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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 10: Peeping Tom (1960)

peeping-tomDirector: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

Plot: Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a part-time photographer, making ends meet by taking lurid photographs of women in lewd vignettes, while pursuing his true aspiration of being a filmmaker. But his filmmaking is part of a darker thirst – Lewis is stalking the streets, luring women home and filming as he murders them. As Mark befriends a neighbor, he reveals to her how his own father used to photograph him in moments of discomfort, terror, or fear, even including the boy standing by his own mother’s deathbed. Despite this, Helen (Anna Massey) asks him to take photographs to illustrate a children’s book she has written, to which he enthusiastically agrees.

As Mark comes under the suspicions of the police investigating the killings, Helen convinces him to go out with her, but makes him leave behind his omnipresent camera. Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley) becomes uncomfortable with Helen and Mark’s relationship, and confronts Mark in his darkroom. Mark is upset that his most recent film didn’t come out the way he wanted, and almost reenacts the murder with Helen’s mother, but barely stops himself. She demands he stay away from Helen until his “unhealthy” fixation with photography is done away with, threatening to move away. He kills once more, this time knowing that the police are watching him, and rushes home, where Helen has found his films. He tells her how he attached a mirror to his camera, forcing his victims to watch their own terrified faces at the moments of their death. As the police arrive to take him away, Mark runs through a long-prepared gauntlet of cameras to the completion of his film – his own suicide.

Thoughts: This is one of those films that, upon its release, was deemed so controversial that the filmmaker’s career was effectively ruined. Its portrayal of raw sexuality was pretty risqué for the time, although there’s nothing so provocative in the final cut of the film that you couldn’t show it on basic cable today. (Well… at certain times of the day, at least.) There’s a brief glimpse of a bare breast on Mark’s last victim before the screen fades to black (something removed from many cuts of the film), but most of the gore takes place off-camera. Even Mark’s self-inflicted fatal wound to the neck doesn’t really look like that big a deal. As he falls backwards, clutching the wound, you could easily think he just nicked himself shaving.

Although the film is called the “first slasher movie” by many, it’s markedly different from the way we picture the genre today. Later, better-known slasher films are all about the psychology of terror: Halloween and Friday the 13th are all about the fear the audience feels. Even in Halloween, when we see the attacks through the eyes of Michael Myers himself, we’re supposed to feel the terror of the victim. Not so with Peeping Tom – this movie is all about the psychology of the killer. First of all, there’s never any question of the murderer’s identity. We know from the very beginning that Mark Lewis is a killer, and even though the police and other characters in the film are trying to solve a mystery, for the audience, there is none. So rather than question who is murdering young women, we are allowed instead to focus our curiosity on why he’s doing such a horrific thing.

While most of the movies I’ve talked about (and will talk about over the rest of this project) have been American, this one is a British film, and as such, plays heavily on British fears. While over in the States, we were worried about the Red Menace, in England they were still licking their wounds from World War II, and this film toys with that. There’s a distinct tinge of a German accent to Mark – who himself is a blond-haired chap cast in the mold of Hitler’s perfect Aryan. Mark is twisted and shaped by his father’s experiments, turned into a monster, something that could easily be looked upon as a metaphor for the Nazi subjugation of the German people before their country went on to become a boogeyman to the rest of the world. In this case, the father begets the monster.

I’m not sure if – at any point – we’re actually supposed to be sympathetic to Mark. In fact, the scene where he forces Anna Massey’s character Helen to watch the truly disturbing films of his own childhood is the scene where Mark first starts to feel like an all-out psychopath. The record of Mark’s descent into madness isn’t about excusing him, it’s about explaining him.  “We aren’t saying it wasn’t his fault, we’re just giving him a motivation.” I rather like that – at times cinema seems to waste entirely too much time trying to find ways to explain away the actions of our monsters, and some of them just don’t deserve that consideration. He’s a horribly disturbing creature, from the way he encroaches upon his victims before he kills them straight through to him transferring the light kiss Helen gives him to the lens of his camera. Helen is the sympathetic character here, a girl who takes pity on a broken bird and through it finds a sort of friendship, which breaks her heart when it collapses at the end.

This is the film where we see the core of those movies about what makes a killer. This is where we see the heart of Hannibal Lector, and it draws from the same well as Norman Bates. And speaking of Norman Bates, it’s about time. Come back tomorrow as we introduce ourselves to Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh for one of the most acclaimed thrillers of all time. It’s time… for Psycho.

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