Film Review: Peeping Tom

A bit of a busy poster for 1960’s Peeping Tom, but a perfect “fear look” on the actress’s face.

Put a “one” in the column for procrastination and a “zero” in the column for my productivity, as I’ve waited nearly two months to finally do my review of the classic 1960 film, Peeping Tom. I watched it on Thanksgiving 2021. Yes, that’s how I spent my Thanksgiving evening.

The 1960 British psychological-horror film is a nice across-the-pond parallel to another famous psychological-horror film from 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Supposedly though, the former was far more controversial as portended the trajectory of director Mike Powell’s career in the United Kingdom, according to Wikipedia. On the other hand, Hitchcock was well-established at that point, where Psycho, while also still controversial, wasn’t going to derail his career or reputation. I mean, by this point, he’d already done Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo and North by Northwest. Also, what a dang legend: Imagine making Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho in back-to-back-to-back years. Incredible, but I digress.

So, Peeping Tom is essentially a film about film and about us, the viewer. Mark Lewis (played by Carl Boehm in a pitch perfect, terrifying in that alarming can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it way) is a film crew member by day and a prostitute-killing serial killer by night, killing the prostitutes with a knife coming off of his hidden camera tripod. He likes to film the killings as they happen and in a sick move, allow those being killed to see themselves being killed.

In fact, the opening shot of the film is from the point-of-view of the camera viewfinder as Mark stalks one such prostitute into her room, watches her undress and then murders her.

That scene has to be an influence on John Carpenter’s opening killer POV scene in 1978’s Halloween.

Hey, Mark isn’t just a twisted serial killer, he’s practicing to become a film director! That’s all!

At his apartment complex (where he likes to watch back his killings), Mark makes friends with Helen Stephens (played by Anna Massey), who lives with her blind mother in the same complex.

We later learn through films Mark shows Helen that Mark’s own father foisted this sort of scopophilic and voyeuristic fetishism upon him, or at least that the trauma from being a subject of his father’s films at a young age, manifest into what we see from adult Mark.

All of us are voyeurs in our own way, though, which is the whole point of the film. How else do you explain much of what we enjoy seeing, or at least are curious about seeing, on the big (and small) screen? Or that we crank our necks at the car crash? Or the UFC? Or or or.

Powell makes us “live” vicariously through Mark’s actions with the point-of-view shots and that he views something as monumental as life and death as merely the difference between one scene and another in a film. The latter makes Peeping Tom an early meditation, if a subtle one, on the desensitizing effect of mass media and violence/sexuality in mass media that can lead to desensitizing.

As people smarter than me have pointed out, Peeping Tom in this way is perhaps the most honest film about not just the aforementioned voyeurism fetish ingrained in audiences, but about film-making itself — film-making seems a lot less glamorous and far more arduous in this film than others films about film-making have made it out to be. Even aside from the actual murders, when Mark is on film sets working as a crewmember, you get this sense about film-making. That, as Martin Scorsese said, film-making is by definition invasive and aggressive. To those performing. To the viewer because it taps into our voyeurism. To the director himself for being lost behind the film viewfinder.

Like many a serial killer, the adrenaline rush or compulsion to kill (and in Mark’s case, the voyeuristic desire to film it) is one thing, but the other is seeing the nakedness of fear laid bare. After all, it’s hard to imagine a time where fear would be more abundantly swimming in someone’s eyes than moments before they realize they’re going to die. That’s what Mark’s father was after (to a lesser extent) and what Mark is after.

But why didn’t Mark kill Helen at the end? Instead, he can’t and impales himself to death before the police can capture him. In a meta sense, is that Mark’s idea of a better climax than killing Helen? That he, too, must die by the film tripod knife? A most beautiful death? Is Helen considered by him too pure for such a death? That the prostitutes deserved it more for being “impure”? I’m not sure! Because that’s another theme you could extrapolate from Halloween as well, and obviously, a great many other slasher films.

Powell’s film is beautiful, which again is a weird thing to say about such a voyeuristic film acting as an indictment of the viewer and film-making itself, but it is! It’s gorgeously shot and well-worth watching on that score alone, much less for Boehm’s creepy performance and the hours one can spend going down Freudian rabbit holes.

I love classic horror. And classic films in general.

Are we all Luddites after watching Peeping Tom?

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