Freshly re-released with a stunning new restoration (and insightful extra features) on Blu-ray and 4K UHD is Michael Powell’s voyeuristic chiller, Peeping Tom.
Initially released in 1960, Powell’s dark and disturbing thriller was a far cry from the sugary romances, westerns, and musicals that populated cinemas then. The story of a seemingly everyday young man, Mark (Karlheinz Böhm), with a murderous side, caused quite the commotion upon its release. In modern times, it would take the likes of grotesque shock horror The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film for a motion picture to cause this much of a brouhaha.
The unflinching tale of a young focus-puller who films his victims’ last moments with his camera is likely considered tame by today’s standards, but in 1960, Peeping Tom created genuine outrage—unlike the similarly themed Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released mere months after Peeping Tom, Powell’s visceral thriller was a commercial and critical flop. Psycho might have caused some censorship waves, but it was a box office smash and lavished with critical praise.
The comparisons between the two films have been extensively drawn over the last 60-odd years; both follow a psychologically damaged young man with a taste for voyeurism and murdering women. I’ll refrain from going further down the comparison route, but the critical difference between the two is a matter of perspective. Namely the one each respective film offers to the audience, Psycho puts you in the shoes of the soon-to-be victim Marion Crane, and Peeping Tom tells its macabre tale from Mark’s (the killer) point of view (in some cases quite literally), which creates a very different viewing experience from Psycho.
Thankfully, Peeping Tom received a second life thanks to filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, who championed the film long after its initial release; it eventually was hailed as the cult classic it is; in many ways, it was just ahead of its time, as the years that followed would see a floodgate of horrors that would cause even more controversy.
Powell is that rare type of director; he’s a filmmaker’s filmmaker. His roster of hit projects with writing/producing/directing partner Emeric Pressburger made him a highly respected director/producer and writer, and while he made a few films after Peeping Tom, his career never recovered.
While frequently cited as the first slasher movie, Peeping Tom remains a layered, complex, and profoundly uncomfortable film more than six decades after it first shocked audiences.