Last week we discussed a film which is known as one of the most influential horror stories ever released in the cinema. This week we will be doing the same, but unlike Psycho, it took a long time for the full significance of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom to be realized.
Both Psycho and Peeping Tom share common themes, that of a killer’s obsessive relationship with his parents, and a commentary on latent sexual psychosis. It is astonishing that two similar yet remarkably distinct pictures were both released in the same year, and in many ways it was perhaps inevitable that the world of cinema was not prepared to handle such a double helping.
Psycho has held sway over the horror film audience since it was released, but Peeping Tom was quieter in its influence. Young would-be directors like Martin Scorsese saw the film and were captivated by its commentary on the art of film-making. The discussion that Powell presents in the movie about the intrusive nature of the horror film, wherein a director invites the audience to become voyeurs in the act of murder, is as sharp as the knife used by the killer, and so cutting a piece of satire was the film that it made both critics and cinema-goers quite uncomfortable.
I also find it interesting to note that perhaps the film was commenting on the new method style of acting which was at the time sweeping Hollywood after Marlon Brando’s powerhouse performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront. In Peeping Tom, an actress is shown working on a film and having real difficulty in delivering the illusion of terror. This in a movie all about someone filming people’s dying moments, and thus capturing genuine fright, can perhaps be seen as Powell asserting that, while method acting certainly delivers engrossing and realistic performances, it also takes a lot out of the performer. In a sense, this film is a prophetic double edged sword of satire, discussing both the implications of the horror movie and the new direction in which acting was heading at the time.
The significance that this film has to the slasher genre is also two-fold. I mentioned the theme of sexual psychosis, one which would become a staple of the slasher two decades later. In Peeping Tom, we see a male character using a phallic weapon, in this case a knife attached to the leg of a camera tripod, to murder women. Though this is by no means something which Peeping Tom innovated, it is definitely one of the earliest examples of this metaphor being presented so starkly.
Also sharply presented is the film’s exploration of how a past, childhood trauma motivates the killer’s actions. I have hardly ever seen this theme so chillingly portrayed; a story of a young boy whose father is a scientist obsessed with human fear, and so conducted many experiments on his child and filmed his terrified reactions. The killer’s subsequent actions are therefore, just as in Psycho, a disturbingly warped attempt by the killer at connecting with a dead parent.
Today Peeping Tom is considered a classic horror story and also one of the best ever British films. It is a tremendously well executed movie of great tension, and, just as important for us, a real influence on the slasher genre.
There is a third film from 1960 which also has a place in the slasher lineage. Next week, we will complete our look at this influential year as we examine the work of another of cinema’s greatest directors. See you then…