Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 9

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

52. Peeping Tom (1960- dir. Michael Powell)

At the same time Alfred Hitchcock was making the film that would revolutionize the horror film in the ‘60s—and earn four Oscar nominations— Michael Powell was making the film that would nearly ruin one of the most prestigious careers in cinema. The maker of such British institutions as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was now treading through murky waters, indeed, choosing to tell the tale of Mark Lewis (Karl Böhm), a serial killer who photographs his victims at the moment of their deaths using a dagger concealed in his camera’s tripod. By emphasizing the link between sex and violence even more explicitly than Hitchcock (among Mark’s victims are a prostitute and a model who performs a frenzied, impromptu dance), Powell took his content several ticks beyond even Hammer’s controversial pictures. The film was ravaged by U.K. critics (Derek Hill of the Tribune wrote that it should be “shovel[ed] up and flush[ed]… down the nearest sewer”) and butchered in the U.S. where it was dumped in the grind houses. That’s rough treatment for perhaps the first film to examine the filmmaker’s responsibility in presenting violent material to audiences, as well as the audience’s own dicey desire to look at the sick and the horrible. Mark is not a peeping tom at all. Like Norman Bates, he is a voyeur who derives the pleasure of looking with debilitating guilt. The sexual feelings his gaze stirs moves him to murder. Unlike Norman Bates, Mark is given a richer and more convincing back story, one we see played out in one of the disturbing films he owns rather than hear from the mouth of a longwinded psychoanalyst. Critics also missed the sly humor that offsets the horror and despair, Moira Shearer giving a particularly delightful performance as dancer Vivian before Mark cuts her down. When she dies, we feel far greater remorse than we do after the deaths of Marion Crane and Arbogast in Psycho. Hitchcock is a cynic who wants us to feel complicit in Norman Bates’s crimes. Powell wants us to feel for his killer. Böhm helps accomplish this with a tortured performance, but we also sympathize with Mark because he is loved by a kind woman named Helen, played with charisma and vulnerability by Anna Massey. When Mark is outed as a murderer and meets his inevitable end, we feel reluctantly sorry for him and downright crushed for Helen. Peeping Tom has its flaws. Like so many of Powell’s films, it is slow. There is no explanation for why Mark speaks with a thick German accent even though he lived his entire life in London and we hear his father speak with a British accent in one of his films. And as always, the explicit correlation between sexual women and extreme violence is off-putting. In this way, Peeping Tom may be a clearer progenitor of the slasher film than Psycho. Depending on your opinion of that subgenre, this is either a distinction to be celebrated or shamed.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1960s here.
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