This film is artificial. Cheap and tacky like the magazines and images sold from behind the counter at the news agent where our anti-hero Mark (Karlheinz BÃ¶hm) has a second job taking erotic pictures. There is nothing here that is real. From the characters cobbled together psychology, to the technicolor palette, to the supposedly real footage filmed from Mark’s psychotic camera. Even the setting seems strange. It is geographically London, but beyond that it is nowhere, a false imagining of an unreal world. If this is the world that my parents inhabited then District 9 will happen tomorrow.
It’s a shame really. Michael Powell was a major talent. And you can see that he is trying to deploy an arsenal that has served him well in the past. The melodrama, the technicolor, the slightly affected script, are all not uncharacteristic of him but here suffer from a brutal failure of focus.
The film’s premise is dark, macabre (and ludicrous); a focus puller obsessed with the camera had a troubled childhood and now kills women and films it, stabbing them with the leg of his tripod while playing back their own terrified expression. I would apologize for telling you that, but this surprise is one of many things in the film that is completely predictable. It stands in stark contrast to Hitchcock’s Psycho which was released shortly afterwards and retains it’s capacity to engage and inspire 50 years after it’s release. The differentiation between the films being related to shock and it’s relative importance. In Psycho the transgression and shock serve a story, narrative being of far more importance than temporally-constricted ideas of transgression. The same cannot be said of Peeping Tom, which is a prisoner to a single idea and as such has life only as long as that idea has value.
The overarching idea that detachment and objectivity are at the cold heart of horror, is not a bad one, but in Peeping Tom, it is naÃ¯vely expressed and poorly understood. The only difficult thing about the film is why it went so wrong. Watching it at The Barn I feel there may be an answer in the reactions of my fellow film goers. The most common response, other than an undue reverence for the film’s reputation, was giggling. A strange reaction to a film about a serial killer who callously murders prostitutes and actresses. But then the filmmakers seem to have almost wanted this. Almost the entire film is peppered with seaside-postcard humour and smut.
The director either reviles the culture into which his murdering victim is dropped and we should see his world, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as something to be cleansed, or, as is more likely, the director is horrified by his own story and is frightened of how people will react to it and so feels the need to lighten and soften the film so that it remains stranded in a limbo stretched out between The Carry On films and the aforementioned Psycho.
The only redeeming performance or part in the film comes from the blind mother (Maxine Audley), who lives underneath Mark. She is the only character in the film who displays anything like intelligence and is the only actor who has the conviction to treat the subject matter, however ridiculous, as a place to make an impact. It is also from her that the films one true moment of revelation comes from. Sitting in her settee unmoving she plays her stiff bitterness so well that when we realise she is, in fact, blind we are stunned and pleased by the perfection of the performance and the almost classical form it obeys, for her opponent is a man almost completely obsessed with sight.
It is also from her that the most interesting ideas arise. The film as a whole deplores science. The killer lives in a laboratory, the psychologists are insanely useless or just psychopathic and the mother, lost her sight because she trusted to science and doctors to operate. With such a strong message of intuition besting theory, it is a shame that the film, rightly lambasted critically and popularly on it’s release, doesn’t have the courage to go with it’s gut and show us something terrifying rather than just terrible.
â€¢ Look out! Here’s the trailer!