In 1960, two British directors released disturbing and influential psychological thrillers about voyeuristic killers. Both films would ooze Freudian overtones while presenting psychotic killers whose madness was derived from unhealthy relationships with their parents. Both films would shock audiences with murder scenes filmed from the killer’s perspective, implicating the audience in this voyeurism to a greater degree than anyone had seen in that era. Despite similar subject matter, Psycho would receive several Oscar nominations and help further solidify Alfred Hitchcock’s fame, but Peeping Tom would permanently damage Michael Powell’s career.

While Norman Bates’ madness grew out of an exaggerated Oedipus complex, the fixations of Peeping Tom’s Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) are rooted in childhood trauma instigated by his sadistic psychologist father, who used the boy as a guinea pig for his experiments on fear. His father filmed each session—during which he would record his son’s reactions to such shocks as finding a lizard in his bed or viewing his recently deceased mother. In fact, every room in the house was rigged to keep Mark under video surveillance at all times. These traumas caused Mark to develop quite the fondness for film himself, specifically in capturing the look of absolute fear on the faces of women whom he murders with a knife built into his camera stand.

Decades later, Mark lives in his late father’s house, renting out the downstairs flats and keeping to himself in order to view his DIY snuff films on a giant screen in his dimly-lit den. His interest in film extends to legitimate cinema, and he works on the crew at a local film studio, though he prefers to keep his own camera rolling at all times to record “a documentary,” and his other side-projects include setting up a string of young women to willingly pose for him while unknowingly walking right into their final scenes.

Unlike Norman Bates, whose dissociative identity disorder actually prevents him from knowing that it’s his embodiment of his “mother” personality who commits his string of murders, Mark is fully aware of his perversion. He simply can’t control it. In fact, as he begins to develop genuine feelings of affection for his young downstairs neighbor Helen (Anna Massey)—who he first meets after peeping through the window at her birthday party and who eventually becomes the one person to convince him to leave his beloved camera behind when they go out together one night—he comes to realize he must never film her or even see her frightened, which acts as the trigger that sets his madness into motion.

Released in England a few months before Psycho hit theaters in the United States, Peeping Tom was savaged by critics for its lurid themes. Part of the controversy stemmed from the depiction of sexuality (Marks picks up prostitutes to serve as victims and he also moonlights as a photographer for softcore nudie magazines). Further controversy was stoked from an original cut of the film containing a shot of a naked breast, a first for British cinema in an era when Psycho would be the first film to depict a toilet being flushed. And while the film is largely bloodless, the knife penetrating just off-screen, what remains horrific about Peeping Tom is Powell’s decision to capture the preamble to these deaths from the killer’s POV, even giving us the opening scene—of a solicited prostitute meeting her demise in a seedy motel—through the crosshairs of Mark’s camera lens.

In this way, Powell implicates the viewer in the voyeurism that gives the film its title. By not only giving us a killer’s-eye view of these women, but in one instance showing us nothing but Helen’s pained reaction to unseen snuff footage playing out on the screen before her in Mark’s private theater, Peeping Tom highlights how film, especially the horror genre, makes the spectator into a voyeur who often relishes the opportunity to watch shocking and terrible things happen to people onscreen. Roger Ebert would go on to call this “the bargain the cinema strikes with us,” adding that, “most films are too well-behaved to mention it.”

Hitchcock may have benefited from seeing how brutally critics treated Peeping Tom. When Psycho was released several months later, it was not pre-screened for critics (though this was also due to Hitchcock’s desire to prevent spoilers getting out on the huge twist). Psycho’s initial mixed reviews to equally shocking content (though the shower scene murder, which also gave us a killer’s eye view, was far more grisly than anything in Peeping Tom) turned into almost universal praise and Oscar nominations when the film was a hit at the box office, while Powell had difficulty finding work. Martin Scorsese would go on to save Peeping Tom from obscurity, donating $5000 to have it re-released. Scorsese would go so far as to say that “Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about filmmaking” with Fellini’s classic exploring the “glamour and enjoyment” of the art and Peeping Tom showing the “aggression of it, how the camera violates.”

History has been kind to Peeping Tom. Powell’s film is now considered a cult horror classic and one that delves deeper into psychological traumas than Psycho. It’s even been described as a film that helped further inspire the slasher subgenre in subsequent decades, with savvy Helen acting as the prototypical “final girl,” outliving the film’s killer as Mark films his death at his own hands. Over 50 years later, Peeping Tom continues to make movie audiences squirm because it exposes us for the voyeurs we are, eyes glued to the camera’s latest violation.

  • Revisit: A Matter of Life and Death

    A Matter of Life and Death has a plot that truly defies description, even more than 70 yea…
  • The Nowhere Inn

    The strange bits of this meta-mockumentary begin to feel like “Portlandia” sketches, non s…
  • Revisit: The World’s End

    In 2013, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg joined forces yet again and fittingly capped off thei…
  • American Sausage Standoff

    This wildly mean-spirited attempt to skewer bigotry in red-state America churns out a huge…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Nowhere Inn

The strange bits of this meta-mockumentary begin to feel like “Portlandia” sketches, non s…