Carl Boehm - Mark Lewis
Anna Massey - Helen Stephens
Maxine Audley - Mrs. Stephens
Jack Watson - Chief Inspector Gregg
Moira Shearer - Vivian
Brenda Bruce - Dora
Esmond Knight - Arthur Baden
Genre - Thrillers/Psychological/Horror
Running Time - 102 Minutes
I think all of us at sometime have watched other people do things through windows or behind things where we try not to be spotted. As humans, we are born to be very visual creatures. We watch human behavior and we are fascinated by it, good or bad. That probably explains all those ridiculous reality shows on television - we just can't stop being voyeurs, or else our satisfaction won't be met in some way.
Apparently being a voyeur who enjoys watching people grow afraid before they die was hugely controversial back in 1960, as Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM was banned for many years after its release in the United Kingdom. British critics at the time condemned the film for being sadistic. Powell's career, which included directing 1947's BLACK NARCISSUS and 1948's THE RED SHOES, was pretty much done due to being ostracized for the movie itself. The only way many could watch the film for years was on a VHS and DVD that had an edited and more "tasteful" version of the film.
Thankfully, Powell's reputation was restored due to Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola citing him as a major influence in their directorial careers, as well as times changing, making PEEPING TOM look much tamer than modern cinema. Criterion DVD released PEEPING TOM in its uncut form, giving modern audiences a chance to see what all the "controversy" was about. And while nothing about the film is considered scandalous, PEEPING TOM just proves how great it is as it holds up fantastically well after 51 years.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehn) is heavily obsessed with watching people, to the point where he needs to carry a camera with him at all times to film the world around him. However, Mark's voyeuristic tendencies take a dark turn when he sets up murder scenarios where female victims are made to be scared before killing them with a sharpened leg of his tripod. He films these scenes, as well as the aftermath, and watches them looking for something he can't put his finger on. Things begin to change for Mark when his downstairs neighbor, named Helen (Anna Massey), takes an interest in him due to his odd and aloof behavior. Since Helen is the only one who makes any attempt to be friends with him, Mark begins to enjoy her company. Mark tries to change for Helen, trying to keep his obsession in check. But Mark gives in to it when he murders a stand-in actress at the film studio he works at, starting a serious murder investigation that will link Mark to other murders he has done. Realizing his film is almost done when the detectives are on to him, he has to decide between running away with Helen or facing his own fear on camera.
PEEPING TOM is an amazing psychological thriller that was way ahead of its time. While Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO was the major horror/thriller focus of 1960, PEEPING TOM was actually released first and did a lot of the things PSYCHO was praised for. And while recently there has been a debate as to which film was more influential and better to the horror/thriller genre, I think both films have a place since PEEPING TOM is just as great as PSYCHO, but in a different way.
The narrative is pretty straight-forward, but the character development and the way things come together towards its end are extremely well-done. PEEPING TOM is as much of a horror film as it is a thriller, giving the audience chilling and psychologically interesting moments that will effect the viewer in some way. The fact that we follow the killer, Mark Lewis, the entire length of the film, is something we see in genre films today. But back in 1960, giving audiences a chance to empathize with the villain rather than the hero was seen as controversial and unheard of. If critics and audiences weren't so conservative, they would have realized that Mark isn't some one-dimensional villain murdering women he films on camera. There's a reason why he does it, which fleshes out his character greatly. Mark became obsessed with voyeurism due to his voyeuristic father, who was experimenting how fear effects a human being on his own son. Mark didn't have a normal childhood due to being constantly scared out of his sleep and filmed on camera to see his reaction to certain things he would see. We don't really know what would make his father go to such terrible lengths to torture his son like that just for studies, but it does enough to send Mark on the same path. Mark is anti-social and isolated from society, knowing that his upbringing will never allow him to live a normal life. He's obsessive compulsive, always bringing his movie camera with him to film people and see the looks of fear on their faces. While he is a villain for murdering women, he's also a victim of circumstance - almost as if he was a battered child [well, in a way, he was abused emotionally and mentally] that becomes the abuser due to the fact that he was raised that way. Mark knows what he's doing is wrong, but he can't help it because it's the one true thing he knows and understands in life.
In many ways, Mark carries the profile of a serial killer. His modus operandi is always the same, as he lures women who enjoy being the center of attention on camera, and then scares them before killing them with the same weapon. Serial killers usually keep souvenirs of their victims in order to maintain the memory of the murder. Here, Mark films them dying, as well as the aftermath - like the police finding the body and the investigation that follows. This "documentary" Mark films is his way to maintain control over the situation, as if he's directing a film where only he knows the script. These snuff films end up being a sort of catharsis for Mark, releasing that pent up sexual frustration. But he has to continue his M.O. because he wants something different each viewing until he finds that perfect victim that will end it all. Mark is obviously sick and needs help, which makes the character very complex and interesting to watch. We understand and don't understand why he does what he does at the same time. In fact, Mark looks like your regular neighbor down the street who really loves cinema. While he's a bit socially awkward, you can still be in contact with him without much of a problem. Who knows how many people I've met that could be potential serial killers? Just because they look scary doesn't mean that they are. Some of the most infamous serial killers were actually good-looking people, which made it easier to pick their targets. Mark is a decent looking guy and can assimilate with the rest of the world with no one thinking the worst about him until all the clues point to him. That's scary in itself, I think.
