The real strength of Netflix and its streaming library is the general ease of learning some film history. In the horror genre this history would include Peeping Tom, a 1960 film by Michael Powell that laid the groundwork for the modern slasher. While it barely resembles the slashers we know today, it does introduce the theme of innocent women being stalked by something sinister. Arguably, this is the first of its kind in that respect. For that alone, it’s worth an hour and a half on Netflix.
Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis(Karlheinz Bohm) as he follows various women and films them, and then, ultimately kills them. For reasons explained in the film, the camera is more of an appendage than a tool for Mark. It is a means for him to capture human interaction and emotion, the two things he doesn’t truly understand. Luckily for the horror audience, his emotion of choice to study is fear.
The major difference between Peeping Tom and the modern slasher is it doesn’t shy away from explaining the monster. There is no mask, there are no shadowy motivations. He is a damaged man, nothing more. This leads the movie to be more intriguing than truly fear inducing. He is a true protagonist in the sense that we understand him and, by the end, feel sympathy for him. Explaining the evil away usually doesn’t work in a horror film’s advantage, but in the case of Peeping Tom it actually leads to a slow, tense, burn that leaves the audience effectively uneasy.
Where Peeping Tom has lived on, to the point of masterpiece classification to some, is in the meta, self introspection on the state of movie viewing. As an audience, we are all voyeurs. We watch in the dark as characters live their most intimate and sometimes tragic moments in front of us. Why does this appeal to movie goers? Our protagonist, Mark, is us, especially as horror fans. We want to follow people and their stories, and ultimately see them destroyed for our pleasure. The real strength of this film is that it takes its time struggling with this sacrificial mentality.
Appropriately, the only person in the film who really sees Mark and his struggle is a blind woman. She senses his struggle, and the threat that it represents. She is a voyeur in her own world, she can hear every move Mark makes in his upstairs apartment. She is observing as meticulously as Mark does. They both live through the lives of others. They are cut off from society in very different ways, but it has brought them to the same role, the role of the peeping tom.
In the years following Peeping Tom, we have moved from Psycho, to Black Christmas, to Halloween, and then beyond. Each evolution bringing us closer and closer to the faceless predator fueled by nothing but evil. In that context, Peeping Tom seems less a slasher and more a timid British character study. In the grander scheme, though, this film introduces the structure of the slasher sub-genre years before the term even existed. And perhaps even more impressively, fifty-two years ago, before the modern slasher film and well before “torture porn”, this film had the foresight to ask horror fans: why do we watch? And that, even to this life long horror fan, is still a damn fine question.