Peeping Tom


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Peeping Tom
"Peeping Tom is a film all about watching and identification, a film whose real horror hinges on the way it implicates the audience in its dark voyeurism."

One of the central principles of filmmaking is that everybody wants to see themselves up on screen - to see, that is, a character with whom they can closely identify - but nobody wants to see themselves reflected too accurately. Immensely controversial on its original release, Peeping Tom is a film all about watching and identification, a film whose real horror hinges on the way it implicates the audience in its dark voyeurism.

Carl Boehm plays Mark, the archetypal nice young man, shy and a bit reclusive but easy to like. Helen (Anna Massey), his downstairs neighbour, likes him very much, and they watch each other from a distance even as a wary friendship builds, she protectively, he in an uncertain way that challenges his understanding of life and threatens to destabilise his carefully structured world. Yet Mark's structures are not healthy ones, and the dark experiments to which his father subjected him in childhood are not the only secret he harbours. This isn't a film about a nice young man who slips into madness; it's a film about somebody who is already there. With a sharp spike attached to the front of his film camera, Mark goes out looking for young women to star in his own private horror films, inflicting his own voyeurism upon them as he forces them to watch themselves.

Copy picture

Sometimes described as the British counterpart to Psycho, Peeping Tom goes a step further in implicating those who develop the psychoanalytic theories on which it is based. The shadowy figure of Mark's father (played by the director - this is, of course, his film) is only briefly glimpsed, escaping the voyeuristic power of the camera. He's a psychiatrist who has built his reputation on what he learned by repeatedly terrifying his son. The relationship between them is as central to the film as Mark's relationship to the women he kills, or to those he photographs in sleazy poses to make his living.

This sleaze attached itself to the reputation of Peeping Tom, too, with a brief glimpse of naked breast a challenging first for British cinema. It may not have the same power to shock now, but the implication remains constant, as the viewer is invited to objectify Mark's victims, these characters sacrificed in a celluloid fantasy just as the women are sacrificed for real in Mark's world. We may now have become used to seeing terrified women killed for entertainment, but Peeping Tom reminds us that there's something not quite right in the head about this, and in doing so it captures a visceral relationship with onscreen violence that the modern horror film has largely lost.

Old-fashioned in style perhaps, but sharply intelligent, witty and genuinely chilling, Peeping Tom remains well worth watching.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2010
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Peeping Tom packshot
A young photographer becomes fascinated by expressions of fear, with deadly consequences.
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Director: Michael Powell

Writer: Leo Marks

Starring: Karlheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Michael Goodliffe, Jack Watson, Shirley Anne Field

Year: 1960

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2005
London 2023

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