Observant viewers of Scream 4 will have caught a reference to Michael Powell’s 1960 suspenseful masterpiece Peeping Tom. In the film, a character claims that Peeping Tom, and not Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is the first slasher movie. While it’s true that Peeping Tom beat Psycho to theaters by three months and has a higher body count, the slasher argument is still debatable, only because of the fact that Peeping Tom is more of a psychological thriller than a slasher movie.
Comparisons to Psycho are inevitable with Peeping Tom. Both were made in 1960. Both are suspenseful, scary and unlike anything the movie going public had ever seen. Both films imply violence more than they actually show it, and both deal with the underlying theme of voyeurism and vulnerability. The main characters have similar traits, too, both being socially awkward loners with psychotic tendencies brought about by parental issues. But where Psycho is a more straightforward crazy-killer movie, Peeping Tom is a complex character study of a disturbed murderer.
In Peeping Tom, Carl Boehm (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) plays Mark Lewis, an aspiring film director who works as a camera assistant for a movie studio by day and as a photographer for an adult bookstore by night. Because of childhood experiences with his sadistic father, Lewis has an unnatural fascination with the emotion of fear. His obsession with terror leads him to build an ingenious murder device. This contraption looks like a camera tripod with one leg that can be pulled off to reveal a sharp spike. Lewis shoots film of his victims at the precise moment that he stabs their throat with the spike. As a result, Lewis ends up with a movie of a woman at the time of her execution, her expression one of pure fear. His fixation with these images encompasses his entire being, and he studies these homemade snuff films to try to gain a connection with the fear that is shown on his victims’ faces.
One of the most effective devices used in Peeping Tom is color. Powell uses color to show events that are happening in real time, and black and white to show events that have been filmed and are being watched again by the characters. The resulting films-within-the-film help move the exposition along in a logical way that doesn’t feel like the filmmaker is spoon-feeding back story to the viewer, even though that’s exactly what’s happening. The dichotomy between the color real-world and the black and white filmic world helps the audience differentiate between the two sides of Mark Lewis’ life.
Peeping Tom is masterfully written. British writer Leo Marks crafts an unsettling tale that keeps the viewer interested and engaged until the very last scene. The last scene drags out a bit longer than it should; Powell tries to take a page out of Hitchcock’s book by showing the audience what is inevitably going to happen before it does. The result starts out as suspense, but soon grows into boredom. The payoff at the end of the climactic scene is still satisfying (even horrifying), but it would be more effective if it would get there sooner.
Peeping Tom is one of the more original horror films out there. It’s got a story that hasn’t been done before (or since), it’s well written, executed and acted, and it’s got the approval of Scream 4. It may not be a bona-fide slasher film, but it’s a great film that will be remembered for a long time.
[Watch Peeping Tom right now, instantly, on Netflix.]