Last year around Halloween I decided to make a show out of my articles and review a pile of horror movies. Not a particularly novel idea, in fairness, but one I quite enjoyed. I watched a horror movie a day and posted one review a day. Each one was entirely new to me, which was a large part of the fun. I snuck in a few choice classics I’d never seen before. This year I’ve decided to continue the tradition with what I’ll call my Second Annual Halloween Binge. Like before, I’ll be posting one horror review a day in the thirteen days leading up to Halloween. Like before I’ll watch a mix of stuff – Italian horror, fifties horror, classic horror, maybe some hammer horror. I want to cover as varied a range as possible. What’ll be new about this year’s is that a few of the films I’ll be reviewing will be theatrical viewings. Not necessarily new releases (although one or two might sneak in) but old school films being played in theatres. I’m taking advantage of a new opportunity. This first film was one of these, to celebrate the change, and this one was too. I saw the classic proto-slasher film Peeping Tom in theatres, and I have some thoughts about it.
Peeping Tom was a 1960 film directed by Michael Powell, who’s best known for his films Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Red Shoes. The movie was so critically reviled it destroyed Michael Powell’s career. It’s almost hard to imagine in retrospect. Which is not to say the film is anodyne by today’s standards, but its tropes and ideas would be so expanded upon in future films that it seems like a less drastic version. It is, as I said before, a porto-slasher film, a slasher film made before slasher films were a genre. As such, future slasher films feel indebted to it and the genre’s relative popularity has helped retroactively tame Michael Powell’s seedy thriller. The film even predates the first true gialli films, which is remarkable given how similar they feel. The look and aesthetic of Peeping Tom is almost precisely shared by Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, so much so I’m sure you could cut shots from the two together and barely notice. Giallo would do a lot for the future slasher genre, expanding on what it could be and creating the tropes that would be readopted by American filmmakers like John Carpenter and start the snowball that would create the genre as it’s now known. It’s hard to tell how much filmmakers like Bava owe to Peeping Tom, given that Bava started breaking ground on the genre the same year. Maybe there was just something in the air. That being said, give Peeping Tom a central whodunit and you’d have a film that would feel utterly at home with early gialli films.
The film also shares a rather famous connection with another early iconic serial killer flick – Psycho. Hitchcock’s film came out the same year as Peeping Tom, and both deal with relatable serial killers. What makes this connection all the more interesting is the fact that Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock had actually worked together. Powell had done a few different minor jobs on a variety of Hitchcock productions, and the two were fairly friendly with one another. The two had, supposedly, shared some ideas, and Hitchcock had an unproduced film around the time that shared some of Peeping Tom’s central ideas. It’s even said that the critical response to Peeping Tom was what led Hitchcock to forgo doing press screenings for Psycho. The two make up a one-two punch that helped start the ball rolling on American slasher films, while Mario Bava was launching his own career with Black Sunday. One way or another, 1960 might reasonably be considered the conception of the slasher film.
Peeping Tom would even stand out if it had come out during the height of giallo’s popularity. It’s not just an exercise in created tropes (or transferring them to the big screen); it’s also a well made, surprisingly intelligent film. Its sympathetic serial killer protagonist especially helps set Peeping Tom apart from the competition. Its protagonist is the tortured result of an abusive family life. He’s resistant to his urges, at least to some degree, and has a rather unique and memorable modus operandi. All in all he’s an unusually complex and nuanced figure, which isn’t all that common in giallo films, which rely on a more masked-monster method, and slasher-films, which tend to relegate the killer to the background. Karlheinz Böhm, who plays the killer Mark Lewis, does well with the role. He has a certain quality reminiscent of Peter Lorre, as well as any number of handsome Aryan killers in Italian and American cinema. He’s almost archetypical in his menacing plasticity and whimpering cowardice. He effectively captures the character’s tragic core and threatening nature. He’s never so menacing that it spoils his sympathetic nature, but you also never forget just how messed up and dangerous he is.
The movie is greatly effective. That wonderful combination of seedy and sumptuous that comes with gialli films is on full display in Peeping Tom, and I’m personally very fond of that aesthetic. It’s full of bright, colourful lighting and unusual camera placement, interrupted by the odd first person POV (a hallmark of both the giallo and slasher genre). The sets are ornate and busy, which combined with the lighting makes for a sort of hallucinogenic palatial effect. There’s something about these sorts of visuals combined with the film grain on these films that just tickles me the right way. There’s something painterly about it that’s positively lovely to look at. It’s not often you get these visuals combined with a good script, and it’s the complexity of the writing that really elevates Peeping Tom past some sort of historical curiosity. It’s a film well worth seeing.