24 January 2012

Clarky's Review: Peeping Tom

It's no great surprise to me that Fin didn't enjoy this film as to a certain extent Peeping Tom, although 37 years its predecessor, shares DNA with Funny Games. Both look at the audience's relationship with horror and violence on screen. But I think Peeping Tom attempts to say more on the matter. Whilst Haneke's film is an attack on the horror film, american horror in particular, Powell's film attempts to get the audience to question their position, rather than hold them in contempt.

Michael Powell was one of British cinema's treasures in 1960 before the release of Peeping Tom. As one half of Powell and Pressburger he had directed some of the greatest, most distinctive and beautiful films ever to hit the silver screen. The shock, to the critics when seeing Peeping Tom can therefore not be understated. Neither can the fact that this film effectively ended Powell's filmmaking career in Britain following the scandal.

However, Psycho, a like minded voyeuristic and sexual film (Norman Bates is an Oedipal character who is infatuated with his mother and wants him all to himself, the murders becoming a substitute for sex with the knife representing a phallus) was released in the same year (3 months later to be exact) but garnered more praise, from filmgoers, and cemented Hitchcock's reputation as the master of suspense. It too did not receive a good response from the critics, but it has been noted that Hitchcock cancelled pre-release critics screenings, possibly in wake of the Peeping Tom debacle.

So why was one film mauled, and the other praised?

I think one of the reasons is that in slasher films the killer is often shown as a one dimensional character. However, Mark Lewis is a troubled soul who at once disgusts you, yet also demands empathy as we learn his back story. It's not hard to sympathise with him given his upbringing (exposited through old footage that he shows Helen). The audience is immediately complicit with Mark in these scenes. We know something that Helen doesn't and by making Mark the lead in the film (whereas Psycho follows the victims) we are "on Mark's side" (for want of a better term). We have to sit and watch passively over scenes for which we have no control, yet we know Mark's true nature, and it is these scenes that invoke the most terror and were possibly too shocking for the 1960's audiences.

Another reason may be that whilst Psycho has a tacked on ending that nicely sums up everything and "justifies" Norman Bates' actions, we are given no such clearance or easy outs by Powell. We have enough of a backstory to formulate what exactly drives Mark Lewis, but we are left with a feeling of unease at the end of the film, and ultimately this is far more shocking and terrifying.

What is for sure is the influence of both these films can still be seen in horror today, and both effectively created the aforementioned slasher film. Whilst Psycho gets most of the credit, as it is better known, the similarities between the two (and what followed) is astonishing. It could be argued that both films are at the forefront of a new sub-genre of horror - the terror film. These are rooted in reality and the threat comes from normality (a landlord or a motel owner). Horror films before this were either set in a different period and set in fantasy (Frankenstein, Dracula) or the threat came from abnormality (The Haunting, Them). In Peeping Tom and Psycho, these are both set in present day and feature seemingly normal people. No wonder this was shocking at the time!

What can't be denied however, is that the roots of the slasher film can be distinctly seen in both these movies. Each has the following key components:

  1. The Killer - a psychotic product of a sick family, but still a human being. There is no denying that Mark Lewis is both psychotic and the product of a sick family. Following in his fathers footsteps he is obsessed with film, fear and he has attached sexual satisfaction to both of these.
  2. The Location - the Terrible Place. In Psycho this is clearly the motel room, in Peeping Tom I would argue that this is being captured on celluloid.
  3. The Weapon - anything other than a gun, this is often phallic. The weapon could not be more phallic in Peeping Tom. The tripod leg of the camera rises up as Mark gets excited and moves in for the kill. You can see his excitement growing as he moves towards the victims. This was a non too subtle subtext, and maybe one of the other reasons for the scandal at the time (there was indeed some nudity and sexual content cut out of the scenes with Vivian and Dora by the BBFC). The camera itself becomes the weapon, and this itself is a part of Mark Lewis. Without it he feels naked and vulnerable and can be seen to grasp for it when he see's something he wants to capture and preserve forever. The camera is an extension of his brain, his memories and therefore himself.
  4. The Victims - mostly, if not wholly, beautiful young woman (often sexually active).
  5. The Final Girl - the lone survivor who vanquishes the killer. In Peeping Tom this is Helen, who vanquishes the killer as he has genuine feelings for her and does not want to hurt her.
  6. Shock - sudden and graphic depictions of gore and violence. The subject matter from someone like Powell at this stage in his career was shocking enough, but its not hard to see that this film would have been shocking at the time. Whilst Psycho, which was undoubtedly shocking, was filmed in black and white, Peeping Tom is in lurid technicolor, and therefore more shocking.

Fin noted that he found the film quite dated, and I can't disagree with him. However, Psycho is also quite dated but is held in much higher esteem. I think this is due to the fact that Psycho is so embedded in the culture's psyche that it will always be regarded as a classic and you are more accepting of its flaws. Who here doesn't know about the shower scene, hasn't seen an homage to the film in The Simpsons, heard Bernard Hermann's shrieking score or even seen it ripped off in a shite advert for a budget hotel chain with Lenny Henry. Psycho is so well known that you know it before you even see it and, I believe, that this makes the differences of 60's cinema more palatable. In Peeping Tom the Britain that is portrayed on screen is so far away from what we know today of course it seems ridiculous and dated at times.

Also, a little like Citizen Kane the first time I saw it, it is easy to write off Peeping Tom by today's standards. It's difficult to imagine a world without crane shots, zooms, depth of field etc. Some of the direction and shots in show here are incredibly skilful, and if I hadn't been so caught up in the action on screen I may even describe them as dazzling! One of the biggest things about this film is that the viewer sees things through the camera lens from Mark's point of view.

Whilst the first point of view shot was as early as 1900 (Seen Through The Telescope) it was often used as an editing technique. Here however, the POV shot has much more serious connotations. Powell uses it as a storytelling device, a plot point and to make us, the audience, complicit in the act of murder. This is a film that is all about voyeurism. And what better way to show an audience how complicit they are in horror films and voyeurism by making a film about an obsessed filmmaker and showing us things from his point of view. How can you not identify with Mark Lewis, given by your very nature of entering the cinema or watching a movie you are voyeuristic.

As noted by Sigmund Freud in his 1917 essay The Uncanny - terror has such a hold on us as it represents the eruption into adult life of the most powerful and infantile wishes and fantasies (violence, murder, torture etc). These are all things that lie repressed in our psyches since babyhood but by seeing them on screen we identify with them as part of ourselves. By showing us this not only on the big screen (the events are larger than life, just as a childs point of view of the world) but by, literally, putting us in Mark Lewis' position Powell makes us question ourselves as filmgoers to determine what exactly we get out of this voyeuristic act. This was not easy for a 1960's audience to accept here and whilst POV shots have been seen as early as 1931 in horror films (P Rouben Mamoulien's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) this was not the norm in 1960's British films. Now you are hard pushed to find a slasher film that doesn't have a POV shot, just look at Black Christmas and Halloween).

As if Powell's metaphor isn't clear enough, he has one final trick up his sleeve at the shocking denouement. Mark attaches a mirror to the top of the camera so that his victims can see themselves being stabbed, and see how scared they are. Fear invokes fear. This is Mark's life work and by holding the mirror up to his victims, and asking the audience to look at themselves, he asks us all to see ourselves for what we really are.


  1. "As noted by Sigmund Freud in his 1917 essay The Uncanny"... Wowzer. Wow. Zer.

  2. Al love the corey Feldman picture


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.