We feel for Mark when he's unable to live a normal life with a girl he really likes: Helen. While she is a bit nosy, Helen seems to enjoy Mark's company and is the only one that really gives him attention on a mental and emotional level. While he still has a wall up, it crumbles each time he sees her. She even manages to get him away from his camera for more than an hour, even though it makes him uncomfortable. But once we see him desperately look for his camera when he spots a couple making out nearby [which is something he was filmed doing as a boy by his father], we realize that there's no hope for Mark. He's too deep into his obsession and it's only going to end up bad at the end. But the fact that he tries shows us that he wants to be helped and be like those around him. The man does have a conscience and a sense of what's right and wrong on some level.
And while PEEPING TOM refers to Mark, the other characters in the films are just as much voyeurs as Mark is. Helen constantly watches out for Mark, even going to his apartment without his permission to snoop around. She also begs Mark to show her his films, which disgust her, yet she can't take her eyes off of them. She has also written some book about a "magic camera", proving that Mark is not the only one obsessed with seeing. Mark's newsstand boss uses Mark to take nude photos of local models to sell to his customers, which is plenty. Mark works at a movie studio, which is obviously a case for voyeurism, as they're directing what the audience will see later on. The detectives follow Mark, watching his every move to see if he slips up. And Helen's blind mother, Mrs. Stephens, is a bit voyeuristic, although it's through her hearing. This allows her to realize that Mark is the killer that the police are looking for. And when she spies on him watching one of his films, she demands that he tell her what he was watching so she can see it too. It's a fascinating social commentary on something we all do in our lives, yet never really take much notice of until someone else makes mention of it.
For those looking for blood and gore will be truly disappointed by PEEPING TOM. It's not that kind of film, but the lack of violence doesn't make it any less scary. We know Mark kills people. We see the victim's faces before they're impaled by his tripod leg. But we never see the actual act itself until the end. The mystery of what he does and what the acts look like let the imagination run wild, probably making it seem more violent than it actually is. That's why I enjoy old horror/thriller films like PEEPING TOM. I enjoy my gore too, but it's nice to have the audience take that mental picture of the implied violence and let their imaginations run wild. It's really a lost art these days unfortunately, because a lot of horror audiences today want to see the gory stuff. Ironic, since that reinforces the commentary this film is trying to say. Like I said, the film was ahead of its time.
The direction by Michael Powell is simply great. The film looks amazing, with the awesome use of Technicolor giving a lot of scenes life, which is great since the film itself is very dark in terms of story. The framing of shots and the mise-en-scene during scenes are simply stunning and really add a lot to the storytelling. The editing is top notch and the sound design is fantastic. Powell really crafted a beautiful film that's very expressionistic and it's easy to see why it would be compared to what Hitchcock had done in his classic films. I think Powell should be commended for taking such a risk with PEEPING TOM, knowing it would probably get him in big trouble due to its subject matter. Even today, I feel a lot of films that have come out after haven't taken as big of a risk that Powell made with this movie. Just an atmospheric and disturbing piece of work that ought to be appreciated.
The acting is great as well. Carl Boehm is just perfect as Mark Lewis. He plays a human being who doesn't know how to behave as one so amazingly that I'm convinced Boehm is really this way. He's creepy without really being scary, looking like the archetypical perfect male with blonde hair and blue eyes that hides his imperfections underneath. Yet his social awkwardness makes him sympathetic. Funny that Boehm and Anthony Perkins [as Norman Bates] played similar roles but in different ways. Norman never had a chance to be normal [the man was way off of his rocker], but Mark did, which makes him a bit creepier in a way. Boehm would have been just as honored for his performance like Perkins if it wasn't for the subject matter and the unwarranted controversy at the time. The other actors, like Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, and Jack Watson, are great as well. But PEEPING TOM belongs to Boehm. He is the film and carries it flawlessly.
THE FINAL HOWL
PEEPING TOM is a film that didn't deserve the label placed on it for many years since there's nothing remotely controversial about it. It's well acted, well directed, and has a very deep and disturbing narrative running through it. If you're a fan of PSYCHO and haven't seen this movie, then don't hesitate to watch it. PEEPING TOM is definitely top notch and must be seen by every horror/thriller fan out there. This film truly is a classic.