A frank exploration of voyeurism and violence, Michael Powell's extraordinary film is the story of a psychopathic cameraman-his childhood traumas, sexual crises, and murderous revenge as an adult. Reviled by critics upon i... more »ts initial release for its deeply unsettling subject matter, the film has since been hailed as a masterpiece.« less
Darwin H. (movienut) from BLOOMINGTON, MN Reviewed on 6/28/2012...
Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell who also directed several bonafide classics including The Thief of Bagdad, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. What a great, creepy film though definitely not for everyone. It's spooky, sympathetic portrayal of a very deviant personality in combination with a voyeurism theme effectively ended Powell's career even though now it is recognized as a classic. Some striking similarities between the lead character here and the Norman Bates character in Hitchcock's classic Psycho which was released the same year. Were Hitchcock and Powell travelling down the same dark road together on opposite sides of the pond back in 1960 or was this merely an uncanny coincidence? Well worth checking out if you are not averse to this type of subject matter.
This has been a Movienut "no spoilers" quick review.
2 of 2 member(s) found this review helpful.
"I like to understand what I'm shown."
Found Highways | Las Vegas | 06/27/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"That's what Helen tells Mark in his projection room. Helen gets her wish later, when she watches a film Mark shot, and she gradually realizes it's not staged, but a real murder. Helen wants Mark to tell her that it's "just a film, isn't it?"
We've already seen the terror on the faces of women Mark has killed, so we know what Helen sees. We can't turn away any more than she can, even as she backs out of the room, knowing but not wanting to admit that the man she loves put a blade through women's throats and photographed them watching their own deaths with a mirror attached to the camera.
Like Psycho, Peeping Tom is the story of a grown-up child who can't get rid of a parent. But Peeping Tom is better. The characters in Peeping Tom are more believable than the puppets Hitchcock moves around to create his "pure cinema." As freakish as Norman Bates is, as a personification of insanity he's as much a straw figure as Mother in the attic.
Peeping Tom offended its audiences so much that it was pulled from theaters, wrecking director Michael Powell's career, so the story goes.
Peeping Tom isn't more violent or sexually explicit than other movies from the time. We turn away from the victims as Mark's blade enters their throats. Even when he uses his camera-weapon on himself we don't see any blood. More horrific is Anna Massey as Helen watching the snuff film Mark left on the projector. (Did he leave it for her to find because he wanted her to see "the documentary" he was making, the way she showed him the children's book she was writing?) The scene that made me cringe the most was Mark playing tape recordings his father (an experimental biologist) made while exposing his son to frightening stimuli. We hear the young Mark screaming; we have to imagine what is making him scream.
So Peeping Tom is upsetting, but also traditional. It hints more than it shows. Why did people react to it so much more violently than they did to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) or Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face (1959)? Was it the just the difference between British vs. American or French sensibilities? Since World War II at least, the British have tolerated movie censorship more than other Europeans or Americans. Stanley Kubrick had the same kinds of problems with British critics and censors with A Clockwork Orange (1971) that Powell did with Peeping Tom. And Thatcherite Britain went nuts over the "video nasties" controversy in the 1980s.
When I finally saw the DVD of Peeping Tom, two things struck me that might have made people so upset when it came out.
First, the title may have led a lot of moviegoers to think they were going to get a softcore porn flick/thriller, like the "erotic thrillers" on video in the United States. When they didn't get lots of violence or nudity, maybe they felt cheated. Even worse than cheated, maybe they felt complicit. After you've been through the experience of watching Peeping Tom you know exactly who the title refers to. Audiences in 1960 might have resented Powell's holding a mirror up to them, the way that Mark held a mirror up to his victims as he plunged the knife in.
Another reason audiences may have hated the movie might be the sympathy shown to the murderer Mark. And two things in particular could have antagonized moviegoers - - Mark's youth and his German accent.
The look of Peeping Tom - - especially the outside locations - - at times is schizophrenic. It goes back and forth between the gaslit forties and the swinging sixties. Sometimes it looks like the Blitz is still going on, the city is dark, the buildings shadowy and decrepit. Sometimes it's sunny and you expect to see mods and rockers on the street. Are we going to run into Mrs. Miniver or Twiggy?
