For those of us who have maintained an avid devotion to the horror and fantasy genres into adulthood -- long after most sensible people have relegated such concerns to a very trivial pleasure at most -- I would hazard a guess that there has been at least one moment during our film viewing “careers” (probably when we were young enough to be susceptible in our entirety to the process) when we have been confronted with some cinematic excursion into cinema's underworld of nightmares that seemed to exceed the usual stock devices for affecting an audience; a moment that seemed to pry almost too deeply into the rawest, most tender corners of our psyches, and confronted us with the unusual and unique power of the genre to unnerve us in a disturbingly profound way.
For me, there have been two such instances, both occurring in my early youth. The first time I saw David Lynch’s bizarre “Eraserhead”, at the age of thirteen, the “lady in the radiator” scenes unsettled me in a way I had never experienced before, and can still barely articulate. But the second instance came about because of a scene that occurs in the first third of Michael Powell’s infamous “Peeping Tom”. The shy, isolated, duffel coat-wearing cineaste antihero of the movie, Mark Lewis, has just admitted one of his tenants, Helen Stephens, into his darkroom sanctum. This young vivacious redhead is tentatively pursuing an innocent but romantically inclined friendship with Mark -- a boyishly handsome but nervous and remote figure. She spies Mark’s 16mm projector and screen, and asks to see some of his “work”. Instead, Mark shows her a short cine-film, shot by his own father, which depicts the young man as a child.
‘A home movie!’ declares Helen, smiling with innocent delight; but as this home movie unfolds it takes on a decidedly sinister aspect: the intrusive camera shows Mark more as a detached experimental subject than as a son who is loved by a father, and the experiments are of a cold, unforgiving nature, remotely cataloguing Mark’s responses to a variety of fear-inducing situations. We see him woken by torchlight in the middle of the night, and tormented when a lizard is dropped onto his bed; and, perhaps, most disturbingly of all, his father coolly films Mark visiting the corpse of his recently deceased mother!
Without showing anything really unpleasant, Powell creates an extremely uncomfortable atmosphere in this sequence; the sense that one is watching something real, and beyond the pale, and which carries an element of the snuff movie, is conjured here with more clarity than even the moments elsewhere in the movie when we are viewing scenes of Mark’s impossible quest to film the ultimate moment of fear on the face of his victims, captured just before the final seconds of their death at the sharpened point of his camera’s tripod. Mark’s home movie depicts a kind of sadism by cinema; and the result of his father's experiments in behaviourism is all too clear to the viewer. We can see Mark observing Helen's growing puzzlement and fear as she experiences the film, but -- not for the first time in the movie -- we are forced to examine our own complicity in the spectacle; the viewer swaps position during the course of the sequence: we start it as a viewer of a home movie -- much like Helen -- and end-up taking the same detached view of Helen's particular response to the images she sees on the projector screen: just as Mark's farther has clearly trained his son to do so well!
While the giggling all dancing, all singing radiator lady in Lynch’s surreal masterpiece, no longer reproduces quite the same level of unease in me as her misshapen form originally did, the above described sequence from “Peeping Tom” retains that ability to evoke a penetrating chill that seems to transgress into uncomfortable areas usually ignored or skirted around. Non fans of the Horror genre can, perhaps, never quite understand the perverse exhilaration that accompanies these key experiences of vicariously produced fear by film; but the experience of watching “Peeping Tom” for the first time is rendered particularly more acute by the obvious fact that it echoes the deepest themes of the movie itself.
If any one thing expresses this mind-bogglingly recursive reflexivity of the movie, it is its opening sequence. An eye opens; a hidden camera starts to film. Through the cross-hairs of a viewfinder we follow a prostitute to her dingy upstairs flat in some London back-street, pausing only to dispose of an empty box of Kodak film in a dustbin outside. We are now inside the flat; as the prostitute undresses, the camera suddenly loses its “cinematic” quality for a split second: it jiggles, slides out of focus, and then resumes its detached gaze, this time with a bright light shining into the face of what has now become a murder victim. Then we cut to a photographer's darkroom, and the same piece of film is playing out once-more, un-spooling on its viewer's projector. This time we are watching the watcher -- viewing his anticipation, his excitement; and, no doubt, reflecting uneasily on our own very similar feelings, though secretly confident that the whole thing is a particularly talented filmmaker's artifice.
If this was all, then perhaps we wouldn't still be watching and talking about “Peeping Tom” all these years later. But Michael Powell and Leo Marks (the movie's screenwriter) do something that still seems unbelievably perverse and brave. Far from marginalising the serial killing filmmaker, they humanise him; more than this they make us identify with him. You people who watch movies, they seem to say, and we who make them, occupy just one end of a sliding scale that leads all the way down to Mark Lewes's pathological maladjustment. Just how far along that scale each of us is, only we individually can decide. If one views Mark's project as a metaphor and as a warning about the seductive nature of cinema, perhaps many of us are further along the scale than we think! But Powell’s movies have always expressed ambivalence about the relationship between art and life: since one without the other is unthinkable, and sometimes art is worth dieting for; or so seemed to say one of Powell’s other cinematic masterpieces, “The Red Shoes”.
