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Film / Peeping Tom

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"Look out! You're being watched!"

Peeping Tom is a 1960 British Psychological Thriller film by the legendary director Michael Powell. Along with Psycho, released the same year, it can be seen as a precursor to the Slasher Movie genre. It's also known for the controversy it generated at the time it was made.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a very disturbed young man with a movie camera. An aspiring filmmaker, he works with a film crew and has a second job as a photographer of erotica. This all serves to increase his obsession with voyeurism and death, which he feeds by making his own private snuff films, killing women and filming their deaths. Mark also owns a boarding house, and after engaging in conversation with the family downstairs he strikes up a friendship with their daughter Helen (Anna Massey), eventually entering into a relationship with her. Mark shares some of his home movies with Helen, and opens up to her about the childhood problems created by his father. Turns out he used his son as his subject for an experiment in psychological fears, putting Mark in stressful situations and filming everything with his camera.

No one suspects clean-cut, mild-mannered Mark when a prostitute is found dead in his neighborhood, nor do they suspect him when a second victim is found dead on the set of the film he's working on. Finally a chance comment from a psychiatrist leads the police to suspect Mark. Unable to escape his urges, Mark murders his third victim in circumstances which make it obvious he's the killer. He flees back to his boarding house, only to find that Helen has looked at his films and knows the truth about him. She begs him to turn himself in, but instead he commits suicide, thus giving his documentary an appropriate ending.

The film was highly controversial. Before it was released, it was heavily edited by the British censors, with much of the nudity and violence cut out. It was also viciously panned by critics and a flop with audiences, and effectively wrecked Powell's career. Eventually it was Vindicated by History and now is esteemed as an early classic of the horror genre.

