Celebrating The Impact & Influence Of Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom”

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, Michael Powell, British Horror Film, Top 10 Films,

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.

“In 1960, it was ahead of its time, not least in its enigmatic depiction of the villain but also in its point-of-view photography which immersed the audience in the story. There’s a wit to Powell’s work here, one that challenges the audience as active participants in the killer’s voyeurism. Irony is also not lost on the director whose stylistic choices are born from both a love and a fear of the art form he had made a career out of.” – Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens in Top 10 British Horror Films Of All Time

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.

Peeping Tom, Film,

Examples of the film’s influence can be seen in John Carpenter’s Halloween, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Joel Schumacher’s 8MM and the Hostel films amongst others…

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

See more from Neal Damiano: Canada’s Contribution To The Slasher Genre & Top 10 Influential American Horror Films

Top 10 Films presents the Greatest British Horror Films of All Time

Discover More: Top 10 British Horror Films Of All Time

About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Rory Reply

    One of the great British horror films. You’re right – part of its effectiveness is how it turns our traditional view of the villain on its head. Very voyeuristic.

  2. Dan Reply

    Great to see this film celebrated. I put it in my top 10 British horror films of all time for a couple of reasons, both of which you allude to above: firstly, its influence is there for all to see, secondly, the fact it deserves to gain a wider audience because it does feel forgotten about (almost as if it’s Michael Powell’s naughty child). The film was ahead of its time, subversive and innovative – it’s a captivating piece of cinema that puts the audience in the shoes of a multi-dimensional villain.

  3. Mark Fraser Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with this succinct analysis, although I’m not sure about the Psycho connection – Peeping Tom was released (according to Wikipedia) in May 1960, while Psycho had its New York premiere circa mid June of the same year. Perhaps it was another of those bizarre historical coincidences (like the evolution of atonal 20th Century classical music) when separate unconnected forces working in different parts of the world somehow tapped into the same sensibility. Whatever the case, both had a profound impact on the evolution of the psychological thriller.

    Regardless, it was nothing short of amazing that the British film establishment/public turned its back on Powell after his contribution to post WW II English cinema via mature works like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus – all of which, in their own way, were triumphs in cinematography, costume and set design. Some might say his star stopped shining when he finished his long term collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, but films like Peeping Tom – and to a lesser degree They’re a Weird Mob – don’t support this suggestion.

    • Dan Reply

      Should have done a closer fact check on the Psycho connection but the similarities are striking; the pair of films make a great double bill. I’ve made a small amend to Neal’s article above so that it now mentions Hitchcock’s film thus: “There is no doubt Peeping Tom shares similarities with Hitchcock’s Psycho (released the same year).”

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks for reading, Mark Fraser

  4. Callum Reply

    Never seen it Neal but I want to now. Sounds fascinating and I love Psycho and some of those films Peeping Tom influenced.

    • Neal Damiano Reply

      Callum
      If you love film, you should definitely see it. I’d even say it’s essential. It’s a fascinating film on psychology.

      Thanks for reading!

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