Identification is less terrifying than implication. Horror films can be scary, but scarier still is that genre-less class of films that implicate the viewer in the evils of its character(s). And just as there is little consensus regarding which horror films frighten most, films that implicate the viewer have a singling-out effect. No matter how large the viewing audience, no comfort is found in community. When a film judges you for watching it, and for watching in general, you become more isolated than you would in the most effective horror movie – especially when such judgment is well-founded. Such is Peeping Tom, from Michael Powell.
Powell’s textbook knowledge of the cinema medium works seamlessly not only in telling a story but in constructing a theory. The theory’s basis in a story makes it all the more engaging and convincing. Laura Mulvey has been the most prominent scholar of the basic theory that Powell presents cinematically, that of the film gaze. Her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” expounded on the nay-universal male positioning of the film viewer. Peeping Tom certainly functions within Mulvey’s thesis; Mark, the protagonist, is a loner who works in film and is obsessed with using his own camera to make a particular documentary film. From the opening scene, Mark is shown actively shooting his project: murders of various women while filming them in the horror of seeing their own death. It’s not only that Mark’s victims are women; it’s that they are positioned in a way consistent with Mulvey: first they are bodily objectified through the act of watching, then placed in a position of submission, and finally killed by the dominating hands of the male – who, in this case, holds a literal camera during the murder and watches the murder through the camera. A film could not more overtly identify (viz. implicate) its viewers with the film villain.
The act of watching is not Mark’s only diabolical pleasure; it is the gaze of the gaze of the other/Other. Insofar as “the Other” is identified with the (Freudian) mother, the theme of Mark’s loss of his mother recurs (usually through allusion) often enough to warrant the probability that his enjoyment of watching women watch their own image in fear is associated with the loss of his mother. Mark’s adoration of his father contains an element of fear, as if Mark’s efforts to measure up to his father are bound to fall short. Foucault’s conception of panopticism correlates with Mark’s high view of his father as keeper of the phallus, which was passed on to Mark in the form of a camera. Among other disturbing footage captured by his father that excites Mark to watch is the clip of young Mark “saying goodbye” to his mother, lifeless on her deathbed. All we see are her arms, as she remains a faceless idea, a mere figure, powerless and lost amidst the father-figure and his many hours of filming Mark as a child.
Mark receives three gifts from his father in the old footage he shows Helen: a lizard (traumatically presented to Mark while waking up in bed), a “replacement” mother (given only weeks after the death of his real mother), and a camera. Incidentally, Powell and his own son played Mark’s father and mark, respectively. The real director stands in to portray the fictional director of the traumatic footage of Mark’s childhood. This solidifies the signification of the father as dominator/controller and the adult Mark not only as the signified of his father (the original signifier) but of the re-signifier. The dynamic can perhaps be considered in Hegelian terms: Mark’s father as thesis; young Mark as antithesis; adult Mark-with-camera as new synthesis. However, because, of Mark’s childhood trauma, his inability to fulfill his desires render him enslaved to his damaged psyche.
Mark’s attempts to free himself not only fail; they indicate more about the extent of his psychosis. The gives Mark’s father presented to him are given counterpoints in three gifts from Mark to Helen. When Helen first comes to Mark’s apartment, she brings him a piece of birthday cake on the occasion of her birthday. He offers her a drink but then confesses he doesn’t have anything. When she asks for water, he offers her milk, that beverage that especially hearkens back to a child’s reliance on his mother. After talking, Mark responds to Helen’s request to see his films by screening one for her as her 21st birthday present. The reel he chooses to show her depicts numerous scenes of disturbing childhood traumas, many of which have been discussed already. Mark’s third gift to Helen is his attempt at a more proper birthday present. It is a pendant in the shape of an insect. She receives it graciously, but the viewer can’t help but think of another creature presented as a gift in the film, that of the lizard from Mark’s father. The effects of Mark’s childhood are such that all of his gifts to Helen recall it.
Mark’s remarkable awareness of the psychological scars received from his father present interesting questions. At one point at least, Mark verbalizes to Helen his obsessions and their historical basis. On the film set, Mark encounters an old student of his father’s. Mark eagerly asks the man if he remembered his father, then asking if he knew his father’s theory about visual pleasure—specifically, about “peeping toms.” Desperately, Mark asks if there is a cure, and the man casually replies that there is certainly a cure: a few months in therapy for so many hours a week should take care of it, to which Mark despondently drops his head in surrender to his addiction. These examples are striking, as they comprise the construction of a character severely damaged by his childhood, drowning in the consequences, but fully aware of his plight. It should be mentioned that in days such as these—early 21st century—such awareness might not seem odd. However, in the late 1950s Mark would have been the exception to the rule. Mulvey’s commentary, for example, suggests that the back room to Mark’s apartment, which he uses for possessing and watching his films, stands for his unconscious. Always in the dark and the place where his childhood lives on, the back room connects with the main living area but its stark division with it conveniently corresponds to basic Freudian psychology of the unconscious. This potential incongruity with Freud, however, could be reconciled by an appeal to Lacan. Lacan’s understanding of the unconscious allowed for a more conscious dynamic of desires springing therefrom. Perhaps more explanatory than all of this is the propensity for filmmakers, such as Powell, to allow their knowledge of things psychological to spread to their characters, even when unlikely in reality. Hitchcock was subject to this tendency in Spellbound and Psycho, and however hokey, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell couldn’t have been made without this incredible level of Freudian understanding among otherwise regular characters.
In sum, Michael Powell delivered a disturbing masterpiece in Peeping Tom. Scorsese has said that, along with Fellini’s 8½, these films say all that can be said about filmmaking. What is frightening about Peeping Tom is that it says as much about film viewing as it does about filmmaking. It is to the thriller-horror genre what Gilda was to film noir: a film that interpellates its viewers, sutures them to its male protagonist, and punishes the diegetic women for allowing themselves to be watched. What makes Peeping Tom much more difficult is its implication that its viewers are the voyeurs who deserve punishment.