ABCs of Horror 2: “P” Is for Peeping Tom (1960)Movies Features horror movies
Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
It has often been argued that voyeurism is the nature of cinema itself—the observation of the stories of others from a safe distance, which allows the audience member to indulge in giddy thrills as we look in on something salacious, or shocking, or terrifying. As Roger Ebert once put it, “We sit in the dark, watching other people’s lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it.” The movie that prompted that line was 1960’s Peeping Tom, a richly psychological horror-thriller revered today by classic film devotees, but still sadly overlooked by many rank and file horror geeks. Unlike its most prominent contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Peeping Tom never generated fervor at the box office, but its influence has been felt in literally hundreds of psychological thrillers that make up its philosophical progeny. More than 50 years later, it still feels shockingly modern.
In a very central and primal way, Peeping Tom is a film about fear, and the myriad ways that human beings respond to the stress and stimuli of fear. Our lead Mark (Carl Boehm) was molded by abuse structured around intentionally causing and studying fear, the victim of sadistic psychological experimentation throughout his childhood, carried out by his famous scientist father. As with Psycho’s Norman Bates, this serves to make Mark a figure both sympathetic and pitiable, but in comparison the private tortures inflicted on Norman by his mother, Mark arguably has even more reason to carry a grudge against the world. After all, Norman suffered alone, whereas the entire psychological community not only was aware of the experimentation conducted by Mark’s father, but praised him for it, lending the inhumane stamp of bureaucratic approval to the abuse Mark suffered his entire young life. It’s understandable that he too grew up to have an obsession with human fear, which he tragically channels into a series of grisly, experimental killings.
Mark’s weapon of choice? Film itself, or a film camera, anyway. The titular “peeping tom” is a voyeur who is obsessed with capturing the final moments of life, and the look of utter terror that must have once been etched on his own face while his own father tortured him. Armed with at least some passable social skills, Mark uses his job as a photographer to lure models and actresses into private shoots, where he kills them with a blade mounted to his tripod. A bit ungainly, perhaps, but steeped in psychological symbolism. But what will happen when Mark meets a young woman in his apartment building who seems to genuinely care for him? Is it possible to leave behind an all-consuming obsession when shown a way out of the darkness?
Of course, the title of Peeping Tom might just as easily be applied to the viewers queuing up in the theater line to see another instance of cinematic murder, and this invitation for introspection on the part of the audience seems entirely intentional—it’s exactly what Ebert was referring to in the earlier quote. Peeping Tom wonders aloud at how broad the line really is between the homicidal maniac depicted on screen, and those plunking down their currency to watch him in action. Are we also getting off just a little, witnessing the fear on the faces of his victims?
Like Psycho, to which it is inevitably compared, Peeping Tom is today remembered as an early progenitor of the slasher genre, fulfilling several of the most important qualities in our own definition of slasher films. It has a genuine body count that Psycho lacks, and its female lead Helen is significantly closer to the “final girl” archetype than Psycho’s oft-cited Lila Crane. Upon closer inspection, though, Peeping Tom remains a proto-slasher rather than the first genuine instance of the fully fleshed out slasher genre, predominantly because Mark is simply too interesting and empathetic a character to ever become a genuine slasher villain—he simultaneously serves as both the protagonist and antagonist of this movie, which only serves to make Peeping Tom more unique, even half a century later. Like the screaming faces of his victims, Peeping Tom is a macabre masterpiece that has been perfectly preserved, just as tactile and unsettling today as it was in 1960.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.