Looking back at Peeping Tom

George Cochrane assesses the legacy of 'Peeping Tom' 60 years later

George Cochrane
25th October 2020
Of the many classic horror films celebrating sixty this year (Black Sunday, Eyes Without a Face, Village of the Damned), none is quite so classic as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Made on a low budget outside the Hollywood system, Hitchcock’s film broke box office records upon its release and continues to draw audiences today. Its success was not inevitable, though. Consider the rather different fortunes of another horror that came out in 1960, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

The films are remarkably similar: both about clean-cut serial killers with parent issues. In Peeping Tom’s case, the troubled young man is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a filmmaker who likes to film his victims as he kills them. His weapon of choice, significantly, is his camera, to which is strapped a knife. If this association of camera and weapon was not disturbing enough, we witness these murders through the camera’s lens as they are happening, making us accessories.

Even now, it’s a highly uncomfortable viewing experience and it’s hardly surprising how badly the critics reacted when they were first shown the film in April 1960. So great was their moral outrage, in fact, that the film barely made it into cinemas and was not widely seen or available for many years after. It put an end to Powell’s career, too.

Powell was a newcomer and the particular hostility directed at Peeping Tom surely had something to do with the director’s image as a squeaky-clean maker of prestige British pictures

Hitchcock had the good fortune to be releasing Psycho two months after Peeping Tom. Enough time to rethink his release strategy and decide against giving a press screening, ensuring his film, at least, would not be killed by the critics. A good move, because the critical reception to Psycho at the time was mixed – difficult to imagine now, but it was – and because of that oh-so-shocking twist ending that would not have been nearly so shocking had the reviews spoiled it.

Image: IMDb

Hitchcock had been dancing with the macabre for years, though. Powell was a newcomer and the particular hostility directed at Peeping Tom surely had something to do with the director’s image as a squeaky-clean maker of prestige British pictures. Many of Powell’s collaborations with Emeric Pressburger had by 1960 become treasured parts of the national cinema – films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and my personal favourite, I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and Peeping Tom may have been seen to be tarnishing their legacy.

If so, the critics’ memory of those films was rather rose-coloured. Visit those Powell and Pressburger classics now and you will be astonished by just how dark and edgy they are. For my money, The Red Shoes – a film about ballet, remember – contains some of the most haunting images in cinema: the close-ups of Moira Shearer’s powder-white face; that sequence in the ballet when the demons close in on her. All the elements were there for Darren Aronofsky’s ballet horror, Black Swan (2010).

Take Black Narcissus, too – a film about a group of nuns. Deeply psychological and erotic, the film’s cloistered tension builds and builds until one of the sisters, Sister Ruth, flips and attempts to murder her love rival, Sister Clodagh. Her transformation is startling, her makeup truly demonic, and if its trailer is anything to go by, FX’s upcoming miniseries of Black Narcissus (2020) looks to play up these horror tropes to the max.  

Peeping Tom was not a completely left field move for Powell, then, and it is everyone's loss that he never got to make another horror. Because Peeping Tom is a masterpiece and every bit Psycho's equal. Watch it!

Featured Image: IMDb

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