Peeping Tom (1960)
When Peeping Tom was first released in 1960, it was universally reviled by critics and audiences alike for its sadism and mixing of sex and violence, and essentially ended the career of its director, Michael Powell. To say it was misunderstood at the time would be an understatement, as over time it has come to be recognized as a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is often compared with Psycho in terms of shock value, but Peeping Tom's Mark Lewis makes Norman Bates look like the Easter Bunny by comparison.
Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, by day a camera assistant at a film studio, by night a photographer for girly magazines who murders women and films them while he's doing so. Why does he do so? It gives him a sexual rush to see the fear in their eyes when they realize they are going to be killed. His father was a biologist, he explains to Helen (Anna Massey), a young woman who lives in his building, and his father was especially interested in fear in children, so he made Mark a test subject. You can see the connection here: a bruised childhood leading to abnormal adult behavior.
The relationship between Mark and Helen is a peculiar one. She is terribly curious about him; at first she seems to think he's a nice young man, but during their first encounter, Mark shows her some strange film and she becomes outraged, yet she does not run away. Her interest in him seems to only grow, despite his clearly creepy ways. In an ordinary film, Mark would be a villain, and we would hate him, because he is a murderer. But what Peeping Tom asks is for us to sympathize with this man, because it is not entirely his fault that he is the way he is. The major conflict in the film is between Mark and himself, as he struggles to suppress his urges and contain his own fears.
This is a horror movie, but the only monster is a human, and that makes it all the more frightful, because it is horror rooted in reality. There are sick people like Mark Lewis out there in the world, and you read about them in the newspaper just about every day. Peeping Tom doesn't terrify with "Boo!" moments, but rather it works on a more cerebral level, letting the audience into the twisted mind of a killer.
So why was this film such a topic of controversy in 1960? Well, never before were audiences asked to look upon a sadistic killer as anything but an irredeemable evil person, and nobody was really expecting that. This film is the kind that is intended to disturb instead of entertain, and when you go to a movie expecting to be entertained and end up being disturbed instead, you tend not to look favorably on the movie. Peeping Tom has been an incredibly influential film for today's filmmakers, as its influences can be seen in films from Road to Perdition to Red Dragon. I highly recommend it to any fan of film and film history.
April 9, 2005