Peeping Tom 1960, the original slasher horror, was derided in its time, but is now regarded as a masterpiece, says RICHARD MARKWORTH
TITLE: Peeping Tom
DIRECTOR: Michael Powell
CAST: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley
Review of Peeping Tom 1960
There has rarely been a production in British cinematic history to have caused as much controversy on its release as Peeping Tom 1960. The picture was savaged by critics for its perceived lurid content and its hostile reception very nearly ended the career of director Michael Powell.
The film is set in, then contemporary, London where a personable, shy, yet seriously disturbed young man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a camera operator at a film studio with a sideline as a pornographic photographer, is also a serial killer. Mark despatches his victims with the aid of a camera tripod adapted to include a deadly spike attachment and records their mounting terror up to and including their moment of death.
Mark’s first target is Dora (Brenda Bruce) a bored-looking streetwalker who takes him back to her flat where she meets her grisly end. As Mark approaches Dora, his photographic equipment concealed inside his overcoat, the action switches to the camera’s point of view, immediately placing the viewer into the role of voyeur and giving the audience the uncomfortable feeling of complicity in the crime.
The next day, Mark returns to the scene of the murder to film the Police removing the unfortunate woman’s corpse. When he is challenged by a local as to which paper he works for, Mark claims he is employed by the Observer which seems to satisfy the man. It appears then, as now, members of the press were expected to be the purveyors of sleaze and misery to the masses, satiating the public’s own voyeuristic tendencies, with their presence only to be expected at the aftermath of such a tragedy.
Mark later visits an outwardly respectable newsagent to whom he supplies girlie photographs which the proprietor sells under the counter for 5 shillings each. Illustrating the seamy underbelly lurking beneath society’s wholesome veneer the pictures are provided to customers in envelopes stamped “Educational Books”. Above the shop is the studio where Mark photographs his models, including the worldly Milly (Pamela Green) who teases him over his lack of a girlfriend.
Away from his work at the film studio, and covert second job, Mark leads a reclusive private life at his deceased father’s old house. The building is too large for him to maintain alone so he lets out various rooms through an agent, while residing at the top of the property, with his tenants unaware he is the landlord. The amiable Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who rents a room with her blind mother (Maxine Audley), is intrigued by Mark, and invites him to join her 21st birthday celebrations.
Although he declines her invite, Helen later visits Mark’s room with a slice of her birthday cake and engages him in conversation. She questions Mark regarding his film work, and he plays her footage from his childhood, shot by his scientist father. The film reveals he was cruelly treated as an experimental subject by his parent who constantly filmed him, recording and examining his son’s reaction to deliberately induced fear and emotional situations such as his mother’s death. Helen is appalled at this revelation but is nonetheless clearly attracted to the bashful and seemingly vulnerable man.
However, at the film studios where he works, Mark soon claims his next victim. He murders Viv, a stand-in working on the crew’s current production, having lured her to an illicit after-hours filming session. He stashes her lifeless body in a prop trunk which is opened during the next day’s filming and records the leading lady Diane’s (Shirley Anne Field), not to mention the rest of the crew’s, horrified reaction to the grim discovery.
Despite her mother’s growing suspicions towards Mark, Helen continues to build a relationship with him. She asks for his advice regarding photography for her soon to be published children’s book and he is delighted to help.
As the pair’s tentative romance continues to develop, Mark struggles to balance his feelings for Helen with his homicidal nature and must attempt to keep his ongoing “documentary” a secret. Meanwhile, the Police are closing in on the killer and a final bloody chapter in Mark’s story is yet to be filmed.
Despite attracting a largely negative critical reaction, Peeping Tom 1960 is an exceptional piece of work. It unflinchingly tackles difficult subjects including mental illness, childhood abuse, sexual hypocrisy, and the nature of voyeurism.
Peeping Tom 1960 never shirks from acknowledging the link between sex and violence. For instance, when Mark is preparing Milly for her photoshoot, she asks if he can “fix it” so the bruises recently obtained from her jealous boyfriend do not show. In Mark’s milieu, lustful and violent urges are inextricably intertwined.
Otto Heller’s rich photography brings the piece vividly to life and Powell’s taut direction cleverly creates moments of high tension. Furthermore, Powell imbues the film with an artfully sordid quality which serves to disconcert the viewer and leave a lingering sense of unease.
The principal cast are exceptional. Boehm’s portrayal of Mark is wonderfully nuanced and utterly believable. He expertly manages to create a convincing monster, terrifying and deadly, yet still masterfully elicits sympathy for the brutalised child within. Incredibly, in his scenes with Helen, it is not difficult to find oneself wishing for the couple to find a happy ending despite his murderous activities.
Massey is excellent as the kind-hearted Helen, concerned for the welfare of her disabled, alcoholic mother yet fascinated by, and drawn to, her handsome landlord. Her reactions upon discovering Mark’s snuff reel are particularly striking and well-acted.
It is gratifying to see Peeping Tom 1960, derided in its time, is now widely, and correctly, hailed as a masterpiece. This is essential viewing for anyone who has an interest in classic British horror and a taste for noir cinema at its darkest.
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