There’s a great moment in Scre4m, during one of Ghostface’s deadly games of horror trivia: “Name the movie that started the slasher craze: Halloween, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left or Psycho?” A trick question, as it turns out: “None of the above! Peeping Tom, 1960, directed by Michael Powell. First movie to ever put the audience in the killer’s POV.”
The story of a troubled photographer named Mark, Peeping Tom was highly controversial upon its original release, but has since been rightfully acknowledged as a masterpiece. The central theme of voyeurism is often a pseudo-intellectual excuse behind which filmmakers like to hide, like Mark behind his camera. But Powell’s intellectual thesis is never in doubt, making explicit his psychological themes: the camera as a penetrating lens; filmmaking as violation; cinema as voyeurism.
But this is a frightening thriller as well as an artistic statement, and Powell’s technical abilities match his thematic clout. His pioneering POV shots are not simply formal devices, but intimately linked to the story and its ideas. He captures and develops his themes with commanding direction, editing and music, forming a masterfully macabre atmosphere. As for Carl Boehm as Mark, his performance is disarmingly sympathetic, bringing psychological depth and endearing charm to our scopophiliac protagonist. When asked which newspaper he photographs for, Mark wryly lies: “The Observer.”
With a release history as troubled as Mark himself, Peeping Tom killed Powell’s career, only for him to be later recognised as a visionary. Released the same year as Psycho, one can clearly see the film’s influence on the subsequent work of Alfred Hitchcock, and by extension Brian De Palma. Its optical symbolism prefaces Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, while its POV shots became the hallmark of slasher cinema. Touché, Mr Ghostface, touché.