This tension is in the first scene. We see two generations come into a stationery shop that sells "French postcards." First a dirty old man, fat, drooling over pictures, then a healthy young girl whose innocence won't allow itself to be stained by the pornographer (the shop owner) and murderer (Mark) inches away. She's from a different world.
The handsome Aryan-looking Carl Boehm is Mark. He speaks fluent English, but with a definite German accent. Mark's father was a renowned scientist. We hear his voice on tape - - middle-class, educated, Received Pronunciation. Quite English.
Of the subject a little: Peeping Tom is interesting linguistically. In the film Anna Massey as Helen has an accent that's sounds a touch archaic (not stagy, it sounds natural, just a little old-fashioned). But in Massey's interview for the DVD, which must have been done forty years later, her accent sounds like the Standard English of today. We also hear a film studio executive pronounce "memo" as "MEE-mo." Not exactly the Great Vowel Shift of the fifteenth century, but interesting.
So Mark's father (working at the same time as the real behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, who also observed, if not experimented on, his child at home) is English. Mark's mother is dead. If we want to invent a reason for Mark's accent I suppose his mother might have been German.
Mark would have had to have grown up speaking German in another country for his English to sound the way it does, though. Or maybe Mark's father was bilingual and he and his German wife spoke German to Mark as part of another experiment.
Whatever the reason is that Mark sounds like a German, that may have been the real reason British audiences in 1960 were repulsed by the movie. The Germans had been the enemy twice in half a century. People still alive had lost parents and children to German soldiers and bombs. How dare they expect us to feel sorry for this murdering Hun sex fiend. How dare they expect us to be glad for the Germans and their "economic miracle" when we had food rationing for years after the war we won.
How dare they say we're like him."
Disturbing and all the more memorable for it
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Michael Powell is one of the great British film directors, his credits including such diverse fare as The Thief of Baghdad, the Red Shoes and the unforgettable Stairway to Heaven. Peeping tom was his first and only foray into horror.Though this film is often compared to Psycho (Powell worked with Hitchcock in the 20's and 30's before Hitch moved to the States), it is different in several respects. First, the film is told entirely from the point of view of the killer. we don't have the luxury of really getting to know our victims the way Hitch lets us know Marion Crane. Secondly, our killer, Mark Lewis (played quietly by Karl Boehm), seems to regard his being caught by police as inevitable, and is in fact preparing to film his apprehenshion as part of his perverse "fear documentary". Thirdly, Powell filmed his masterpiece in sickeningly vivid color, allowing us no distance between the killer and his acts.The film was critically reviled upon its initial release in 1960. Though sad, it's easy to understand. Powell wanted to include the audience in Mark's disturbing voyeurism, essentially implicating them as well. Since film are essentially a socially acceptable form of voyeurism, it's easy to see why critics, who make their living watching movies, might have been insulted. Since critics are to the arts what pigeons are to statuary, they deserve it.Many people might shrink from this movie due to its disturbing nature and lurid subject matter. Too bad. It's very well made and has something pertinent to say about cinema, human psychology, and the world around us. Many people sometimes think that movies about bad people are bad cinema. The only depressing movies are badly made ones. Peeping Tom is a great movie about a bad person."
Disturbing Psychological Horror
Richard A Martin | Dayton, OH United States | 03/18/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This wonderfully creepy 1960 horror film predates Psycho by about 3 months and predates the "slasher" film by about 16 years and, in braving new ground which deviated from the Gothic Horror film movement spawned by Hammer Films in 1957, helped move horror from the Gothic castles to the house next door.Michael Powell's film presents us with a young man who is so fascinated by the subject of fear, that he stalks young women and kills them while filming their deaths with his movie camera. In to the young man's world, comes a young woman who only wants to understand him and love him, but will she find out his horrible secret before its too late?While lambasted by critics who condemend the film for being "The sickets and filthiest film I can remember seeing . . .", Peeping Tom in one of the most interesting horror films of the early 60s. It was the critical attacks against the film and Powell himself which prompted Hitchcock not to have a critics screening for his new film about a killer, "Psycho", which premiered a few months later.This Criterion release has all the thrills of the laser disk release (trailers, audio commentary, still gallery) plus a wonderful BBC documentary on the making of Peeping Tom called "A Very British Psycho".A fine presention of a classicly disturbing film. WELL DONE !"
