Director Michael Powell’s undeniable psychological horror classic PEEPING TOM has the power to disturb us today — and for good reason.
While the film was initially reviled upon its release (in the UK in 1960 and the US in 1962), PEEPING TOM is a lurid thriller that savagely satirizes not only the film industry, but its willing participants who sit in darkened theaters to voyeuristically peer into the lives of others onscreen.
Famed art-house darling director Michael Powell’s career never recovered from the savage critical beating of his now-classic screamer. Yet, even Powell’s earlier works displayed a descent into the heart of human darkness — whether the fairytale world of Hans Christian Andersen’s THE RED SHOES turned topsy-turvy into an obsessive dancer’s nightmare, or his 3-strip Technicolor ascent into the cloistered erotic world of nuns whose madness is unleashed amid the rarefied air of the Himalayas in BLACK NARCISSUS (arguably the world’s first “nunsploitation” film). Even in the operatic setting of TALES OF HOFFMANN, Powell’s fantasy segments depict sexual repression, Faustian deals and unbridled lust in a cacophonous swirl of color, music and dance.
Released two months prior to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO in the UK, PEEPING TOM is not only a chilling examination of voyeurism, but also the grim aftermath of psychological abuses perpetrated by a parent upon a child.
Uber-creepy Austrian actor Karl Boehm is cold and withdrawn as Mark, the son of a famous psychiatrist who works as an assistant cameraman, pulling focus on the soundstages of a B-movie studio. Mark also maintains a double life as a photographer and peddler of cheesecake nudie-cutie pix, which he procures for an unscrupulous sex peddler. But Mark has another secret behind his soft-spoken veneer: he lures female victims to their demise under the pretext of making a documentary film on the nature of fear.
Peering through the 16mm camera’s viewfinder, we see what Mark sees: unabashed eroticism, followed by puzzlement and horror, then the agonized death screams of his victims. The murders are made all the more chilling by Mark’s apparent lack of empathy. He stores and catalogs the snuff films, unspooling the nightly horror show murders for his own delight; he’s a cinephile of the deadliest kind. His methods may be the precursor of the slasher genre which surfaced more than a decade later, but his reliving of the filmed death throes over and over in his own private theater is wholly unique in the annals of cinema.
Living in the apartment below Mark, in a building he owns, is blind Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) and her daughter Helen (Anna Massey). Mum is quick to be suspicious of their mysterious landlord and the weird noises she hears nightly emanating from above, but Helen is drawn in by Mark’s lack of clumsy social skills and his blond pretty-boy features.
Finally, after convincing Mark to share his secret with her, she learns the secret origin of his torment: his father, a famed psychologist (played by director Powell himself in an unsettling cameo) would awaken young Mark at all hours of the night and subject him to experiments in fear, over and over again, night after night.
Now, Mark is conducting his own “experiments” — killing his prostitute victims with a sharpened spike that springs from a camera’s tripod leg as he films their last gasps of life. But he’s added an even sicker twist to the grim procedures: a large mirror attached to the death-camera rig, so that the victims can see themselves as he advances, its gleaming, sharpened death phallus erect and moving in for the kill. Their terror mounts, intensifying as their own faces are enlarged, reflected in the mirror as they witness their own brutal demise.
By the film’s finale, as the police close in, Mark is ready for his own close-up, impaling himself on the tripod as he witnesses his own death reflected in the mirror.The film was pilloried by critics worldwide: one wrote “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of PEEPING TOM would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.” Another decried it as “The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.” In the US, the picture was condemned by the Legion of Decency as “morally objectionable” due to its key components being voyeurism and sadism.
Released in the US by low-rent exploitation distributors Astor Pictures in a severely cut black & white print, PEEPING TOM nevertheless made a profound impression on a young man named Martin Scorsese. When he borrowed a rare 35mm color print of the film, he championed its restoration and release by Corinth Films. A devotee of the Powell oeuvre, Scorsese helped finance the reissue of the restored film through Corinth Films, finding PEEPING TOM a new audience and a legion of fans.
Now the film is widely considered a classic, as Powell noted in his autobiography: “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”
In his review Roger Ebert noted that movies make us into voyeurs: “We sit in the dark, watching other people’s lives,” he wrote. “It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it.”
But unlike similarly themed films like Hitchcock’s earlier REAR WINDOW, with wheelchair-bound voyeur Jimmy Stewart witnessing a murder in another apartment, PEEPING TOM is a descent into the darkest, deepest depths of psychological hell.
Scorsese, whose own films were often edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow, has said that between Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and PEEPING TOM “is everything that can be said about the nature of filmmaking… 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of filmmaking, while PEEPING TOM shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates… (by) studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.”
Scorsese is no stranger to depicting madness: his much-vaunted TAXI DRIVER is a man tottering on the edge of a Dostoeyvskian nightmare. Peering through the windshield of his cab as he cruises the mean streets of a filthy 1970s New York City, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle slowly emerges from the cocoon of his private voyeuristic theater. His only real movie attendance is at a 42nd Street porno palace; in the real world, he alternately stalks a political campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) and a runaway teen prostitute (Jodie Foster).
Making contact with the obscure objects of his desire, he breaks from his state of withdrawn voyeurism and becomes more than creepily involved. He finds new purpose, transforming himself into a chillingly demented killer, an avenging instrument of death, a Mohawked movie maniac who unleashes his pent-up fury in torrents of blood and bullets. But the film’s postmortem finale is a cheat, as Scorsese tacks on a highly implausible happy ending. While a fan, Scorsese is no Michael Powell.
Seen today, PEEPING TOM’s subtext of voyeurism entwined with eroticism is even more prescient in today’s technological world: forget the NSA and the police cameras on every corner, monitoring our every move in a post-911 landscape; we ourselves spend countless hours on social media watching other people live their lives from behind the protective anonymity of a computer screen. Our TVs and other devices watch us as well: computer algorithms perceive every online move and predicting future buying habits, reinforce the marketing and omnipresent advertisements — be they sponsored content embedded in news stories, or vapid celebrity Tweets.
Society has now evolved to an entire world of peeping toms, peering through the screens of reality, recording every little thing and not living one bit — except to shamelessly pose for the cameras. The flipside of voyeurism is flagrant self-exhibitionism, and in this age of selfies, Facebook, Instagram and the like, aren’t we all voyeuristic watchers and unabashed solipsistic performers?
Happily, the initial commercial failure of PEEPING TOM did nothing to diminish Karl Boehm’s acting career. Despite his chilling portrayal of the serial killer cameraman, Boehm escaped being typecast (unlike PSYCHO star Tony Perkins, whose career was condemned to a never-ending parade of mama’s-boy nutjobs). Following PEEPING TOM, the Austrian-born thespian starred as Jakob Grimm in producer George Pal’s opulent Cinerama fantasy film THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, and as composer Ludwig Van Beethoven for WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR teleseries. Bohm later returned to Germany, where he continued acting in various films and movies, and ran a worldwide philanthropic organization until his death last year.
The restored PEEPING TOM is available on both DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.