For years I’d held the opinion that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece PSYCHO was not only the prototype for the slasher movie genre, but also that it was the best of the many psychological horror films featuring a creepy, sexually fucked up protagonist.
Allow me to state right here and now that I was dead wrong.
A few years back, I made my way through some of the ever-growing stack of movies on DVD that threatens to bury me here in the Vault, and I sat through a film that I last watched during my “lost” (read “stoned out of my goddamned mind”) years, but I remembered it for its basic plot despite not being in any fair shape to judge. Now that I’ve seen it with a clear mind, I would like to direct any of you who have not encountered it to Michael (THE RED SHOES) Powell’s PEEPING TOM, an unjustly maligned and reviled work that met a sorry fate and languished in semi-obscurity before getting a shot in the arm from very vocal fan Martin Scorsese.
Sharing a few themes with PSYCHO — yet pre-dating it by some three months — and disturbing the living shit out of just about everyone who saw it when it came out, I have to admit that it’s a much better film than its American-made contemporary in many ways; not an easy thing for me to say, because PSYCHO was my favorite Hitchcock work for much of my life (only recently getting edged out by FRENZY, PSYCHO having lost much of its impact for me since its big shocks have now entered the pop culture lexicon, neutered by nearly fifty years of references and parody).
PEEPING TOM tells the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a creepy focus puller at a movie studio who sidelines as a photographer for a smalltime pornography racket operating out of a local newsagent’s. Thanks to a highly questionable series of endlessly filmed experiments that he endured through childhood at the hands of his uncaring and twisted psychologist father, Mark is socially maladjusted (to say the very least) and obsessed with the act of “looking,” a conditioning that allows him to be able to deal with the world only when perceived through the camera’s lens. Taking a handheld camera with him wherever he goes, Mark embarks on a quest to document the human fear reaction, coldly murdering women with a blade concealed in one of the legs of his camera’s tripod, capturing their sheer terror as they are fatally penetrated by his surrogate phallus.
Having inherited his father’s spacious house and acting as landlord, Mark occupies the upper floor, a space filled with his father’s books on his studies and a fully equipped film studio, complete with dark room and screening area. Mark spends all of his off time in his film lab, watching the footage of his victims and slowly editing it into a documentary of the darkest order. The rest of the house is rented to various boarders, including Helen (Anna Massey), a friendly girl whom Mark meets as he spies upon her twenty-first birthday party through the window.
The two develop a friendship that blossoms into a sweet relationship, the first normal one Mark has ever had, but Mark is very much aware his own madness and calmly accepts that it’s only a matter of time until the police catch up with him. The story dovetails into a deeply disturbing tragedy that leaves viewers drained by just how bleak, sick, and sordid it all is, all factors that lead to PEEPING TOM being shot down in flames by critics and defenders of common decency all over Britain when it was released some fifty-three years ago.
Long known for its stringent censorship of films and a general snobbish uptightness when it came to the more visceral elements of horror, the British film industry and critical body deemed PEEPING TOM to be a morally bankrupt and vile bit of business, utterly crucifying it with scathing reviews and withdrawing it from release after a mere two weeks in theaters, a backlash that virtually destroyed director Powell’s career. The British press spared no vitriol in the pillorying of the movie, as seen in these quotes from contemporary reviews:
"The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing"
-Isabel Quigly, The Spectator
"I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture"
-C.A. Lejeune, The Observer
"sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation”
-Leonard Mosley, Daily Express
"from its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil"
-Nina Hibbin, Daily Worker
“As a shocker, it succeeds only in being nauseating for the sake of nausea. This is a sick film - sick and nasty.”
-Derek Monsey, Sunday Express
“However intriguing psychologically, the film is frankly beastly. De Sade at least veiled his relish with pretensions to being a moralist. It might have been even worse but for the discreet playing of Carl Boehme (sic) in the main role.”
-David Robinson, Financial Times
“This account of a young psychopath (Carl Boehm) who butchers girls with an ingenious killer-camera, then watches their last moments on a home screen, is not only drivel, it is crude unhealthy sensation at its worst. A sad discredit to a fine producer's reputation, - and I was appalled to find such delightful artists as Moira Shearer and Anna Massey mixed up in this sickly mess.”
