Quite by coincidence I am on to another psychopathic killer movie. “Peeping Tom” follows right on the tail of “Psycho” last week and it is entirely fitting. Those two would make an excellent double feature.
Where “Psycho” was leading us to believe that the nice guy at the motel is actually a nice guy and not a mad killer, “Peeping Tom” goes the completely opposite way. Right from the opening we know that Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) goes around killing people. Only then do we learn that Mark is actually a nice and gentle boy who struggling with some personal demons that makes him kill people. It sounds like an impossible task. How can you make a crazy killer sympathetic? A man you would actually root for? But Michael Powell, director and producer, actually accomplishes just that and that is in my opinion what makes this movie special.
Gradually through the movie we are let into Marks world, a truly strange and horrifying place. We see how he was ruined as a child by a sadistic father who did fear experiments on him and filmed it all. The result of that upbringing is an obsession with filming anything, everything really, and hunt for that perfect image of fear as people watch themselves die. It is clear that Mark get off on those images. Even the thought of them makes him sexually aroused and the murders seem to be orgastic release for him. This is seriously weird stuff, way beyond dressing up as a dog or hanging out with plastic dolls and a perversion far ahead of its time.
Personally I have some problem following the logic of his particular affliction. It does not really make sense and it gives me the nasty suspicion that his condition is deliberately gory and extreme, but then, I am not a psychiatrist, I have no idea if this sort of psychosis is a real thing. It bothers me because repelling as it is we get to like Mark and I want to understand why gets suck a kick out of filming people watching their own death.
Between working on a film set and going around killing people for kicks Mark meets a nice girl. Helen (Anna Massey) is a tenant is the big house Mark’s father left him who is endeared by the shy and gently boy. She wants to get to know him, but has clearly no idea what she is walking into. Mark falls in love with Anna immediately in part because he is desperate to reach out for someone to help him, yet, understandably, afraid what such a person would think of him. This part is quite interesting, both because we learn a lot about Mark, but also because I get strangely torn between hoping Anna can help him and urging her to get out of his reach that he does not kill her too.
Mark is of course a lost cause. The police is closing in on him and his relationship with Anna can only end in disaster. His secret is not something you can just learn to live with. The question is merely which disaster will happen first. However Mark has planned that moment and know exactly how he wants to check out.
There are a number of interesting elements to this movie. First of all why choose an actor with a distinct German accent as Mark? It is never explained, but I think it is with the war in mind, that at this time the British public would associate a German accent with a sadistic nazi villain.
Another element is the theme of voyeurism. Mark is not the only one who gets a kick out of watching. There is a great scene in the newsagent shop with an older man eager to buy pornography, but shy about it when a school girl enter the shop. Maybe a way of saying that voyeurism is a common thing, though in my book there is a big step up from porn to murder.
Then the movie has a whole meta thing going with the film set Mark is working at. A film about the process of making a film.
Powell has sprinkled humoristic elements over the movie, particularly on the film set, but also in scenes involving the police. I am not sure I like that levity. Mark’s affliction deserves to be taken serious and the silliness attenuates some of the bite. Normally I like that break in depressive movies, but here I find it unfitting.
My favorite character of the entire movie must be Anna’s mother, Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley). She is blind and therefore cannot be a voyeur and perhaps therefore she possesses more clarity than any other character. Also she is one sharp woman with a dry wit.
All in all “Peeping Tom” is a daring movie that does thing we are not (or were not) used to watching. It is cleverly made and swings itself up to an impressive level of suspense. It is impossible not to compare it to Psycho and in that comparison I think “Peeping Tom” falls short. I understand intuitively what is happening to Norman Bates and why he thinks as he does, but Mark is simply too far out. I simply cannot relate to his sexual obsession. But then again, I would hate to have another end sequence with a psychologist lecturing on his condition. Mark’s spectacular demise must and should speak for itself.