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Review: ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960) – The OTHER 1960 Proto-Slasher

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Review: 'Peeping Tom' (1960) - The OTHER 1960 Proto-Slasher

The worst thing that ever happened to Peeping Tom was its release to theaters in the year 1960. For a movie about a murderer with hang ups about women, it was maybe the worst year to be released in theaters. That’s because 1960 also saw the release of Psycho, a cultural titan that completely overshadows the inventiveness and weirdness in Peeping Tom.

Whatever can be said about Psycho probably has been said by this point. There are so many books and documentaries that finding a fresh take seems nearly-impossible. There’s something in Psycho’s DNA that invites investigation. It’s something uncanny in the places and people that draws obsession. Plus, we have the countless parodies and homages that have assured Psycho permeates our collective consciousness whether we’ve seen it or not. Everybody knows the shower scene and has heard the music. The movie’s a phenomenon.

Peeping Tom, on the other hand, never quite caught the same wave of popularity. And that’s a huge disappointment. This movie deserves the same cultural cachet as Psycho, but it just hasn’t connected the same way. And that might be by design. While so much of Psycho pulls us forward, Peeping Tom repels us. It pushes us away. It’s a repulsive movie depicting lurid, nasty actions. It’s an incredible movie, and one that is deserving of the same close, careful viewing and discussion.

Peeping Tom 1960 Movie Image

While it is unfair to Peeping Tom to compare the two movies, it’s definitely interesting to contrast one from the other. There’s a Hollywood slickness to Psycho. It may have been a real stark and shocking experience for viewers, but Psycho is an example of an industry player working within the system to play with people’s expectations. There’s a sheen to Hitchcock’s visuals that make it all the more surprising when things turn violent. Janet Leigh was a pretty big star when she was knifed in that shower, and her celebrity status made it a real startle when she’s offed halfway through the picture. Hitchcock may have been “slumming it” by using his TV crew and black-and-white cameras to produce Psycho, but his instincts and his formal training opposes a lot of his exploitation-driven desires. This is a movie made by a huge Hollywood director using violence to excite and titillate. Alfred Hitchock made a theme park attraction with Psycho, complete with lobby-cards you might see at an amusement park. Instead of “You must be this tall,” it was “No one will be admitted after the picture begins.” But the effect is still the same. You’re strapping in for a thrilling, and ultimately safe, theme park ride.

So if Psycho is a ride at Disney World, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is a rickety roller coaster at a rundown boardwalk pier. This thing feels dangerous. And while Psycho is an otherwise glossy movie which dips into moments of grisly violence, Peeping Tom totally lives in this underworld. It’s not a pretty picture, it is ugliness. For people who saw it in 1960, it was probably unpalatable, missing the spoon full of Hollywood sugar that helped Psycho go down smoothly.

From its opening moments, Peeping Tom unnerves. In perhaps its most influential style choice, the opening minutes are all filmed from the main character’s point of view. And what a character this Mark turns out to be! Before we even see his face, he’s soliciting a prostitute, who leads him up a set of stairs to some shady room. We see it all but only from Mark’s perspective, so we can’t see what he’s doing that makes the prostitute scream in fear as he moves closer.

Peeping Tom 1960 Window

There’s something sinister about the London of Peeping Tom. None of this expat stuff for director Michael Powell. He didn’t leave for the sunny hills of Hollywood to make his horror movie. Instead he is entrenched in a London that’s grimy and gritty and grim. It feels like Times Square in the 70s but a decade earlier. There’s awful things happening in alleys. The seemingly quaint corner still sells custom produced pornography, and the pornographer is our main character! This is grindhouse before grindhouse. Michael Powell took Jack the Ripper out of the Victorian era and placed him in 1960. Same place, different time. And, since then, the rest of London has slumped to the Ripper’s level of unsavoriness.  It’s a morbid and sexual story that’s grounded in a perverse reality.

Just wait til you hear what makes this Mark guy tick. Hurt people hurt people, and the further Mark’s trauma is explored, the more fascinating he becomes. Terrible, though, of course. But so damn interesting. A lot of people complain about the little denouement in Psycho wherein Norman Bates’ activities are explained away by psychobabble. And those people are right to complain; that sequence feels tacked on. The psychologists or psychiatrists or whoever aren’t even in the rest of the movie, they just come in Deus Ex Machina M.D., telling us why Norman’s case was special. All at once the story is demystified. It’s a stark contrast with the way Michael Powell’s movie lives with Mark. We’re almost exclusively always with him, and so when fragments of his torment come forth, they’re not shocking, discordant revelations. It’s no surprise, because we’ve been behind the curtain this whole time.

I love this movie. It’s available to watch right now on the free app Tubi, and I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s a shame it wasn’t given its just dues. If you like Peeping Tom, or you want to talk about Peeping Tom, tweet at me @billreick.

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