bed to film his terrified reaction is hard watch and is given an extra layer of uncomfortableness with the knowledge that it’s Powell himself and his nine year old son Columba playing the roles and it doesn’t look like the terrified child is acting much. Again, who’s the voyeurs here?

Naturally it’s beautifully shot and lit, the vibrant colours we’d expect from. Powell film wonderfully contrasting with the rather seedy underbelly of a London that was still a year or three away from swinging.

Peeping Tom isn’t a pivotal film in the development of horror for nothing. Sure it’s lurid, nasty and brutal at times, but it’s magnificently made at the same time. Everything about it from acting and scripting to cinematography, lighting and the score is of the highest quality, the kind of levels that on the whole, we don’t see in the horror genre all that often.

That it destroyed the career of one of the finest filmmakers Britain has ever produced is nothing short of criminal, but it’s legacy remains untainted. Peeping Tom is as important as any film in the genre has ever been and rightly so. A masterpiece. Simple as that.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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