Obsession can be a good thing. Were it not for Thomas Edison’s obsession with invention, to the point he slept in his lab, we might never have had the light bulb. Were it not for Stanley Kubrick’s obsession with perfection, we wouldn’t have some of the most enduring films of the 20th Century. However, obsession can also be dangerous if we allow it to consume the better parts of our humanity. If we remove ourselves from the everyday in exchange for the isolation of desire, we become hollow shells, driven only by our compulsion.
Such is the case with Mark Lewis, a young man who can only understand the world if he views it through the viewfinder of his camera. Normal emotions are a mystery to him, human interaction is a sparse, uncomfortable inconvenience, and the ability to truly connect is hindered when the other person only sees their reflection in his camera’s lens.
So it’s a bit of a surprise when a young, outgoing woman named Helen becomes interested in Mark. Mark’s first reaction is to push her away by showing her the films that were taken by his psychologist father. The man tortured Mark by putting him in terrifying situations and recorded his reactions, and filmed the young boy in moments of personal trauma, like when he approached the lifeless body of his mother as she lay on her death bed. It seems that Mark was rarely without a camera recording his every action, giving us a better understanding of his rather detached feelings about the subjects of his own films.
This glimpse into his past only makes Helen more determined to learn more about him. But little does she know that Mark’s not just obsessed with filming people, but that his true goal is to capture the face of fear at 24 frames per second. To achieve these results, he has devised a sick but clever way to kill from behind the camera, immortalizing his victims’ final moments as the film rolls.
After its release in 1960, Peeping Tom was lambasted by British critics for being too disturbing. In fact, the backlash alienated director Michael Powell so much that it pretty much ended his career. And I have to say, over 50 years later, it lives up to its reputation.
What makes the film so disturbing is the sexual nature of virtually every frame. Sometimes it’s blatant, like a pin-up girl photo session that Mark is hired to shoot. While other scenes are much more Freudian, such as Mark penetrating his helpless, female victims with a blade hidden on his camera’s tripod, acting as an extension of his own body. To make matters worse, the sexual imagery is always presented abnormally. That’s not to say that having a kink or a fetish isn’t normal, but in this case, the scenes of obvious sexuality are shown in a clinical fashion with no passion whatsoever. Whereas the moments of Mark caressing, even kissing his camera, linger to an uncomfortable degree. This discord in not only Mark’s actions – loving the camera, but ignoring the scantily-clad woman – but also in the imagery is unsettling to say the least.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the exploration of voyeurism. Not only does Mark struggle with his compulsion to watch, but we as an audience are forced to confront our own sense of fascination and thrill from seeing these events unfold. We inevitably judge Mark for the “weird” things he does, but here we are, willing participants in his fetish. If we were truly creeped out, we’d turn it off, but, no, we have to see what happens next. This thin line between character and audience is especially blurred when we watch, from the camera’s perspective – our perspective – the deaths of his victims. For Mark, the camera acts as a barrier to prevent him from feeling complicit in the act. If we consider our similar disconnect when we watch war zone footage on the news or a YouTube video of some poor schmuck wiping out on his skateboard, we too have that same distance. Is it really any different if murder is fiction? Can we make that distinction in our minds? Or are they all just flickering images that we can’t turn away from because of our own curious, demented natures?
Of course, none of this would work were it not for the performance of Carl Boehm, as Mark. Using only his eyes, Boehm can convey confusion and self-loathing one moment and a distant detachment the next. Seeing the cold stare of Mark in murder-mode melt away to a sort of puppy dog eagerness is fascinating, disorienting, and a real joy to watch. His mannerisms are also appropriately stiff when he’s interacting with others or even in his own home, but the moment he picks up his camera, he becomes liquid – fluid, cool, and totally within his element.
Thanks to famous fans like Martin Scorsese, Peeping Tom has been rescued from the depths of cinematic Hell that a film so poorly received would usually have been destined. The film has since been seen and reevaluated by critics worldwide and is now considered a classic. And yet, even with this belated recognition, Peeping Tom is still something of an underground phenomenon, because it’s themes are still too taboo, too confrontational, and too unsettling for many audiences to bear.
Peeping Tom is available on Netflix Instant, Hulu, and Criterion DVD
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Written by Rob Lammle (@spacemonkeyx)
Rob became a geek at a very young age. Growing up on a farm, with the nearest kid his age living five miles away, Rob had a lot of time to watch movies, read comic books, and play with his Star Wars action figures. He now finds time to write for a few… More »
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