I often talk about films that have their reputations preceding them. Films such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Star Wars are films so ingrained in our culture as filmgoers, it doesn’t really matter if we haven’t seen them, the important thing is that we feel like we have. There are, of course, other films that have huge reputations, but not because they were landmarks in cinema and filmmaking, but because of other reasons…negative reasons. One such example is the subject of this review – Peeping Tom. I finally took the plunge and watched the film that essentially ended the career of one of the greatest visionary filmmakers of all time, Michael Powell. My hesistation to watch it stems from the fact that I was…well, scared. A film being so controversial, it ends a career can’t really be incredibly pleasant, can it?
Well, after watching Peeping Tom, I question how I could consider myself a film fan before having watched it.
Peeping Tom is one of the most audacious and terrifyingly strange films I have ever seen. It is actually indescribable how this film made me feel. Perhaps I should start by summarizing the story, just so maybe that can serve as a springboard to explaining why this film is…this film.
The film tells the story of British photographer Mark Lewis (played by Karlheinz Böhm, who is German…), a sweet and shy young man (they always are in these films) who has a sadistic passion for filming women as he kills them in his quest to record their final expressions as they die. Even describing the film makes my skin crawl. The major themes of the film are of course voyeurism and perversion, and ultimately it serves as a film that if any psychology students were to get hold of, their brains would explode with the amount of psychoanalytical commentary in this film. It is a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the word – it both drives the audience close to the point of an existential crisis, while being a fascinating example of psychological complexities in itself.
So the film itself, ignoring the disturbing nature, looks absolutely stunning. It is very clear that current hipster-idol Wes Anderson was influenced by the type of artifice that Powell brings to his films, and the artificial look of Peeping Tom creates an interesting juxtaposition – it feels like a fun and rollicking film, and what makes it even more disturbing is how most of the characters feel just as artificial – they don’t feel human, instead they appear as caricatures of humans in the form of dolls in an enormous dollhouse. I believe this is what made the film so terrifying – the subject matter, which is dark and gloomy and disturbing, contrasted with the colorful and gorgeous design of the film, makes for a very haunting combination.
Peeping Tom came out in 1960, which is when another monumental horror film came out, Psycho. They make for an interesting pair, considering how they have similar subject matter, but they couldn’t be more different in delivery – Psycho was a minimalist, gritty film in black and white, that was frequently to the point. Peeping Tom is a long-winded, suspenseful and beautifully made film that uses color and grandeur to draw us in, but then shock us without any limitations.
Peeping Tom is certainly unique. More than a film, it is an experience. It isn’t scary in the traditional sense – it does have a mood of slight suspense and the final part of the film is cringe-worthy, but as a whole, it is a pretty tame film on the horror side. On the psychological level, it is truly messed up, and that is why I am glad I actually watched it, and anyone who wants to see an example of brilliantly disturbing filmmaking should give it a try. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.