The Movie Waffler Bluray Review - PEEPING TOM | The Movie Waffler

Bluray Review - PEEPING TOM

Peeping Tom review
A young filmmaker uses his camera to capture the last moments of his victims' lives.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Powell

Starring: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Pamela Green, Shirley Anne Field

Peeping Tom poster

While arguments can be made for earlier movies like Thirteen Women and Horrors of the Black Museum, 1960's double whammy of Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is generally regarded as Year Zero for the slasher movie. The success of Hitchcock's film meant it was immediately imitated, mostly by opportunists keen to replicate its sensationalist rather than artistic achievements. Because it was much harder to see, Peeping Tom influenced a different type of filmmaker, one who saw how Powell took lurid subject matter and turned it into art. The Europeans were the first to appreciate Powell's film, whose influence can be seen in Germany's Krimi and Italy's Gialli thrillers. Later a generation of Americans would absorb its influence into their work. Take any American slasher of the classic era of the late '70s and early '80s, and you'll find tropes laid down by Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks (the latter a WWII code breaker who would later provide the voice of Satan for Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ). In Peeping Tom we have the killer's subjective POV; the flashbacks to a traumatic incident in the killer's past; the sexually active female victims; the innocent yet precocious final girl; the elaborate method of killing. Powell laid it all down here.

Peeping Tom review

Carl Boehm, a German-Austrian actor whose handsome looks clash with the nervous Peter Lorre-esque demeanour he adopts here, plays the role of Mark Lewis, a focus-puller at a film studio who takes photos of nude models to earn some cash on the side. Traumatised by his father's cruel experiments as a child, Mark is compelled not only to kill young women but to record the act with his film camera. Mark isn't the straightforward monster audiences would have been used to in 1960 however, as while never excusing his actions, the film gives us reason to feel sorry for the psychologically tortured killer. The film's opening shot is a giant close-up of one of Mark's eyes, which serves two purposes. It tells us we're in for a movie about the act of watching, looking, observing, of voyeurism. A close-up of an eye also makes the character in question appear vulnerable, as ever since Bunuel dragged a razor blade across a cow's eye we've been primed to expect some sort of trauma whenever a pupil is left exposed in such a way.

Immediately after that shot we see through the very same eye as we're presented with Mark's POV through his camera viewfinder, its crosshairs targeting a streetwalker who unwittingly takes Mark up to her room where she meets her demise at his hands. Powell has pulled a trick on us, making us feel a killer's vulnerability before then forcing us to see through his eyes as he commits a heinous act. Is Powell saying that he views cinemagoers as vulnerable victims of filmmakers' whims, or as willing accomplices?

Peeping Tom review

Peeping Tom introduces an early example of the "final girl" in Helen (Anna Massey), the young woman who lives with her blind mother (Maxine Audley) in the flat below Mark's. While Mark's victims are connected through being open with their sexuality and all too willing to be photographed, Helen is far less glamorous and tellingly, she shows an interest in the process of Mark's work rather than merely the results. Where the other women simply want to be photographed, Helen wants to know how a photograph is taken. "If I see a film I want to know what it means," she expresses. Is this dichotomy between Helen and Mark's victims representative of how a filmmaker views the two types of people who watch their films: those who are simply there for the thrills and demand to receive something from the filmmaker, and those who are willing to give something of themselves to understand the filmmaker? It's telling that the more Helen seems interested in being photographed, the more disturbed Mark becomes at the idea that she may be corrupted by his gaze. Mark probably sees his victims - a prostitute, a model and an actress (three professions considered almost equally disreputable at the time) - as lost causes, but in Helen he sees an unsullied innocence, the person he might have become if his father hadn't used him as a guinea pig in his mad experiments. The sensitive woman whose friendship only serves to further madden and confuse the killer would later become a psycho-thriller trope, exemplified by the likes of Hayley Mills in Twisted Nerve and Caroline Munro in Maniac.

One of the first images we see in Peeping Tom is a subjective shot of Mark discarding an empty film packet into a waste bin, as though Powell is cheekily pre-empting his critics by suggesting he's making the sort of film they believe belongs in the trash. He was certainly correct, as the critical reception of English critics on Peeping Tom's release ended his career in the UK. The sort of vitriol that was largely only hinted at in reviews of Psycho was fully unleashed against Powell's film with one critic even suggesting the film should be flushed down the toilet. That the movie provoked such a reaction is testament to its power, and decades later it's the stuffy reviewers of the era (some of Powell's most vociferous detractors were genuinely brilliant critics, I might add) who are left with egg on their faces as Peeping Tom is now considered a classic that has lost none of its power.

Peeping Tom review

Prior to rewatching Peeping Tom on Studiocanal's stunning new bluray, the last time I had watched Powell's film was probably about 15 years ago. So much has changed in our visual culture in the intervening years that the film has gained a whole new aspect. Boehm's killer now feels less representative of filmmakers and closer to today's "content creators," especially those YouTube pranksters who happily cross ethical lines to capture extreme reactions from unsuspecting members of the public with their hidden cameras. Something else struck me on this rewatch. Mark famously dispatches his victims with the sharpened end of a camera tripod leg, upon which is fixed a mirror that forces them to watch their own demise. What is a tripod leg with a mirror at the end if not a forerunner of the selfie stick? Peeping Tom is about voyeurism, the obsession of watching others, but it's also about narcissism, the obsession with watching ourselves. And we all know how Narcissus ended up.

Peeping Tom
 is on bluray, UHD and DVD from Studiocanal on January 29th.