The Ultimate In Movie Voyeurism.
David Grant | Lancaster, PA USA | 02/14/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"In a day and age where the importance of film in our society grows in leaps and bounds everyday, Michael Powell's devastating and completely unforgettable "Peeping Tom" levels the most convincing argument that we don't just watch films... we live them. The killer in "Peeping Tom" is a kind, shy, almost child-like man who, as the son of a scientist father forever obsessed with the fear of children, was tormented as a child. Many times his father would shine lights in the sleeping boy's eyes or drop lizards onto his bed in order to frighten the child, all the while recording his reactions on film. When the boy grows up, he carries on his father's work... maybe a little too well. He decides that the greatest fear experienced comes at the point of death. He conceals a knife in the tripod of his ever-present camera and films his victims as they slowly realize their fate. He also (in a move Hitchcock would envy) forces them to watch their own frightened faces with a small mirror attached to the front of the camera. He desires fear and he goes to extreme lengths to achieve it in his victims. The movie not only asks us to sympathize with the killer (played with a certain charm and yet an air of repellance by Carl Boehm) but also participate in his crimes. We see what he sees while filming them, while watching his footage at home, we are (very eerily) immersed into his film. We are right beside him, watching his victims and relishing in their terror. The camera the killer carries is more of an extension of himself then merely a way of recording what he sees. When his lovely neighbor kisses him, his face remains immobile, as if he doesn't quite know what's going on. But when she walks into the next room, he places his lips onto the lense of the camera and a look of pure passion crosses his face. When she is asking for his opinion on where she should place the pin he has given to her for a birthday present, his hands follow hers as if recording their movement. It is a film about film and about the experience of a moviegoer. Like Hitchcock's "Rear Window" it is a truly exhilarating and unnerving experience about sitting in a theater and not only watching what is going on, but living it. And loving it. No matter what is going on in front of your eyes. A classic."
A masterpiece of horror grounded in reality
Christopher Moyer | Philadelphia, PA | 04/09/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When Peeping Tom was first released in 1960, it was universally reviled by critics and audiences alike for its sadism and mixing of sex and violence, and essentially ended the career of its director, Michael Powell. To say it was misunderstood at the time would be an understatement, as over time it has come to be recognized as a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is often compared with Psycho in terms of shock value, but Peeping Tom's Mark Lewis makes Norman Bates look like the Easter Bunny by comparison.
Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, by day a camera assistant at a film studio, by night a photographer for girly magazines who murders women and films them while he's doing so. Why does he do so? It gives him a sexual rush to see the fear in their eyes when they realize they are going to be killed. His father was a biologist, he explains to Helen (Anna Massey), a young woman who lives in his building, and his father was especially interested in fear in children, so he made Mark a test subject. You can see the connection here: a bruised childhood leading to abnormal adult behavior.
The relationship between Mark and Helen is a peculiar one. She is terribly curious about him; at first she seems to think he's a nice young man, but during their first encounter, Mark shows her some strange film and she becomes outraged, yet she does not run away. Her interest in him seems to only grow, despite his clearly creepy ways. In an ordinary film, Mark would be a villain, and we would hate him, because he is a murderer. But what Peeping Tom asks is for us to sympathize with this man, because it is not entirely his fault that he is the way he is. The major conflict in the film is between Mark and himself, as he struggles to suppress his urges and contain his own fears.
This is a horror movie, but the only monster is a human, and that makes it all the more frightful, because it is horror rooted in reality. There are sick people like Mark Lewis out there in the world, and you read about them in the newspaper just about every day. Peeping Tom doesn't terrify with "Boo!" moments, but rather it works on a more cerebral level, letting the audience into the twisted mind of a killer.
So why was this film such a topic of controversy in 1960? Well, never before were audiences asked to look upon a sadistic killer as anything but an irredeemable evil person, and nobody was really expecting that. This film is the kind that is intended to disturb instead of entertain, and when you go to a movie expecting to be entertained and end up being disturbed instead, you tend not to look favorably on the movie. Peeping Tom has been an incredibly influential film for today's filmmakers, as its influences can be seen in films from Road to Perdition to Red Dragon. I highly recommend it to any fan of film and film history."