Peeping Tom. 1960. Directed by Michael Powell. Screenplay by Leo Marks.
Starring Karlheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Michael Goodliffe, Jack Watson, Shirley Anne Field, & Pamela Green.
Michael Powell (Theatre)
Not Rated. 101 minutes.
Father Gore’s long been a massive horror lover, interested in all things macabre from true crime to fictional slasher flicks and all the weird, wild, and wonderfully disturbing in between. One thing of huge interest is the relationship between us as the viewer and the horrific images we view on screen.
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is widely known to have popularised what would become a slasher trope later in Black Christmas, Friday the 13th, and Sleepaway Camp, using POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the killer. The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) also used POV camerawork to put their audiences next to their killers. Alongside Psycho released in the same year, Peeping Tom is considered the beginning of the slasher sub-genre. To say Powell’s movie is influential is an understatement. To deny its powerful commentary on our relationship with media is to ignore our own realities.
In a story where the lines of film and life, protagonist and antagonist, victim and killer are all blurred to one extent or another, it would’ve been a shock for audiences in 1960 to suddenly find themselves sympathising with a character who’s committing cold blooded murder. This was part of a shift in the arts, in which psychology was taking form through fiction more than ever. Experimental cinematic techniques were being used by indie filmmakers to deepen the psychological experience of film. And though Powell wasn’t met with the contemporary praise he’s received upon its initial release, his brilliance gave us one of the most significant movies of the ’60s, horror or otherwise.
The movie’s chief concern is the relationship between an audience and what they’re watching, the lines demarcating film from real life’s boundaries. Are we an audience? Or voyeurs? Is film an escape? If so, to what are we escaping by watching murder and assault and other various horrors of humanity? If we’re just voyeurs, it’s not escape. Rather it’s a case of us diving deeper into what it is that excites, so if it’s death and killing, then it may be worth our time to consider the legitimate effects and suggestions of our voyeuristic enjoyment.
Peeping Tom‘s biggest question: with whom are we meant to identify?
Most horror movies ask us to identify with the victims. In Friday the 13th and other movies with POV shots of the killer stalking scared young people we’re still supposed to root for the victims. Powell forces us into the perspective of his killer, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm)— part protagonist, part antagonist— by using the POV camera shot, akin to how first-person operates in literature. We know who the killer is, so the traditional way of pulling a viewer into the emotional space of a character is subverted.
We become the ultimate voyeurs alongside the killer himself, watching the screen as viewers while simultaneously becoming the killer/the camera’s eye at once. Just as the killer peers at the lives of others through the windows of the apartment building he lives in and rents out – his status as landlord is another voyeuristic perspective like the camera’s eye – so do we, the audience, peer into his life via the movie screen.
“Take me to your cinema”
Peeping Tom was prescient in many ways, not the least of which is in regards to the effects of being filmed. Mark experiences his whole life on film, he doesn’t even need memories because his father documented him growing up to a painful extent. Jump to 2018— kids grow up/live on YouTube, or on reality television with their famous parents, or their parents are obsessed with documenting every aspect of their lives for social media. Mark predates the reality TV era and we don’t yet know how all these facets of a postmodern world are going to ultimately affect young people down the road.
Adults chastise kids today for living for/through a proliferation of screens without considering the effects of taking endless photos and videos, capturing all sorts of intimate family moments meant as private relics instead of being spread across the internet for strangers to watch. Today, so many otherwise private, personal moments get broadcast on social media.
Mark grew up with a father who filmed him constantly. He sees life as a series of movie sequences. He’s literally incapable of relating to the world without the buffer of a screen. He doesn’t know how to relate to other people. One scene has Mark interacting with a blind tenant in the building. This woman relates to the world without sight, whereas, pathetically, Mark’s beholden to his sight as the only way he has of knowing the world— take away his eyes and he’d likely perish. Only fitting Mark films himself as he commits suicide with the contraption he previously used on the women he murdered.
There’s a misogynistic element to Mark, too. He’s inextricably connected to the screen, and also indoctrinated into a patriarchal worldview. His victims are all women. He’s been hypnotised into the mass media brain, repeating the mantra of what magazines sell best to the man at the photo shop for whom he takes risque soft-porn photos: “Those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls.”
The term ‘Peeping Tom’ derives from a man who looked at Lady Godiva riding naked on her horse when the rest of the townsfolk obeyed the instructions to look away. The origin of the term, already evidenced by the male namesake, is specific to men as subject and woman as object, the perfect title for a movie about a voyeur murdering women.
Voyeurism has a proper term: scopophilia. This comes from the Ancient Greek words σκοπέω skopeō (look to, examine) and φῐλῐ́ᾱ philíā (tendency toward). Voyeurism is nothing new, an evident obsession since human beings have had eyes. What’s different is, in our postmodern world flooded with never ending media, there are so many ways today by which people spy into the lives of others.
In a way, we’re voyeurs simply as movie lovers. We spy into the lives of fictional characters, sometimes actual real people. We never stop to think about the implications of our voyeurism, even in terms of the fiction we consume. Peeping Tom places us in the mental space of Mark, a voyeur with the compulsion to kill. Almost all of us who act as voyeurs in our love of cinema will never hurt another person, at least not to the extent Mark hurts people. That doesn’t mean we aren’t altered by our voyeurism. Powell’s movie serves to remind Father Gore of this every time it’s on the screen.