Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011: Peeping Tom (1960)

1960 was a great year for horror, and it’s been a terrific year for Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011!

Screenplay By: Leo Marks
Directed By: Michael Powell

I recently engaged in a conversation with someone about what the horror genre truly aspires to be. This person’s argument was that horror wants to be scary, that at its most basic level horror is seeking to scare its audience and if it doesn’t scare then it fails as a film. Those who know me already know that I vehemently disagree with that line of thinking, and I used the very well known Psycho to help illustrate my own beliefs about horror. At the time it seemed like the best well known horror movie to make my point, but now I have seen Peeping Tom and I’d like to have that argument all over again just so I could use Peeping Tom as my example.

Horror doesn’t need to scare, Peeping Tom is a great example of this. I wouldn’t call Peeping Tom scary, at its most basic level Peeping Tom seeks to elicit a dirty voyeuristic feeling from its audience. This can in turn scare the audience once they realize the true voyeurism that is cinema, but that is a by product and not the intention, I think. Michael Powell has used the horror genre to make people watching feel dirty, and he has greatly succeeded. There is an immediacy to Peeping Tom that is impossible to look past. The main character, Mark, is up close and personal with every one of his victims. We aren’t spared this effect, Mr. Powell brings us in close so that there is no escape from the horror of what we are seeing. Mr. Powell films a good chunk of Peeping Tom through the lens of Mark’s camera, again this puts the viewer right into the fray and traps us within the voyeurism of his character.

The horrific question asked by Peeping Tom is whether or not Mark is the only voyeur? He is the character we are following and he obviously has voyeuristic qualities to a psychologically dangerous degree. At the same time we are right there with Mark, we are choosing to go on this journey with him. Mr. Powell knows that this is what we always do with cinema, but we never really question it. One could argue that directors are even more guilty of this, as Roger Ebert (trust me I’m as surprised as everyone else when my thoughts on a horror film align with Mr. Ebert’s) pointed out Peeping Tom is “about the deep psychological process at work when a filmmaker tells his actors to do as he commands, while he stands in the shadows and watches.” That statement points out the voyeuristic surface level that Mr. Powell is shooting for in Peeping Tom. What that statement leaves out is the true voyeur in Peeping Tom, the audience. The director may stand back and watch from the shadows, but the audience takes it one step further by watching the director’s work from the darkness of a theater or a room in a house. This doesn’t create the type of scary that most people think of when they think of horror. The scary that Mr. Powell creates is psychological and it is steeped in an awareness that is horrific all on its own.

Karlheinz Böhm delivers a startlingly excellent performance as Mark. He’s a complete unknown to me, I have never seen him in anything or heard of him in any capacity. He plays Mark small and closed off, which is the perfect way to fully trap the viewer in the horror of Peeping Tom. Mark is so incapacitated as a human being that the audience latches onto him and takes his life path as their own. We want to nudge him along, cause him to open up a little bit or at the very least see what really makes him tick. By doing this we are enabling the voyeurism at play, we are enabling the horror that so repels us on a surface level. Peeping Tom has a lot to say, Mr. Powell uses the audience to fully express all that the film has to say, our complicity in this is more horrific than any old fashioned jump scare.

From a technical standpoint Peeping Tom is at the top of its class. I may not have been a fan of the only other Michael Powell film I have seen, The Red Shoes, but that showed the attention to detail Mr. Powell possess. Most notable in that film and again in Peeping Tom are the lush technicolor trappings. The difference in Peeping Tom is that Mr. Powell drains some of the color out of certain places so that the bright colors stand out even more. The studio in Mark’s apartment is a great example of this, the surroundings have been drained of some of their color so that the technicolor of the actors stands out even more. The sound design in Peeping Tom is also excellent, full of harsh silences. The same goes for the cinematography that is claustrophobic yet also enveloping in how much it is willing to show us. As I said, from a technical standpoint Peeping Tom is at the top of its class, way at the top of its class.

I wanted to write about Peeping Tom as soon as the film finished. I had ideas in my head that I wanted to make sure to express, but I was exhausted that night and then work got in the way. I returned to Peeping Tom a few days later and while I knew what I wanted to say the energetic spirit that inhabited my brain a few days ago left me. However, the film has continued to grow in my mind, like a pecan pie kept cold in the fridge as each day goes by Peeping Tom is better and better. I don’t know why so many people initially hated Peeping Tom, maybe a large amount of moral outrage was at play. All that moral outrage accomplished was to bury a great film. I’m not outraged by Peeping Tom, I’m very happy that I was able to finally bear witness to one of the greatest horror movies that the world of cinema ever tried to forget about.




8 responses to “Splatter Time Fun Fest 2011: Peeping Tom (1960)

  1. Peeping Tom is truly brilliant. It works, as you’ve indicated, on so many levels, and I think, like you, that is why the film continued growing in resonance in the days after I watched it. The character of Mark becomes more and more real, more fleshed out as the film goes on, and because we begin to understand him, the horror of what he’s doing becomes understandable, relatable even. And then on the level of metaphor, Mark as a character takes on even deeper impact: as film viewers we are, in some sense, doing exactly the same thing he is – we are voyeurs. I guess the film must have outraged people, in part, because it got under their skin, because it was a mirror pointed right back at them. It points back at me. But because the film is also, as you say, about the filmmaker, not just the film viewer, because Powell (perhaps unlike Haneke in Funny Games) is also saying something uncomfortable about himself, the film avoids didacticism brilliantly. Can’t wait to watch it again now – thanks for the great write-up.

  2. Great thoughts Melissa. I’m in the same boat as you, as time has gone by Peeping Tom has grown even more in my mind. The things that Powell does in the film are dirty and grimy in the best of ways.

    I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on my Funny Games write-up that is coming in a week or so. 🙂

  3. I think you’re spot on in you analysis of this film as an implicating look at the voyeurism of cinema. I still find certain moments and ideas in this film frightening, but I think you’re right about the true focus and intent behind the film.

    I’m always glad when people check Peeping Tom out. It’s an unfairly overlooked horror films, one of my all time favorites.

  4. I was surprised to read how maligned it was in its time. I was even more surprised to read some big name critics who bashed it when the films renaissance came about some years later. Especially when viewed in its era I think Peeping Tom ends up a very powerful and telling film.

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