To understand the stir that Peeping Tom caused when it was released in 1960, you need to think about what audiences at that time were accustomed to when they went to the cinema. Innocent love stories, historical epics, action-packed westerns and colourful musicals were the staple cinematic diet of the time, certainly not dark, disturbing and intensely violent murder thrillers like this. What probably unsettled contemporary film-goers even more was the fact that a film of this kind could come from a much-loved and revered director like Michael Powell. In modern times, the equivalent would be if Steven Spielberg were to make a graphic and reviled film about paedophilia or bestiality, consequently never being allowed to stand behind a movie camera again. When Peeping Tom hit the big screen, it was rejected by the public and crucified by the critics, and left Powell's hitherto glorious career in ruin. A film cameraman, Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), displays psychotic tendencies as he murders women with a spiked tripod attached to the bottom of his camera, capturing on celluloid their final screams of agony. It is revealed that when he was a child, Mark was used as a guinea pig by his father (Michael Powell) in a series of psychoanalytical experiments about the symptoms of fear. Among other things, Mark's delightful dad would wake him throughout the night and shine lights in his eyes, drop lizards into his bed, and on one occasion even forced him to pose for photographs next to the dead body of his mother. As a result, Mark has an unhealthy obsession with fear and, in particular, the expression that people have on their face during moments of fear. Peeping Tom is one of the few films that still has the power to shock all these years on. Psycho, released roughly at the same time, is still a great film but its shock value has been diminished by years of repeat viewings and increasing permissiveness in the cinema. But Peeping Tom is an altogether more disturbing piece of work. Boehm is excellent as the killer whose entire outlook has been skewed by his father's experiments. Also impressive is Anna Massey as the killer's fragile and unsuspecting fiancée. Powell directs the film brilliantly, using bold and dazzling colours to disguise the horrific atrocities that punctuate his film. It is understandable that the film was met with revulsion and rejection at that time, but in retrospect it is a film of real importance and power. In a 21st century world bombarded and desensitised by harrowing images on the news and in the movies, the theme of losing one's grasp on what is and isn't morally acceptable is more pertinent than ever. This is not easy viewing, but it IS essential viewing.
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A young man murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror.
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April 5, 2019