One of the best British horror films of all time, Peeping Tom remains an influential, subversive piece of cinema from director Michael Powell. Neal Damiano celebrates this genre classic…
Peeping Tom is an essential horror film because it influenced so many in the genre. It’s hard to shock these days, but in the 1960s Peeping Tom was so taboo that it literally ended director Michael Powell’s career. Not because the film is bad – it’s now rightly considered a masterpiece, because it taps into that little door of voyeurism that we as humans try so hard to deny. It’s human nature to wonder about others and be interested in their lives. The protagonist is Mark, a lonely photographer who as a child was tortured by his father who conducted experiments in order to examine the fear response. Mark is likable, that’s why it’s hard to watch, regardless of the heinous crimes he commits. Perhaps, the most fascinating aspect that sets Peeping Tom apart is that it forces you to see through Mark’s eyes and even feel sympathy for him. Most horror films feed off the carnage, free from any connection to the killer.
Powell trades in visual impact and bloodshed for suspense, it comes in all the expected places and some unexpected ones too. The film obviously uses dramatic irony to intensify scenes where Mark is alone with his naive victims; they should run, but they don’t because along with the audience they find Mark quite fascinating and like a car crash their intrigue is far greater than safety. They’re left wondering just when he will make his fatal move. We find suspense in other scenes too, such as when Mark is sort of interrogated by Helen’s blind mother, whose instincts make her the only one to suspect him. During this scene, we hear the sound of Mark’s racing heart and we suddenly realize that we hope his secret isn’t found out. This speaks to how effective the film is at putting our sympathy with Mark, and it’s only reinforced when we also realize that we don’t want Helen herself to find out.
The film was not received well and often misunderstood by critics. Maybe it was due to the ambiguous motives that turned away audiences or maybe because Powell focused on such dark content. There is no doubt Peeping Tom shares similarities with Hitchcock’s Psycho (released the same year). There is a striking resemblance to Norman Bates in the constant guilt and shame Mark feels and his torment of a family member. It was labeled a failure but like most brilliant things misunderstood they’re often revered later on. Peeping Tom is a fascinating film that was far ahead of its time and continues to influence films today.
Words by Neal Damiano
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