With this in mind, Powell goes about drawing us into the mindset of Mark Lewis through very psychologically manipulative and insidious means. The film plies the viewer with a series of in-jokes such as when Mark revisits the scene of the prostitute's murder to film the reaction of the crowds. He merges with the newspaper photographers, telling a policeman he's from The Observer! This light-hearted tone, which immediately follows-on from the disturbing opening, may be one of the factors that accounts for the vitriolic denunciation of the film by the critics of the time, a reaction that ended Michael Powell’s film making career in Britain.
“Peeping Tom” is always a clever, playful film, even as it deals with such lurid subject matter. It switches from realistic, docudrama grittiness one moment (today, the film offers a fascinating historical glimpse into late-50s life in the more downmarket areas of a seedy London) to hyper-real studio-bound tableaux the next. Comedy and uneasiness mix in unsettling ways, in everyday situations -- such as the scene where Miles Mallison (inveterate old dodderer of the British film industry) furtively flips through a newsagent's under-the-counter pornography while a rosy-faced young school girl buys sweeties only inches away from him, and while one of the glamour models in these prints waits impatiently in the news vendor's upstairs flat for Mark to arrive so he can photograph a new set of these saucy prints: a process they are both (amusingly) utterly bored by!
But the film is also achingly romantic, as well as wryly comic. Mark’s quest to fulfil his mad, immoral project is treated with understanding, as an extension of the film makers’ art; but his desperate, fumbling, ultimately futile attempt to seize the chance of a real, rounded human relationship, offered to him by his involvement with Helen and her magic camera children's story, is the crux that draws the conventional viewer, as well as the knowing cineaste, into a sympathetic alliance with the killer. The leads, Carl Boehm and Anna Massey (daughter of Powell & Pressburger stalwart, Raymond Massey) do an exemplary job in creating two -- in different ways -- needy, lonely and humanly flawed characters; their performances offer an emotional route into a film that could have been merely a clever game with images and cinematic reflexivity. Instead it becomes also a moving tragedy about two people attempting to find each other as they struggle through a thicket of insuperable psychological hooks and barbs caused by some classically bad parenting techniques.
Powell’s problem with the critics can be put down to the director's inability to anticipate the sheer power of his creation's effect on an audience -- ironic, seeing as how his film is about a man's addiction to the power of the world rendered as image. Not only the sympathetic portrait of a murderer, but also Powell’s own playfulness with the material, and the fact that such heavyweight themes are being dealt with through the medium of an unashamed thriller that thrives on its garish Eastman colour landscape, lends the film an irreverent air that obviously struck most British critics at the time as being immoral. The qualities of subtlety and refinement that the film also displays probably only made things worse, and struck them as being horribly inappropriate.
When Moira Shearer’s short-lived character, Viv, is creeping through an empty film studio at night, and the Gothic atmosphere of the scene, with its vivid crimson-and-blue gel lighting (anticipating the work of Mario Bava), is portrayed as being manipulated by the “director” inside the film by the revelation to the viewer of Mark clambering about in the rafters, adjusting the lighting as Viv makes her way through the maze of bold colour blocks he is organising; or when the difference between Viv’s acted terror for Mark's camera, and her real terror, when she realises that Mark really does mean to kill her, become indistinguishable and therefore “ruin” Mark's film -- these moments must have appeared just too sophisticated for such unpalatable material.
Of course, today, the kind of histrionic demolition at the hands of British critics that the film was subjected to, would probably have been proudly emblazoned on every poster and advertisement in the land, probably ensuring a major hit in the process. Most modern horror directors would kill to be the subject of lines such as: 'this is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing’ (the Spectator), or: ‘the only satisfactory way to dispose of “Peeping Tom” would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer; even then the stench would remain!’ (Tribune). Unfortunately for Powell, his film wasn't blessed with modern marketing techniques: the film was buried by this overwhelming hostility and sank without trace having barely played in theatres.
The reaction of the critics and the psychology dealt with by the film, make-up the content of the bulk of the extras on the new DVD Special Edition released by Optimum Releasing. Martin Scorsese, his editor (and widow of Michael Powell), Thelma Schoonmaker, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier and British film historian Ian Christie are your guides on an introduction and several substantial documentaries (“The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Strange Gaze of Mark Lewis”). Christie provides a nice little commentary that examines the film minutely without getting too heavy-handed, and draws attention to the film's modernity by comparing it to the other entries in Britain's flourishing new Horror genre at the time, namely the rise of Hammer Films’ Technicolor period Gothics!
The film's anamorphic transfer looks much the same as the previous UK edition: fairly vivid and colourful but displaying a few instances of gross “ghosting” artifacts. Criterion's edition may boast a slightly better transfer, but this is still a more than worthy release and the extras are well worth checking out.