-reviewer unknown, Sunday Dispatch
“Given some of the home-grown films we have had lately it's hard not to sound repetitively querulous. What-are-we-coming-to questions are apt to sound nannyish, like complaints about muddy boots, but after a film like Peeping Tom ('X' Certificate) it's a question to ask quite straight. What are we coming to, what sort of people are we in this country, to make, or see, or seem to want (so that it gets made) a film like this?”
-Isobel Quigley, The Spectator
“The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”
-Derek Hill, The Tribune
The reasons why the film offended so mightily during its initial run are many and have been discussed in much detail by film scholars far more qualified than Yer Bunche, but I’ll attempt to provide a short list of possible causes:
• The film makes the viewer aware of cinema as a voyeuristic act, using it to make us complicit in Mark’s crimes by allowing us to see them as they unfold, culminating in the “money shot” of his victims’ horror as seen from his P.O.V. through his camera’s viewfinder.
This approach would be appropriated to much lesser artistic effect in many of the slasher films that followed in the wake of the box office garnered by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), a film concerned with nothing other than depicting gory murders with a bare minimum of plot upon which to hang the carnage. Back in 1960 nothing like PEEPING TOM had ever been seen before, and its borderline-pornographic approach to the murders was considered especially distasteful.
• Unlike Norman Bates in PSYCHO, the audience knows from the beginning that Mark is an insane killer, and the entire film makes us intimate with the causes of his madness, revealing a lonely, damaged young man who has little hope for a healthy emotional life until Helen enters his world. Mark is not a ravening madman by any means, but is quite thoughtful and even artistic, elements not usually found in such characters, and as we get to know and understand him we feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Aware as he is of his deep psychosis, Mark even considers going in for psychoanalysis thanks to Helen’s influence in drawing him out into the world at large, proving he is not beyond some kind of redemption. The idea of having sympathy for a twisted, somewhat perverted murderer was pretty much unheard of in 1960, and in a British film such a notion was unthinkable.
• PEEPING TOM wallows in voyeurism, and that aspect is ripe for the depiction of Mark’s work as a porn photographer. Working in a cheesy studio that would have made Irving Klaw laugh his ass off, Mark shoots his subjects with a clinical detachment, only moved by one model’s disfiguring harelip and the inevitability of shooting another for his lethal home movie. The sequences in the studio reek of sadness, the boredom found during photo shoots, and a palpable sleaziness that must have been quite provocative in 1960, especially the bit with famous 1950’s/1960’s nude model and pinup girl Pamela Green splayed out for Mark’s camera before she meets her off-camera demise. That scene was shot in a negligee-clad version and one featuring Green’s all-natural awesomeness, the latter version supposedly being the first female nude shot in a British film not aimed at the “naturist” market.
• The message of “your parents sure can fuck you up” probably wasn’t a crowd pleaser back in the days.
• The symbolic link between Mark’s camera and stiletto tripod and his warped sexuality is uber-Freudian and more than a bit obvious, and the camera as murderous cock imagery is pretty damned sleazy, no matter how utterly appropriate for the story. After seeing PEEPING TOM again, I very much doubt that I’ll ever look at my own camera the same way again.
The extent to which we are given admission to Mark’s psyche really amps up the film’s twitchy, somewhat anxious tone, whereas in PSYCHO we don’t learn much about Norman Bates’ issues until the big reveal during the last five minutes, after which we’re given a weak bit of psychoanalytical explanation that comes across as “Here’s some psychobabble to excuse the violence and twisted, pervy shit you just sat through.” That explanation felt like it was added almost as an afterthought and doesn’t give anywhere near the rich detail that made Mark a far more rounded and human character than Norman, but whatever the case PSYCHO went on to box office success and a solid place in film history as the cross-dressing granddaddy of the stalk-and-slash school of horror while PEEPING TOM remained largely unseen and unappreciated for far too long. Now available in a terrific Criterion edition, I can’t recommend this film highly enough, especially to students of the slasher genre.
PEEPING TOM proves that the lurid nature of the field’s material can yield a classic if the elements of a quality script, a talented cast, and a director who isn’t afraid to “go there” with his subject are in place, and that was certainly the case here. Definitely not a feel-good movie, do yourself the favor and rent this very sick puppy immediately. TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!
Poster for the original theatrical release.