Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: PEEPING TOM (1960)
Starring: Karl Bohm and Anna Massey
Directed by: Michael Powell
Written by: Leo Marks
This review is spoiler-heavy.
Peeping Tom has a lot going for it. It’s widely accepted to be the first ever ‘slasher’ film, released months before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960. It is also the first horror film to show us scenes from the killer’s perspective, a technique that has since become somewhat of a genre trope (John Carpenter’s Halloween 1978, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 1981, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining 1980, to name but a few).
The acting performances are great and the directing is superb. The story is original, the script is competent, and the movie is generally well paced and atmospheric. So it may come to many as a surprise that upon its theatrical release, Peeping Tom was critically reviled and it was detested by the public, so much so that the film was pulled from distribution, its cinema run was cut short, and it was banned. It practically disappeared until Martin Scorsese revived it in the late 1970s. It’s generally acknowledged as the film that ended (director) Michael Powell’s career. Powell’s previous work included A Matter of Life and Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven) (1946), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and The Red Shoes (1948). He was a beloved and highly acclaimed filmmaker, until he released Peeping Tom. After this, he was able to get some film work, mostly abroad, but then his career tragically died, much like several of his Peeping Tom characters.
The story centres on Mark (played by Karl Bohm), an amateur photographer and filmmaker, who is making a documentary in his free time. Unfortunately for Mark’s subjects, the documentary is about capturing the fear that women express in their moments of death. Mark is one sick dude who murders women with a knife concealed in one of the feet of his camera tripod. He literally holds a mirror up to the victim, so she can see her own fear at the moment of her death, and he films it all. Later, he watches his own murder footage at home. One day, he meets Helen, a woman who rents a room in Mark’s house, and they form a relationship. He can’t change who he is or what he does, but he doesn’t want Helen to become a part of his documentary. In the final scenes, he opens up to her about his troubling childhood, his sick obsession, and his documentary. She’s sickened and afraid, but above all, sorry for him. The movie ends with Mark taking his own life in exactly the same way that he took the lives of his victims, and Helen is devastated. Though Mark was a twisted murderer with a creepy, almost-sexual attachment to his camera, this is actually framed as a tragedy, and the audience do sympathise.
This is the movie that sparked off an entire, beloved horror sub-genre. Many believe that, in fact, Psycho was the catalyst for slasher films, but Peeping Tom came first. Responses to these films differ considerably. Psycho was an instant hit, whereas Peeping Tom was detested and banned. This could be partly because of what audiences had come to expect from Alfred Hitchcock, who had already given the world thrillers such as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). A movie about a murdering psychopath wasn’t so much of a shock from Hitchcock. However, Michael Powell fans were used to seeing whimsical tales of self-discovery and love, so coming from him, a movie about a murdering psychopath seemed to be a perverse, dark, and ugly abomination.
The most likely reason for such severe backlash is because of people taking personal offence to it. As a film made and released in the UK, causing offence was probably the wrong move. British people do not react well to being offended, and we’re talking about 1960 here, too. British people in 1960 were offended by everything. This was an era in which we were still offended by women trying to vote when they should have been in the kitchen making sandwiches. Take me, for instance. The things I’m offended by range from trivial matters such as people ‘saving a space’ for their friend in a queue in front of me, to more serious issues, like people putting the milk in the tea first. It’s utter lunacy. Along with our ability to take offence to anything, we also seem to have an unwavering talent for taking that offence and making it someone else’s responsibility and problem (so kiss goodbye to your career, Powell!)
So what did people have to be so offended by in this particular picture? Well let’s start with the critics. This was the first mainstream British film to show female nudity. This, in conjunction with the fact that most of the women who are exposed like this end up murdered, was seen as perverse, exploitative, and even threatening. There are stories of critics even walking out midway through the film. There was not one professional critic who praised the film, but many slated it (though several of those critics have since apologised, rescinded their original opinions, and today accept Peeping Tom as a cinematic masterpiece).
The very subject of the movie made for uncomfortable viewing for anyone in the filmmaking industry. A lot of scenes are shown through the lens of Mark’s camera, or from his perspective, which would be fine if the protagonist wasn’t a murderer. His obsession and dedication to filmmaking combined with the subject of his films shows up certain elements of the filmmaking process as obsessive and perverse. Naturally, the fact that the protagonist is a murderer was also a problem for the audience too, and this is also where the offence problem comes in.
Mark is a well-spoken, shy, and conventionally nice-looking, property-owning young man with a stable job. He dresses in suits, has good manners, and co-operates with everyone around him. He is the staple of British gentlemen in the 1960s. It is impossible to dislike this guy, even though we know he’s a murderer from the first scene. This raises a smile now because times have changed, but imagine being a UK citizen in the theatre when this film was released.
“Ah, look at that young man! He’s just like me! I completely identify with him… oh wait, what’s he doing?!”
Identifying with someone who appears just like yourself, or like the ideal trustworthy neighbour or friend, becomes very uncomfortable when it is revealed that they have serious mental problems and a penchant for filming and killing women. And people were offended that they were confronted by this, because what did that say about them?
Much like Mark holding a mirror up to his victims, this film also does a superb job of turning the lens on the viewer and forcing you to look at yourself and think about the fact that you are enjoying a movie about such depraved acts and people. The film is about a character that suffers from scopophilia, a very awkward thing for a viewer to identify with indeed, because it makes you feel like a pervert. The film is about voyeurism, which is also often negatively associated with creepy people and perverse and/or pornographic subjects. This, as a theme, would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that at several points during the film, the viewer is made to feel like they are the voyeur, and not that they’re just watching a film about one. This is what killed Powell’s career as a director, because how dare he force the audience to look inwards like this? How very dare he! In an article written in 2010, David Gritten explained it best when he said –
“You may be horrified by what you see (the shocks, the grisly murders), but to what extent are you complicit in agreeing to sit and watch? Is there a part of you that secretly enjoys the carnage being served up for your entertainment? And if so, who exactly is the voyeur here?”
These days, this type of movie is seen as an outlet for fans. It’s just ‘blowing off steam’ and harmlessly purging anxieties. It is no longer taboo to enjoy watching even extreme violence. Masses now turn up to cinemas and pay to see this stuff, so you’re no longer in a minority if you like it. It no longer necessarily says that there is anything wrong with you.
And yet, Peeping Tom is still an uncomfortable watch.
From me, it’s highly recommended.
Enjoy, you voyeuristic sickos!
Kayleigh Marie Edwards is a playwright and horror/comedy fiction and non-fiction writer based in South Wales. She has been published in over a dozen anthologies and has had several plays commissioned, including a Halloween show for a major UK holiday park. She loves cheese, but is told that’s irrelevant. Her first collection of short stories, Corpsing, was released earlier last year with Sinister Horror Company. Be sure to also check out her excellent Fright Fest review on DAY OF THE DEAD (1985).