In modern cinema, the genuinely scary horror film has been an endangered creature for quite some time. Maybe Pulp Fiction is to blame – its success made it replace Halloween as the independent filmmaker’s model. No longer is the horror movie home for the cheap entry-in-the-biz flick – film noir sans morality has become de rigeur.1 Subsequently, there’s not a lot of reason these days to be a fan of horror movies.
Just look at the crap that has been foisted on us this year: Jason X. Queen Of The Damned. The Mothman Prophecies. Resident freekin’ Evil, for the sake of God. Six months in, and only two genre films of even peripheral interest (Frailty and Blade II) have been released. And short of Blade II, which raked in ninety million bucks, none of them had any box office clout, and Blade II is more remarkable for its viscera than anything else.
With that in mind, watching Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is in some ways disheartening, because it proves that horror movies can be much more than pitiable wastes of time and film. And make no mistake, Peeping Tom is a horror movie, no matter how much you want to categorize it with that weak-kneed euphemism, “psychological thriller.” It’s a particularly effective horror film, and this is one of the least commented-on aspects of the movie.
That’s understandable for more than the typical ‘genre=bad,’ critical knee-jerk reasons. The film does indeed contain many a multitude, commenting on voyeurism, psychology, and the desperate need for human connection even in the sickest of individuals. And as played by Karl Böhm, Mark Lewis is one of the sickest sociopaths in cinema.
Mark is a cameraman, and a murderer. These two elements of his personality are inextricable. The son of a psychologist and “fear specialist,” Mark is desperate to shoot a moment of perfect fear on a victim’s face. Böhm plays Mark as a complete outsider, and his German accent aids in his feeling out of place in London. He is so distracted from real life that he’s never met the rest of the tenants in his flat – and he’s their landlord.
When he finally makes contact with the girl living downstairs, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey, Frenzy), he doesn’t know how to connect with her, and he ends up showing her a film of his father verbally abusing him as a child. Helen is repulsed, but she doesn’t turn away from Mark. Rather, their relationship builds tenderly, because she knows that she is dealing with a man who has something broken inside, and is likeable.
In this way, Powell develops tension immediately, not only by creating sympathy for a murderer, but by giving him direct access to a potential victim and developing her into a likeable character as well. At the same time we’re watching this budding romance, we’re aware of the incredible danger that Helen is in. Peeping Tom is as much about generating audience tension as it is about these characters. It succeeds, then, on both intellectual and visceral levels.
Consider a sequence in the middle of the film. On the movie set where he works, Mark, after hours, is filming test footage of a young actress. The outcome of the encounter is inevitable, but Powell never rushes it. Instead, the whole scene lasts for more than ten minutes while the actress dances about the soundstage, filled with life that Mark takes away just so he can capture it on screen. There is frisson here that no modern slasher pic achieves; we are allowed inside the characters enough so that, when they die, the death is felt. It’s real. Just three months after Peeping Tom was released in the U.K., Hitchcock’s equally seminal Psycho came out. The parallels between the films are striking: the use of voyeurism as a motif, the focus on and rejection of psychology, the black humor, and the forced identification with victims are all shared. Psycho‘s use of this technique is, of course, much more extreme, since from the get-go our protagonist is Marion Crane, but the development of an audience rapport with victims is prominent in Peeping Tom, too, and key to its effectiveness as an entertainment.
Peeping Tom is an example of something that, for the most part, the modern horror movie has lost: concern with character. As their source of terror, even great horror movies of the 90s like Se7en and Candyman have moved towards the set piece and the shocking idea, not character. This has essentially made it impossible for the horror film to advance, mature, or improve, and why it has been stagnant since the late 70s. The Scream movies, insightful as they are, do not have their satire aimed as squarely as they’d like to think. The weakness of modern horror films is not that what happens in them is ridiculous, (though it surely is), but rather that who it is happening to is so irrelevant to the audience.
1Two corollaries. First, I know the merits of the post-Halloween horror movies have been questionable. But then, so have the merits of the post-Tarantino crime fests. Second, that much French in one English sentence probably discredits me with the right-minded readers in our audience. Sorry.