More than a decade after his back to back classics The Red Shoes & Black Narcissus, British director Michael Powell nearly sank his prestigious career with a seedy horror film about a psychotic cameraman with a very peculiar sort of bloodlust (emphasis on “lust”). Due to its lurid subject matter, Peeping Tom was initially met by British critics with an absurd flood of vitriol that placed Powell’s career in immediate peril, but time has been kind to the film & it’s now regarded at the very least as a cult classic, if not one of the greatest horror films of all time. It’s near impossible to gauge just how shocking or morally incongruous Peeping Tom must’ve been in 1960, especially in the opening scenes where old men are shown purchasing ponography in the same corner stores where young girls buy themselves candy for comedic effect & the protagonist/killer is introduced secretly filming a sex worker under his trench coat before moving in for his first kill. Premiering the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho and predating the birth of giallo & the slasher in 1962’s Blood & Black Lace, Peeping Tom was undeniably ahead of its time. A prescient ancestor to the countless slashers to follow, Powell’s classic is a sleek, beautifully crafted work that should’ve been met with accolades & rapturous applause instead of the prudish dismissal it sadly received.
Striking an odd resemblance to a more dapper version of Peter Lorre’s child killer in M (occasionally complete with whistling), the titular peeping Tom, Mark Lewis, is portrayed by Austrian actor Carl Boehm with an authentically creepy, lustful nervousness. Trained from a young age by his late father to not only act as a voyeur, but also to pursue the capture of fear on film, Mark is, reductively speaking, a strange bird. As his ambitions in his serial murders escalate, so do his ambitions in his photography. Discontent to merely film pin-up models as they remove their complicated lingerie, Mark dreams of one day being a director of feature films. His first step in this direction towards legitimacy is a gig as a camera operator on a production cheekily titled The Walls Are Closing In. Unfortunately for Mark, his professional ambitions & his bloodlust are intrinsically linked and, despite owning a director’s chair with his own name printed on it, he is destined to be captured by the authorities as he becomes more bold & obsessive in his choice of victims. Mark plans to begin his career in filmmaking on a fascinating little indie documentary about his own slashings & their resulting crime scene investigations. He admires his own work in the darkroom void of his personal studio, a lushly photographed inner sanctum packed with a mouthwatering stockpile of analog film equipment that Powell’s film leers over & lights with a giallo-esque palette of intensely colored lights. Just as Marks’ camera oggles drunken partygoers & couples canoodling in the dark, Peeping Tom oggles the very equipment he uses, drawing really uncomfortable parallels between Powell’s obsession with lush filmmaking & the more unsavory obsessions of his killer voyeur subject.
Mike’s one chance for salvation is a budding love interest in a downstairs neighbor, Helen Stephens, played by Anna Massey (who inexplicably reminds me of a mousier version of Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer here), an aspiring children’s book writer who lives with her bitter alcoholic mother. Their relationship is mostly a nonstarter, of course, as during their outings Mark’s mind is consistently distracted by the film developing back in his studio or passing glimpses of young couples molesting each other in the shadows. While he enjoys Helen’s company, Mark treats his missing camera on their excursions like a phantom limb & by the time he kisses the equipment goodnight, it’s painfully obvious who his true love is. Helen’s presence is more or less simply a glimpse into the more sympathetic aspects of our killer’s psyche, but her social circle also offers a view of Marks’ queerness in comparison to the more traditional square-jawed masculinity of her other beaus. Helen also provides an excuse for Mark to put his work on display. As he shows her his father’s documents/experiments of his own childhood (including what was likely his very first peeping), as well as the much more devious/criminal documents he’s been making himself, Helen acts as an audience surrogate, voicing reasonable responses like “Naughty boy. I hope you were spanked,” & “It’s horrible! It’s horrible! But it’s just a film, isn’t it?” Mark’s chillingly responds, “No.”
For all of its ghastly subject matter & general creepiness, Peeping Tom is actually great fun. Not only is there a swanky dance break provided by (legendary The Red Shoes actress) Moira Shearer, but the movie is packed with a dark sense of humor that might’ve gone by the priggish critics who initially dismissed the film on moral grounds. There’s a ton of winking, under-the-breath jokes that can be bitterly morbid, but are also genuinely hilarious. Powell’s proto-slasher is remarkable not only in its muted black comedy & phrophetic glimpses into the future of the horror genre, but also in its studied craft. Very rarely do horror films look this arty, with this much reverence for photography as a craft. Powell’s camera may leer in a way that cheaper exploitation films tend to, but it leers more at movie-making equipment than it does at half-dressed women. It’s Mark’s camera that lunges at its targets like a weapon, establishing the first person POV of countless cinematic serial killers to follow, except with a solid narrative reason for its inclusion that’s often missing from those films. Peeping Tom is the rare film of narrative, stylistic, and historical significance that plays just as chillingly fresh decades after its release as it did when it was first criminally overlooked. It may, in fact, be one of the greatest films of all time, horror or otherwise.