A personal favorite of Martin Scorsese. It's also on Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" list.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: His father is the main reason Mark is the way he is.
  • Alone with the Psycho: The climax has Helen trapped with Mark in his film studio room after finding out that he's the killer.
  • Big Bad: Mark Lewis, the Villain Protagonist, who kills women while photographing their death cries.
  • Blind and the Beast: Inverted example of this. Helen's blind mother Mrs Stephens is the only person who finds something off about Mark.
  • Bowdlerise: When it was first released, the censors cut shots of the murders, nudity and Mark’s suicide. Note especially how abruptly the third murder scene, with Mark and a nude Milly, ends (or for that matter how clumsily edited it is, with Millie's nightgown instantly disappearing between shots).
  • Camera Fiend: Mark is incapable of venturing out without his camera. He films all of his murders, films the police tailing him, and finally films his own suicide.
  • Creator Cameo: Director Powell appears as Mark's father on a home movie.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: To die watching the reflection of your horrified face seems to be horrible.
  • Dead Man's Chest: Mark murders Vivian on the film set and leaves her body in a trunk on the set. The next day the director decides to re-shoot the scene with new action that involves one of the actors opening the trunk. Mark picks up his camera and films the reactions of the cast and crew as the body is discovered.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Mark targets prostitutes for his work.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The protagonist is a Peeping Tom who spies on the neighbors, but by extension, so is the audience watching the film.
  • Downer Ending: Mark confesses his crimes to his girlfriend, before being consumed by madness and nearly killing her. He kills himself to stop it, but his girlfriend collapses in grief immediately afterwards.
  • Dramatic Irony: Mark is about to be interviewed by the police and is filming their investigation.
    Clapper Boy: Suppose they catch you?
    Mark: Oh they will. They look very efficient.
    Clapper Boy: Don't you mind?
    Mark: No.
    Clapper Boy: Mark, are you crazy?
    Mark: [laughs] Yes. Do you think they'll notice?
  • Driven to Suicide: To avoid the police.
  • Eye Open: The first shot is an extreme closeup of Mark's eye.
  • Fanservice: The nudity in this film, tame for modern standards, shocked the censors in 1960. Glamour model Pamela Green's nude scene was one of the first in British cinema.
  • For Science!: It seems to have been his father's motive. He published a multi-volume set of textbooks from his "research".
  • Freudian Excuse: Mark is turned into a killer by his father's abusive experiments.
  • The Ghost: Mark's late father. He does appear briefly on one of the old movies, but is out of focus for most of it.
  • Guinea Pig Family: Mark was used as a guinea pig for his father's psychological experiments on fear and the nervous system. Mark's father would study his son's reaction to various stimuli, such as lizards he put on his bed and would film the boy in all sorts of situations, even going as far as recording his son's reactions as he sat with his mother on her deathbed. He kept his son under constant watch and even wired all the rooms so that he could spy on him.
  • Hate Sink: Dr. Lewis, Mark's father, was fascinated by terror and elected to traumatize and film his own son to study his fear response.
  • Hey, Wait!: Mark (along with the rest of the crew) is interviewed by the police. When Mark's interview finishes, he gets up and goes to the door. Just as he is about to leave, Chief Inspector Gregg calls out for him stop. Mark freezes, thinking that something he said has given him away as the murderer, only for Gregg to ask him for directions on how to get back to the studio.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Who could have thought of using a tripod's leg as a butcher’s knife?
  • Intro-Only Point of View: The whole opening scene is shown from the perspective of Mark's camera.
  • Lady Drunk: Helen's mother, who is usually seen on the couch with a bottle of whiskey. In one scene where Helen is going upstairs with Mark, Mrs. Stephens reminds Helen to come back before Mom is too drunk to play cards. Apparently a botched operation left her blind. Despite being both a heavy drinker and blind she is very sharp and she sniffs out that something is wrong with Mark, when Helen can't.
  • Mad Scientist: Mark's father, who psychologically tortured him in order to study fear.
  • Mama Bear: Mrs Stephens confronts Mark about his intentions towards Helen. Her tough attitude and blindness — which prevents her from being frightened by Mark's usual tricks — along with her cane's metal tip being unnervingly similar to his own tripod-knife, make Mark cower like a scared child.
  • Match Cut: From a model pouring a cup of coffee to Helen's mother pouring a drink at Helen's party. Later from Mrs Stephens pouring a glass of whiskey to Mark pouring chemicals in his darkroom.
  • Can be seen as a precursor of sorts.
  • Murderer P.O.V.: The film's first scene depicts Mark picking up a hooker and killing her. It is shot entirely from the point of view of the camera he carries at all times.
  • The Peeping Tom: Surprised? Mark has a habit of watching people and staring into windows, even when he's not using his camera to secretly record people. He also wired every room of the house for sound, so that he can eavesdrop and record the tenants' audio.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Used for the murder scenes, and justified as they are from Mark's camera.
  • Psychological Horror: The film is about Mark and his madness.
  • Reluctant Psycho: Mark is well-aware that there's something wrong with him, and he indirectly asks a psychiatrist for help after Helen's mother advises him to do so, but he's put off after hearing how long it would take to cure him of his voyeurism (three years.)
  • Serial Killer: Mark films his victims as he murders them.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Mark's stepmother (shown briefly only in home movies) is styled and dressed identically to Kim Novak's "Madeleine" from Vertigo. Director Powell started out working for Hitchcock.
    • After Mark drops some of the pencils from his pocket when filming the police from the rafters and their chief tells everyone to be quiet to find out what made the noise, one of the policemen breaks the silence by saying "I tawt I taw a putty tat."
  • Slasher Movie: Possibly a Trope Maker.
  • Slashers Prefer Blondes: Mark's first and third victims are a blonde prostitute and a blonde model who's posing nude for him.
  • Snuff Film: Mark's documentary of the girls he's killed.
  • Streetwalker: One has the misfortune of running into Mark.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Mark, arguably one of the first examples. The movie came out in the same year as Psycho but differed in that we knew the murderer and spent the whole film from his perspective from the first shot, whereas Hitchcock's film took a baroque approach in making the audience feel a connection for Norman.
  • Take That!: The character of the director is supposed to be a parody of mogul John Davis (the director's name is Don Jarvis, making it not too subtle).
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted; there is a psychiatrist, but he's more helpful to the police than to Mark—his casual comment that Mark wanted to discuss about Mark's father's research on voyeurism cause the police to zero in on Mark as a suspect. He helpfully tells Mark that voyeurism can be cured "quickly" with three years of therapy three times per week.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: And so do posters. As you can see in the poster above, it indirectly reveals the secret weapon of Mark.
  • Troubled Production: In-universe. The film that Mark is a crewmember on was having problems with its diva lead actress. The problems get worse when the corpse of Viv the stand-in is discovered in a trunk.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The originator of the Slasher Movie puts the audience entirely in the killer's POV. The Sex Signals Death applied to his victims is justified by the circumstances—he wouldn't be able to get so close to normal everyday women. And the Final Girl doesn't get killed like the rest because the killer is actually in love with her.
  • Ur-Example: Of the slasher flick.
  • Villain Protagonist: Most of the movie is told through the perspective of the killer, Mark Lewis.
  • The Voice: An audio recording of Mark's father plays just after Mark commits suicide. The police (and the film's audience) hear him coldly telling Mark to stop crying, and the frightened little boy asks "Daddy" to comfort him.
  • Weaponized Camera: Mark murders his victims with a knife hidden in the leg of his camera tripod: allowing him to film them at the moment he kills them.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Implied when Mark states he wants his film to be so perfect that "even he would..." and trails off.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Nothing is revealed of what became of Mark's stepmother (an attractive blonde) since his father's passing, but Mark visibly strains to even speak about her to Helen. Audiences can only speculate.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Mark, considering his massive Freudian Excuse.
  • You Bastard!: The protagonist is a voyeur who obsessively watches films of his murders — kind of like the audience watching the movie.