Monday, November 12, 2012

31 Horrors: Peeping Tom (#23)

Wherein I attempt to watch 31 horror films over the course of October. 31 horror films that I have never seen before, from obscure to acclaimed classics. We'll see how well I go in actually finding the time to watch and then write about them in some way.

I still have a few of my October viewings left to write up, but Michael Powell's classic Peeping Tom is officially the first of my horror selections to have been screened in November. I ran out of time, but am still wanting to watch the 31. It was inevitable given my late night start times usually resulted in me going "oh, I'll leave that movie that is hailed a masterpiece until another time when I won't have a high chance of falling asleep and, instead, will watch something sillier and lighter." Ya know? Yeah. I still very much anticipate watching Changeling and Don't Look Now, but at the time I felt more like, oh I dunno, Student Bodies instead.

Still, no matter whether I watched it in October or in April, I'd still want to talk about Peeping Tom! More of a thriller than horror - certainly less horror inclined that the film it is frequently linked to, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (yet another instance of my October horror selections having a connection to that particular masterpiece) - it still manages to conjure up an intensely nerve-wracking world that I found entirely captivating. Whether deliberately or not, Peeping Tom embraces an artificial aesthetic that is both glorious to look at and yet a prominent thematic device. The film is, after all, about voyeurism and what better way to subliminally instruct an audience that filmgoing is, essentially, an act of voyeurism than by playing up the cinematic language? Catching audiences off guard with damning themes seems to go down a lot easier when its drawn in bold colours and deliciously constructed imagery.

Known as the first "slasher" film - "Peeping Tom, 1960, directed by Michael Powell. The first movie to ever put the audience in the killer's POV", Scream 4 naturally - and released the same year as Psycho, it's actually quite easy to see how this film caused such a ruckus in Powell's home country of Britain (also Hitchcock's home country, but Psycho was an American production). Presenting England in such a light, especially by one of their own, can't have have endeared him to too many people. The seemingly rather easily replicable nature of the crimes with the increasing popularity of home cameras, too. As a member of the famed Powell & Pressburger team, this was a detour and one that essentially ended his career, which is a particularly cruel fate given the (eventual) rapturous response that Hitchcock's Psycho received. The film was also a very obvious inspiration on the aforementioned Scream franchise (especially number 4), which gets it bonus kudos points from me.

Peeping Tom's biggest hurdle is its lead actor, Karlheinz Böhm. With his breath, somewhat posh, vocal delivery, the character of Mark Lewis is hardly a charismatic one. Of course, he doesn't necessarily have to be. I guess if he were then the scenes wherein we're meant to believe he's coming out of his shell thanks to the inquisitive Helen, played by Anna Massey, wouldn't come off quite as creepy as hell as it does, which was surely Powell's intention. He's a weirdo that most viewers would have had a hard time responding to (much different to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates) and the acting style that Karlheinz Böhm utilises is occasionally quite distracting in its lack of subtlety.

Still, Peeping Tom doesn't rise or fall simply on the actor's shoulder (and, it must be said that Maxine Audley is super fantastic as the blind mother of Massey's Helen). It's a film deep in rich context that's so wonderfully explained by one Martin Scorsese:

"I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films."

Furthermore, the character of Mark Lewis frequently alternating between real world and the world as viewed through his camera, it's almost as he really isn't there. Much like Patrick Bateman who used those almost exact words in one of his pre-homicide monologues, Mark seems permanently poised on the verge of disappearing altogether. Swathed in oversized jackets and uncomfortable without his prized camera possession, his meek demeanor only forms flesh and blood when, well, in the presence of somebody else's flesh and blood. Much like Halloween begins from the perspective of Michael Myers before effectively moving onto a permanent otherly plain of existence, Peeping Tom portrays this man as somebody who never really was. He floats about seemingly unnoticed by many, and those who do don't tend to think too highly of him. Years of seeing his predominant male figure pursuing the act of perverse voyeurism has allowed him to slink through life determined to not be the sort of person that anybody would care about.

Peeping Tom is, perhaps more than anything else, a ravishing visual treat. The cinematography of Otto Heller is marvellous and works wonders in bringing a sort of film noir meets technicolour palace to life. The human figures that navigate his frame frequently weave through as Heller's camera glides ever so gracefully around them, cornering them in their own shadows. The confrontation sequence between Mark and the blind Mrs Stephens is a master of this blend of styles and was, for me, the film's greatest moment. Maximum suspense is wrung out of the otherwise innocuous camera that Mark carries around like a comfort blanket. It's spinning gears capturing death intensely and up close makes for a stunning piece of set decoration long before we discover the secret device hidden within it.

There's obvious much more to go into with this movie, but in a more formal way. I'm sure there are plenty of people who've done that and with far more intelligence than I. I was deeply involved by Peeping Tom, and parallels to Psycho aside, found it to be a startlingly original and daring piece of work. It's entirely apt that Michael Powell's career was ruined because of Peeping Tom since he almost seems to be going out of his way to make a film that can very easily be seen as him blasting audiences for their cinematic bloodlust. It's an endlessly fascinating film and one that shan't forget too soon. A

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