The picture that destroyed Powell’s career, this disturbing work about a serial killer who perversely films his victims as they die is now regarded as a major influence on the modern slasher movie, and a provocative exploration of the ills of scopophilia.
Dir. Michael Powell
1960 | UK | Drama/Crime/Horror | 101 mins | 1.66:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for disturbing theme and some nudity
Cast: Karlheinz Bohm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer
Plot: Loner Mark Lewis works at a film studio during the day and, at night, takes racy photographs of women. Also, he’s making a documentary on fear, which involves recording the reactions of victims as he murders them.
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Scopophilia; Fear; Perversity; Filmmaking
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Michael Powell’s early collaborations with Emeric Pressburger, particularly their Technicolor triumphs, remain cornerstones of postwar British cinema.
Moving ahead to 1960, Hitchcock made his most infamous film, Psycho, which became a cultural sensation. In startling contrast, Powell saw his career got destroyed with the release of Peeping Tom, also about a killer with psychological issues.
Pulled from British cinemas in less than a week, the passage of time is, of course, now much kinder to this highly influential work that laid the groundwork for the modern slasher movie.
Peeping Tom is a rich character study as it attempts to make audiences sympathise with Mark (Karlheinz Bohm), a camera operator whose perverse side hobby is filming his female victims as they die for a ‘documentary’ on fear.
“If this is where you work, I can’t wait to see what you work at.”
Plagued by childhood trauma and repressed sexual desires, he finds an outlet through a violent, misogynistic form of scopophilia.
Powell’s work is a testament to the duality of cinema—on one hand, we are naively seduced by its voyeuristic tendencies, a point made explicitly clear in Laura Mulvey’s landmark writings on visual pleasure in 1975; on the other hand, the act of seeing is a form of empowerment, that is, if the tool of seeing is in the right hands.
In Peeping Tom, however, Powell conflates this duality into one ‘double dose’ of the worst kind of cinema. Through Mark, and in his wrong hands, the camera becomes a weapon—physical, psychological and sexual, as it penetrates not just the flesh but the soul. The result is one of the most disturbing films ever made in British cinema.