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Saturday, 15 February 2014

PEEPING TOM (Michael Powell 1960): THE FIRST SLASHER


Misogyny, Sexual Anxiety, and Daddy Issues... Big Surprise. But Hey, It’s a Classic.




3.5 Stars

Carol clover writes, “Horror privileges the eyes because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about the eyes”. Peeping Tom is exemplary of this. Despite Michael Powell’s assertion that his film is not a horror, but rather a film about the cinema from 1900-1960, Clover rightly describes the film more specifically as a “horror metafilm”. 

Produced the same year as Psycho and exhibiting stunningly similar themes, it is the story of a young man named Mark who is psychologically damaged from growing up as the subject of his fathers intense voyeurism. Subsequently he finds himself suffering from “scoptophilia”, which the film describes as “the morbid desire to gaze”. To satisfy this desire, Mark obsessively carries a camera with him everywhere, secretly recording women until he can get them alone, at which point he murders them. His weapon of choice is the sharp end of a tripod, which he stabs women with while recording their reactions. Worse, he attaches a mirror to the camera allowing the women to watch themselves die as well. 




Arguably, this film does not strictly adhere to the conventions of the stalk n’ slash, which were not defined until the 1970s. But it is an important predecessor with its focus on the stalking of women, the objectification of women, and a serial killer who targets sexual transgressors. 

The film has been accused of copying Psycho despite its being released simultaneously (and first in some cities), but what really strikes me as different is Mark’s inability to “keep cool”. For all his creepiness and mental instability, Bates is actually quite suave. A twitch here and there alerts us to his weaknesses but overall he is convincingly normal when he needs to be. This is his strongest quality, it is what makes him him. But it is a quality that Mark desperately lacks. To all of his victims, the prostitute, the model, and the aspiring actress I say, “seriously! you’re going to be alone with this creep?!” 




If I learned anything from this movie, it’s that stranger danger is real. I admit, Mark is something of a sympathetic monster, because (like Norman) his issues stem from his childhood, and run deep. But, that does not mean I would let this guy, or his camera, anywhere near me. I shudder at the thought. No, I’ll just feel bad for him from a far thank you.

It’s all a little pop-psychology, but Powell still does a nice job of creating a well-rounded killer. His strengths and weaknesses are all carefully presented and the juxtaposition of point-of-view shots and close-ups all work to create a very claustrophobic atmosphere that is representative of how this guy experiences the world. Plus, its own appreciation for cinema is quite beautiful... in a totally uncomfortable and dark way.