This film comes with a bit of a back story. It was released three months before Psycho, was immensely controversial, and finished off director Michael Powell's career. He was known for directing The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Psycho, because not only did they come out so close together, they both share many similarities. It features Moira Shearer, the star of Powell's The Red Shoes, and Karlheinz Bohm, Max from Fox and his Friends. Powell never directed another film in the UK, but this film grew steadily in stature and now is considered one of the best British horror films. Powell said in his autobiography: "I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it."
We open with a man approaching a woman on a street. I loved the stylized set of the street that looks somewhat cartoonish. The man is our main character, Mark, who is hiding a camera in his overcoat. We see his approach to the woman through the viewfinder of his camera, see her react in terror, and a strange light play over her face. If you know Mark's murder method you'll know what this is, but since the movie saves it to the end, so will I. We see Mark at home, watching the film of his victim. He stands, then starts trembling and has to sit, which I think is a way to symbolize his orgasm as he watches the film. The next day, in a very perverted little touch, he films the police as they find the body and investigate the scene.
Mark goes to work at this smoke shop where patrons can buy pornographic pictures. Then he goes upstairs and we see that he takes these pictures himself. He has a model who asks him to hide her bruises as he photographs her. She is beautiful from one side, but turns her face and we see she that one side has a huge scar where her mouth was cut. Mark is transfixed.
So Mark goes home to the boarding house he runs, himself living upstairs in the attic. He stares creepily in the window of one of his tenants as she has a party. Going upstairs, he is stopped by Helen Stevens, naive and perky redhead who just seems to believe in the good of everybody! [By the way, if you happen to be a fan of Saint Etienne, you'll notice a very prominent sample from the So Tough album originates here.] Mark is in his room when that intrusive little Helen brings him up a piece of cake. He shows her his darkroom and she is just sooooo fasciated. He shows her a film--one of him being tortured as a boy and filmed. First, a lizard in his bed. Then him at the bedside of his dead mother. His father, a prominent psychologist, made Mark into the basis of his work, a long case study in fear. We see the father in one of the films who, in another meta element, is played by the director of this film, Michael Powell. Mark says his father would film him every moment of the day and night, and shows her a shelf full of books, all of them documenting his development. It's creepy. It's meta. And still you think--isn't Helen neglecting her guests?
SPOILERS > > >
The next day we're on a movie set Mark is working on. There the redheaded actress [Moira Shearer from Powell's earlier The Red Shoes], is blowing take after take until they finally get to over 100. The actress stays behind after hours. She seems to be on the set alone, when suddenly the lights come on, and Mark appears on a platform far above her. He slowly, menacingly descends. She's jaunty and playful, not knowing what she's in for. At one point she is behind the camera, filming him as he films her. She then turns on a record of Latin music, and dances around the set as he films her. She babbles the whole time about how she can play anything, she is so carried away by all the possibilities of life. He tells her to play scared, and she essentially says she can't, she is so transported by the joy of her art, and is furthermore not really scared--which I thought was a little funny, as she is an actress and is essentially telling her director that she can't act what he wants of her. He offers to help, telling her a story, while advancing on her, extending the tripod leg, and finally removing the cap, exposing the knife. One of the things you just have to go with in this film is that it would be very easy for the actress to simply step to the side or otherwise get away, but she chooses to remain motionless with fear and simply watch as the instrument comes to kill her. By the time it's over, it's clear that this sequence was the centerpiece of the film.
Back home, we suddenly meet Helen's blind mother, who she lives with. Helen goes up and into Mark's room--snooping--but when he comes in, he's not annoyed. She's writing a children's book about a magic camera, and he offers to take the photos that the magic camera supposedly takes, to illustrate the book. The next day, back on set, they are filming a scene in a luggage store, and we know that the body of Shearer is in one of the trunks. There is some suspenseful lead-up, and Mark films it as they find the body and later, as the police investigate.
Mark takes Helen out on a date, and while they're out, her mom goes up into his room to investigate. He finds her there, and she confronts him about his lurking madness, telling him "You have to tell someone!" There are numerous shots of her through Mark's viewfinder, as he stalks her, but ultimately decides not to kill her. We find out that it was a man she didn't trust that ruined her vision. She narrowly escapes.
Mark arranges another session with the scarred model, and films the police outside as they follow him. Meanwhile, nosy Helen is in snooping in his room again, and watches the film, presumably of Shearer getting killed. She's predictably shocked. Mark comes home, and she wants to know that it's just a film--not real. He plays her a tape his father made of him as a child, screaming in terror. He finally explains his contraption, in which he has fixed a mirror over the camera, so that the victim watches themselves die. Then we see that he has rigged a system so that he can kill himself by his own special method, and film it, as well as automatically film the police finding him and concluding the investigation. He has been essentially making a documentary about his own crimes, and the investigation, concluding with his own death and the solving of the crime.
< < < SPOILERS END
This film is very highly esteemed, and it is obviously very carefully photographed and written. Several of the shots are gorgeous and beautifully composed, so you feel this guiding intelligence taking you through the movie. And then there's the whole meta-element about voyeurism, with the not-subtle layer that as we watch, we too are voyeurs, like Mark, trying to get some illicit thrill out of watching the violence and perversion unfold through the distant window of the movie screen. Indicted again! Boy, you got me that time. There are many different manifestations of this idea throughout the movie, from Helen's book about the magic camera, to the fact that her mother does not have sight, and lost it to a man she was foolish to trust. Then the whole concept of the victims watching themselves as they die--essentially becoming voyeurs of their own death, which is supposed to be just such a horrifying idea we would instinctively shudder. And in every way it's quite clear that there are multiple layers about the act of looking, photographing, and the violence of the intrusive gaze.
At the same time, you know what? I'm really sick of being indicted. Okay, SORRY I wanted to watch your film. Okay? SORRY I like to watch screen violence. I am a bad person, alright? Should I be forced to wear a sign that says I am evil for seeing movies, and wear it in the town square? I know this movie came out a while before Michel Haneke made a career out of telling us that we are all BAD, BAD PEOPLE for wanting to watch movies [and just in general], but let's get off it, folks. Okay? Why don't we make movies about what shitty people filmmakers are for wanting to MAKE movies? Huh?
Okay, now it's a few days later and I have been justly chastised by a loyal reader for being too hard on this film's indicting us, since it was among the first to ever do that, back when the idea was fresh and new and... you're right, I'm wrong. I take it all back. I'm just a jerk with a chip on my shoulder.
And although this is a very good film that is beautifully made and constructed, one can still see why it didn't take off the way Psycho did. For one, this film is creepy in a truly uncomfortable way, and Mark's past is truly horrific in an unpleasant way, whereas Psycho is creepy in a fun way and Norman Bates' painful childhood is something it's easy not to get emotionally involved with. You can distance yourself from it. Which I would say in comparing the two films in general--Peeping Tom is like a raw wound, with all kinds of lurid intensity that is a little too close and a bit unpleasant. Psycho somehow allows the audience its distance [while still indicting them for watching] so watching it is a pleasant freak-out, not something that really makes you look inside. I'm sure for some this makes Peeping Tom the superior film... I'm not here to call a winner, I'm just saying it's easy to see why Psycho succeeded and this film did not.
So yeah, it's great, it's beautifully put together and has lots of resonance and is interesting... and yet somehow I just don't love it the way everyone else does. Maybe you will. It's something you should definitely see, but... eh.
Nevertheless, still a wonderfully-crafted film and a worthwhile watch.