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PEEPING TOM, 1960
Movie Review

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PEEPING TOMPEEPING TOM, 1960
Movie Reviews

Directed by Michael Powell

Starring Carl Boehm, Anna Massey and Maxine Audley
Review by Stephen Shupe


SYNOPSIS:

As a boy, Mark Lewis was subjected to bizarre experiments by his scientist-father, who wanted to study and record the effects of fear on the nervous system. Now grown up, both of his parents dead, Mark works by day as a focus-puller for a London movie studio. He moonlights by taking girlie pictures above a news agent's shop. But Mark has also taken up a horrifying hobby: He murders women while using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror. One evening, Mark meets and befriends Helen Stephens, a young woman who rents one of the rooms in his house. Does Helen represent some kind of possible redemption for Mark - or is she unknowingly running the risk of becoming one of his victims?

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REVIEW:

Released in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” is an extraordinary film about a man who kills women with a movie camera. Both movies explore the psychological makeup of a homicidal maniac. In “Psycho,” Norman Bates has some very severe Mommy issues, while the killer in “Peeping Tom,” Mark Lewis, is haunted by the memory of his sadistic father. But unlike the Hitchcock film, “Peeping Tom” delves into its killer’s state of mind at length, making his actions much more plausible and disturbing.

Confrontational and daring, “Peeping Tom” was met with much hostility when it was originally released in the U.K. It all but ended the career of director Michael Powell, best known for his collaborations with fellow British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger. Not until the 1970s did critics and audiences come to appreciate “Peeping Tom” as a horror masterpiece. Certainly it’s one of the most beautiful of horror films – an obvious touchstone for the lush visual style of Dario Argento’s giallo films – and it’s anchored by three magnificent performances.

Carl Boehm (ne Karlheinz Böhm) stars as Mark, a “focus puller” on professional movie shoots who dreams of becoming a director. Indeed, he’s making a film. He murders women with a spike that protrudes from one of the tripod legs on his movie camera, and films their deaths in grisly detail. He also documents the police investigation into the murders; presumably, Mark’s movie will end with him either being caught or killed.

At a birthday party, he meets a pretty girl named Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives in the apartment below him with her blind, alcoholic mother (Maxine Audley). Helen wants to watch a movie in Mark’s private screening room, but instead of showing her one of his snuff films, he puts on a home movie. As a boy, he was filmed constantly by his father, a biologist who wanted a complete record of his son’s life. Mark never knew a moment of privacy, a fact that obviously contributed to his compulsive behavior as an adult.

Boehm and Massey are so sweet and sincere together they make Mark’s true nature all the more tragic. The scene where Helen finally discovers what Mark has been up to – with the camera slowly closing in on Massey’s terrified face – is almost unbearable to watch. Helen’s mother, on the other hand, seems to have been onto him from the very beginning. It’s a particularly nice touch that Mrs. Stephens, though blind, is the only one who can see Mark for who he truly he is. Audley makes an invaluable contribution to the film – as important, in some ways, as Ruth Gordon’s performance is to the overall effect of “Rosemary’s Baby.”

“Peeping Tom” deserves to be mentioned alongside such all-time horror classics as “Psycho” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Powell’s control is masterly. In the opening scene, we see Mark’s first victim through the lens of his movie camera, with a bull’s-eye positioned directly over the girl’s body. This has the ingenious effect of implicating the viewer in Mark’s actions. The extended sequence where Mark pursues an actress on a movie set is a five-minute masterpiece of suspense. Powell saves the biggest shock for last; it’s easy to see why it earned a place on Bravo’s list of “The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.”

I won’t go so far as to say Boehm gives a more indelible performance than Anthony Perkins, but he’s certainly created one of the most memorable movie psychos. His performance reminds me of Matt Damon in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” another film about a killer hidden in plain sight. Other films that obviously owe “Peeping Tom” a debt of gratitude include Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” and Joel Schumacher’s “8mm.” The movie never achieved mainstream success, and that’s unfortunate. But, given its cult status, maybe we’ll never have to sit through a Hollywood remake.

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