In the striking and extensive history of cinema based on real and terrifying people, which includes MONSIEUR VERSOUX (1947), ROPE (1948), and BADLANDS (1973), PEEPING TOM is nothing short of a staggering work of sinister brilliance. From the first scene, in which Powell thrusts us, his captive audience, headfirst into the mind of a voyeuristic lust murderer, one term comes immediately to mind: bone chilling. As I watched, I always had at the forefront of my mind that this film, literally, ended the distinguished career of its brilliant director, Michael Powell, the genius who brought us THE RED SHOES (1948). Very sad, really, but I am at a loss to imagine what might have prevented, or at least delayed, that foregone conclusion. Would his masterpiece about the depths of one man’s twisted psyche have been celebrated in any other decade? Could it have been made in another country, which might have revered his art, rather than vilified it? If the name “Hitchcock” appeared in the credits sequence, would this film instead be synonymous with 1960’s horror, and not PSYCHO?
I guess we can only wonder at these hypotheticals. The fact is that this film was made at that time, at that place, and it still has the power to enthrall, disgust, and shock 44 years later.
So why is this film so memorable, especially when placed alongside other classic, gruesome creature features, slashers, and gialli? Because all the nightmares on Elm Street and nights of the living dead are still no match for the pure horror that man can perpetrate on his fellow man.
Further terrifying the informed viewer is that, but for fictional guise, this story is true. There are, and always have been, dark and terrible urges that make up the human condition. Even you, Average Joe or Jane, have probably fantasized, even for brief seconds, the urge to run the asshole off the road who just cut you off. Or to murder the lover who betrayed you, or torture the boss who won’t get off your back. But these are, for “normal” human beings, just that…fantasies. We wouldn’t consider acting on them anymore than we could imagine pigs flying (well, outside of Pink Floyd albums). Still, there are people…and they are still people…who let their fantasies play out into real life. The darkness that once peaked out of their psyches has been given full rein to play. And we are their prey.
Linger on this truth for any period of time, and you will want to curl up in a fetal position, locked up safe in your room, and hide. But there is also a flaw in this judgement. You are just as likely to be murdered in your own home by some demented stranger as you are on the streets. If you are the target, there is little that can protect you, besides awareness and vigilance. Serial killers have a means to your end, and if they are going to kill you, there is very little you can do to talk them out of it. Submit, and you will probably die. Fight back, and you will probably die. Not getting caught in their game in the first place is your best hope. But as PEEPING TOM so chillingly demonstrates, we are not always so lucky…
From the first scene, Powell thrusts us directly into the action, and his technique is subtle, powerful, and absolutely effective. We see, from the killer’s POV, his interaction with a prostitute. He has hidden a movie camera in his coat, so he can film her secretly. Through the device of the appearance of a lens and aperture marks on screen, the audience feels as if we are the ones stalking her, up the stairs, into the room, watching as she casually undresses. Watching the events unfold is rather fascinating, until the expression of the prostitute changes into pure terror. The camera moves closer and closer until it is directly in her face, and the screams fill your ears.
Immediately after the murder is filmed, the killer is shown back in his lair enjoying the fruits of his labor…a little too much. Although it is merely implied, it is still clear that the killer uses his snuff films for sexual release. This is also based in real life. While not every killer takes photos or video of their hideous acts, many take souvenirs of their crime, to remember their victims and the feelings they experienced at the time of the murder. Some mementos are innocuous, like an article of clothing or jewelry. Then there are ghoulish souvenirs, such as body parts or, worse, cannibalism. The objects and acts themselves are clearly not the most important part to serial lust murderers. Even Dahmer admitted to trying to appease his dark desires by keeping mannequins in his bed, as a way of resisting his terrible urges. He gave that up because it was too impersonal. There was no connection. Murder was the connection, giving him control over his victims.
”Come on sonny, make us famous” the vacuous model purrs to our teutonic “hero” as she poses innocently in red lingerie for his camera. We can almost forget the horrible fate which befell the prostitute of the opening sequence. This alternating between horror and titillation is probably what most likely reviled the audiences for PEEPING TOM during its initial release. How can we see implied murder and implied self-gratification at the watching of a snuff film, only to be teased by beautiful models and everyday women innocently going about their days? Was he crazy??
