peeping tom

Classic Bit Review: Peeping Tom (1960)

Who would’ve thought that Peeping Tom (directed by Michael Powell) would be certified as Fresh by film site Rotten Tomatoes and is summarised as “a chilling, methodical look at the psychology of a killer, and a classic work of voyeuristic cinema”. Certainly not audiences in Britain during the time of its release. With such comments as “it turns out to be the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing…we have had glossy horrors before but never such insinuating, under the skin horrors”   highlighting that British audiences weren’t ready for such an intense voyeuristic experience commentating on issues that hadn’t ever been explored in detail before.

Peeping Tom features a lot of techniques which have arguably pioneered not just horror in general but more specifically the slasher genre which Hollywood easily re-used in the late 80s/early 70s from such films from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Amy Holden Jones’ The Slumber Party Massacre, both of which spawned sequels and numerous spin offs. Despite many believing Hitchcock’s Psycho to be the film that truly defined the genre; Peeping Tom is clearly the film that originally did so. Peeping Tom was released on the 16th of May 1960 and Psycho not released until the 15th of September of that year. Many saw, and still see Psycho as the start of the slasher and psychological thriller. However, all of these could’ve easily been said about Peeping Tom as we are drawn sympathy toward evil as we are given strong hints of the abuse that leading character Michael endured. Powell also creates violence with a lack of imagery as the audience are never shown the victim and the violence is minimal especially compared to Psycho.  So why did Psycho elevate Hitchcock’s career whilst Peeping Tom destroyed Powell’s career as a standing British director?

Both film incorporate the intense voyeurism, the abuse of parents and a killer who isn’t necessarily portrayed as the stereotypical Hollywood villain. Yet, Powell was criticised whilst Hitchcock was praised. Many believe that the fault of Powell’s was letting the British press critique his film instead of letting the public decide. This worked in Hitchcock’s favour as many critics did hate the film but audiences were enthralled and loved it. Peeping Tom is now a cult favourite, as audiences have made up their own minds and now critics have followed. Hitchcock learned a valuable lesson from Powell, suggesting that perhaps if Psycho was released before and with a press screening in Britain that perhaps the roles would be reversed.