In Scream 4, the final (and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, decidedly underrated) film by the late Wes Craven, there is a scene in which the latest Ghost Face Killer asks doomed teen Hayden Panettiere to name the film which started the slasher film movement: Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, or Psycho? When Panettiere sensibly answers Psycho, the killer gleefully spits back, “None of the above! Peeping Tom, 1960, directed by Michael Powell! First movie to ever put the audience in the killer’s POV!” Like much in that franchise, the line is gloriously pedantic, borderline pretentious — and absolutely right on the money.
Set in swingin’ Soho and directed by the legendary Michael Powell, Peeping Tom tells the story of Mark Lewis, a shy, well-mannered photographer who — you guessed it — works through various Freudian issues by filming himself murdering prostitutes and show-business hopefuls, then rewatching his opuses in the privacy of his darkroom. Which all sounds pretty familiar, until you realize that this film was made in 1960. Peeping Tom is unmistakably present in the five decades of horror that followed: in the dreamy, Technicolor nightmares of Dario Argento and Mario Bava; in the button-down psychopaths of Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Harris (Red Dragon’s Francis Dolarhyde even shares Lewis’ home theater set-up); in the found-footage voyeurism of The Blair Witch Project and its progeny. Martin Scorsese is particularly effusive in his praise of the film, and it’s not hard to see Lewis’ influence on Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. Hell, Peeping Tom even anticipates the cultural fear of snuff films, over a decade before the term was coined.
All of this is not to say that Peeping Tom is without influences of its own. Powell is clearly a student of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as, in all likelihood, the then-current reevaluations of Hitchcock’s themes being written by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (curiously, Powell made Peeping Tom the same year Hitchcock made Psycho; Mark Lewis and Norman Bates would both likely benefit from a group therapy session). There is another, sadder precedent as well: like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Peeping Tom’s shocking subject matter appalled critics, effectively ending Powell’s career. At one point in the film, Mark Lewis asks one of his doomed stars, “Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear.” Powell, like his anti-hero, managed to capture that fear on film.
dir. Michael Powell
Part of the ongoing series: A Matter of Life and Death, or, The Filmmaker’s Nightmare