The killer in this movie is never a mystery. He is not hidden in the shadows, like Jason and Michael Myers. He does not have horrible scars that disfigure his looks, like the Phantom of the Opera. He is hidden in plain sight among us, and cannot easily be avoided. No, this is just a man. He’s neither exceedingly sleazy looking, nor grotesque in anyway. In fact, Carl Boehm as the killer Mark Lewis is rather pretty, in a Third Reich sort of way. He could be your neighbor, your mechanic, or your friend. As the writer of the fascinating book SERIAL KILLERS: THE METHOD AND MADNESS OF MONSTERS learned to his horror many months after the fact, he had come in close personal contact…even conversation…with two infamous serial killers: Richard Cottingham and Andrei Chikatilo. How his path crossed not once, but twice with two hideous specimens of human existence is shocking. But those, as he says, are only the ones he is AWARE of. Imagine how many people we come into contact with during our everyday lives. We go to the store, the movies, the mall. And we may very well have looked into the eyes of a murderer, bought batteries off of one, or even smiled in their direction. Innocent…ignorant, and secretly part of their world. We only realize who they really are AFTER we are made aware of the inner workings of their deviant minds…either through books, CourtTV, or God help us, at their own hands. But by then it is too late. No one stopped them and said “Hey! This person is going to murder and cannibalize many innocent people! Stop him!” Of course, this all happened to “someone else”. Outside of our personal circle. We could turn off the terror.
This film, however, does not allow us to turn off the terror. It puts us behind the eyes of the killer. In a fantastic homage to Herr Freud, we see and experience everything he does, every step of the way. Even as we are captivated by his outward appearance, we are meant to be repulsed. His inner workings are the ugly, the forbidden, the unspoken fear that the public must hide from. And yet, who among us hasn’t enjoyed the odd nudie mag or revealing outfit worn by an attractive person? Our urges are what make us human. It’s whether or not we let them control us which separates us from the killer of PEEPING TOM.
With stunning astuteness, the creators of this lust murderer really knew their subject. After filming the murder of the prostitute, our killer returns to the scene of his crime to watch the police conducting their investigation, the body being taken away, the voyeuristic crowds of spectators who gathered to wallow in the macabre scene, rather like…us, the people watching Peeping Tom. Postmodernism at its finest!
Director Powell even makes a brief cameo as the famous-but sadly lunatic-father of Mark, who forced his young son to endure a lifetime of being recorded for his terrible human experiments. Serial killers are almost always products of abusive childhoods, with a few rare exceptions, and the filmmakers delve into this aspect of Mark’s psyche.
Carl Boehm is supremely creepy as Mark Lewis. His look is “too perfect”. Perfect blue eyes, perfect blonde coif, perfect skin. Yet there is almost no emotion flickering across his perfect face. He is as vacant as the pages of the girlie mags that he shoots for. When the guests at a party in the building he lives in catch him peeping at them through the front window, we, the audience, are at first perhaps aware that he looks rather handsome, the way the light and shadow play off of his boyish good looks. Then, we realize, he’s STARING at them through the front window. He lives there, yet he’s separating himself from the festivities, just so he can catch them unawares. That is the brilliance of Michael Powell, constantly putting the audience into the film. No wonder he was so deeply despised after this film was released.
Unfortunately, while the gruesome nature of the film is what most people will remember, the fact is that it is truly a beautiful and lyrical work of art. It is steeped in symbolism with layers of meaning in every shot. There is the scene in which Mark surprises our heroine Helen with a dragonfly pendant. In direction so simple yet chilling, she asks him if she should wear over her heart or in the center of her chest. As she places the pendant on each site, Mark’s hands mirror what she’s doing. Subtle, but one of the many secretive sexual innuendos within the film, yet another reason the critics must have had their sensibilities offended.
As for the look of the film, it is simply stunning. Gorgeous Technicolor splashes in beautifully framed scenes, and nearly every frame could be blown up and used as artwork for your wall. Maybe today the symbolism is quaint, but for those who enjoy deeper layers to their film experience, PEEPING TOM is a fine example of what care and hard work can add up to. Even after a lifetime of watching horror, suspense, gialli, and slasher films, I felt myself literally get chills down my skin. I jumped in my seat a few times. And this with barely an ounce of blood spilt on-camera.
The acting is truly a marvel. Carl Boehm perfectly plays the role of desperate, scarred, deviant Mark. Anna Massey plays the innocent Helen with an undercurrent of electric sexuality that belies her plain Jane appearance. And Moira Shearer is a sight to see during her big hepcat dance number.
I really hope that after reading this essay, a new generation will discover this lost classic of slasher cinema and give the brilliant director, Michael Powell, the praise he should have been showered with 44 years ago. Better late than never…
female:3 / male:1
1) Female murdered (method unknown)
2) Female stabbed with blade
3) Female stabbed with blade
4) Male stabbed with blade