The twenty-eighth entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series is the granddaddy of the slasher genre, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Mark (Carl Boehm) is a creepy young man with an increasingly violent voyeuristic side. He enjoys filming beautiful women with a camera hidden under his jacket. He also enjoys filming women as he kills them with a knife attached to his camera, capturing the fear in their eyes during the act. Helen (Anna Massey), a young woman that lives in his apartment building, catches him spying on her and decides to strike up a friendship with him. Will Helen manage to escape his murderous lust or will she be the star of his next film?
Many credit Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as the film that singularly established the slasher sub-genre by introducing Anthony Perkins’ charming Norman Bates to the world. But four months prior to the release of Psycho, this British film was released. While not as commercially successful as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Michael Powell’s film remains an absolute masterwork of voyeuristic terror that clearly influenced the slasher films of the following decades. Michael Powell is most well-known for his directorial collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and many more. Peeping Tom would be the second film that Powell made after his creative partnership with Pressburger ended.
Voyeurism has always played a huge part in the slasher sub-genre. Nearly every slasher film features sequences of the killer watching their intended victims from a distance. Norman Bates peeks through a hole in the wall as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) disrobes for her shower in Psycho. Michael Myers (Nick Castle) spends an entire afternoon following Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) before killing off her friends in Halloween (1978). The trope is an essential element of the slasher. It gives us an eerie insight into the mindset of the killer. While Psycho is definitely most acknowledged for this contribution, Peeping Tom takes it a step further and allows us to see Mark’s victims’ final moments of life as he kills them. There is no distance between the viewer and the murderous act. Instead, we are forced to view the murders as though we are committing them ourselves. Powell’s focus on this first-person perspective greatly heightens the terror of the film, and would clearly inspire many horror directors in the coming decades.
Peeping Tom features shockingly great performances. Carl Boehm gives such a complex performance as Mark. Outwardly he conveys a shy tenderness that clearly appeals to his victims, but beneath the surface, you can see his murderous psychology bubbling. There are moments where you can see this transition in just his eyes and it is incredibly effective. While I do have an affinity for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, I do believe that Boehm’s characterization of Mark is a bit creepier than Bates.
This is where it all started. Peeping Tom is an incredibly effective slasher film that constructed the template that so many films would adhere to in the coming decades. Personally, I think pairing it with Psycho as a double feature is a great way to see how two phenomenal filmmakers branched out from their larger scale and more dramatic work to pave new ground in the horror genre. Hitchcock and Powell are both so well known for creating lavish films such as Rebecca and The Red Shoes (respectively), that it is just so exciting to see them tone their scale back and create horror masterpieces that stand apart from their other works. Peeping Tom is a horror masterwork and is definitely an essential watch this spooky season!
Peeping Tom is currently playing for free on the Tubi and Roku apps and with membership on Amazon Prime Video. It can be rented on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.
I’ll be back tomorrow with another entry in the 31 Days of Slashers series!