Minding the Gap: Peeping Tom


October 5, 2011 by abbyo

It’s October, which means it’s the month of that greatest of holidays: Halloween! For me, the events surrounding October 31st have always been more about the buildup than the actual day itself (although it’s plenty awesome by itself), so for the whole month, I’m going to be focusing my posts on horror movies, thrillers, urban legends, and things that send shivers down our collective spines.

I’m actually glad I waited a week to do a “Minding the Gap” post, because it means the first post of October focuses on a scary movie I haven’t seen yet. Since classic horror has always held a particular kind of attraction for me, I watched “Peeping Tom,” the 1960 creepfest that more or less ruined director Michael Powell’s career. At the time, it sickened critics and drove audiences away from the theater. But by today’s standards it’s fairly tame, though its themes are troubling, and the movie has enough psychological subtext to keep Sigmund Freud busy for months.

The film’s main character is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a photographer and aspiring filmmaker with a fetish for capturing fear on camera. He gets it by shooting his own snuff films—he kills women by stabbing them in the throat with a shiv mounted in his tripod (phallic symbol much?), and makes them watch their own deaths via a mirror mounted on his camera.

Mark is equal parts Jack the Ripper and Norman Bates with a movie camera.  But as much as he appears to get pleasure from his crimes, he recognizes that he’s got a problem. Mark is surprisingly sympathetic, and comes across as more of a troubled, misguided young man than a cold-blooded killer, someone who’s painfully shy, and seems to genuinely want to get help if it means he can have a normal, loving relationship. There’s even that possibility, in the form of Helen, Mark’s cute-as-a-button downstairs neighbor. But Mark has some serious demons to overcome, and they’re not going to go away quietly.

That’s just the plot. There’s a lot more going on here than a run-of-the-mill serial killer movie, even a hyper-stylized one directed by half of the Archers filmmaking team. Beyond its thriller exterior, “Peeping Tom” is a massive commentary on the voyeuristic and fetishistic aspects of filmmaking; even, to a point, a commentary by Powell, the director, on his own career up to that point.

Mark’s day job is adjusting lens focuses on a high-profile film production, the leading lady of which is a spoiled red-headed starlet whose whining and poor acting causes the film’s director no end of frustration. It mirrors Powell’s own frustrations with lead actress Moira Shearer on “The Red Shoes,” another redhead whose reportedly “spoiled” nature troubled the production. It’s no coincidence that Shearer herself is in “Peeping Tom,” playing an extra who is friends with Mark. She enters the film to the side of the soundstage, watching her counterpart’s antics, as if Powell is forcing her to see how difficult she was. She also comes to a pretty sticky end, becoming one of Mark’s victims.

One other really interesting detail that deserves exploration is the presence of Mark’s father in the film. Mark seems to hate, fear, and respect his dad in equal measures. Although he’s dead, his presence haunts “Peeping Tom” like Mama Bates. We’re told Daddy Lewis was a biologist who enjoyed using his young son as an experiment, and Mark borrows some of his methods for his murders. For all his off-screen influence, Mark’s father appears only once in “Peeping Tom,” for just a second in a home movie, and he’s played by Powell himself.  The man responsible for creating Mark the monster is played by a visionary director whose movies have influenced generations of other filmmakers. It sends a subtle but important message about art: that an artist’s work has unseen effects on those who experience it firsthand, for better or for worse, depending on how it’s interpreted. Audiences will recognize Mark’s father as a manipulative abuser, but Mark seems to see him as someone to be revered, even imitated.

That’s to say nothing of the film’s most obvious comment on the voyeurism of film: film itself. “Peeping Tom” starts out with a first-person perspective scene of Mark approaching a streetwalker, following her into a hotel room, and killing her, all shot through his camera (this, by the way, is Powell’s method for shooting all of Mark’s victims). In these scenes, we’re no longer given the sense of distance that would normally keep us from feeling guilty about watching violence onscreen. We’re not just watching a murder, we’re practically taking part. And by knowing right from the get-go who’s committing the crimes, and making him a sympathetic character, we’re even pre-disposed to be on the killer’s side. It’s an early version of the kind of tricks directors employ today in movies like “Funny Games,” films that elicit the kind of repulsed reaction that “Peeping Tom” got upon its release, despite the fact that Powell’s movie, while certainly violent, is practically bloodless in its depiction of violence.

“Peeping Tom” is a movie that’s often praised as being ahead of its time. It certainly wasn’t given its due when it came out in 1960. Critics apparently weren’t ready for what Michael Powell was giving them, and were so disgusted with the film that its failure more or less ended Powell’s career as a director. But it’s clear that the cinematic community today really appreciates what he was trying to do, since these days you see the evidence of “Peeping Tom” all over the place. It’s influenced Martin Scorcese, Michael Haneke, Edgar Wright, even Wes Craven. For anyone looking to learn something from their Halloween movies, “Peeping Tom” provides plenty of classic thrills while giving you an interesting lesson in the history of horror filmmaking.

Random observation:

Just one this week-Watching Moira Shearer’s dance number in the movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the SNL “Ann Margret” sketch. I can’t embed it, unfortunately, but I’ll link to it here. Enjoy!


One thought on “Minding the Gap: Peeping Tom

  1. […] with “Peeping Tom,” it seems critics and audiences weren’t ready for “The Night of the Hunter” at the time it […]

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