'Peeping Tom' and 'Psycho': Reinventing The Horror Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Peeping Tom' and 'Psycho': Reinventing The Horror Film

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Peeping Tom was produced and directed by Michael Powell. It stars Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis, it lasts for 109 minutes and is in colour.

Psycho was produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It stars Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, it also lasts for 109 minutes but is shot in black and white.

The Horror Genre prior to 1960

1960 could be considered the 'coming of age' for the horror genre. In the years before it, the genre had developed little since the first years of moving pictures; its popularity waning and increasing as social viewpoints and cultural trends changed. The genre began mainly focusing on 'classic' tales or adaptations, such as Nosferatu (Dracula) and Frankenstien. Other films were produced along the same lines, incorporating familiar plot elements and characters. A good example of this is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari which is a film about an insane Doctor and his zombie 'somnambulist' monster which he controls. With the rise of science fiction and fears of war, attention moved to new types of monster - the alien and the mutant. The viewer was left with little room for empathy or understanding of these 'science-related' ogres. Like the supernatural creations of early horror films, the monsters were completely inhuman and obviously 'evil'. There was also no real feeling that the events could happen to the viewer. The genre had become a little stale, and while it remained popular, it needed a fresh slant to rejuvenate interest in its potential.

Psycho and Peeping Tom Introduced

Peeping Tom and Psycho were both released in 1960, filmed by British directors and, unlike the vast majority of horror films before them, focused mainly on the 'monster' (or 'anti-heroes') of their stories. They both present evil as something real, not coming from outer-space or as the result of 'messing with nature', but rather coming from human beings - and two seemingly timid ones at that. Both Bates (Psycho) and Lewis (Peeping Tom) are young, lonely men who appear quiet and polite, tidy and reserved. Both men had overbearing parents who featured significantly in their lives, and although neither parent was still alive (whether Bates was aware of this or not is a matter of debate), they still seemed to live on through the lives of their children. For example, Lewis carried on the work of his perverted father by studying the effects of fear, and Bates still looked after and followed instructions from his mental reconstruction of his mother. Both men seem slightly inadequate around other people; Bates especially as awkward questions leave him angered and prone to outbursts of emotion.

In both films, the victims (with the exception of a male private detective in Psycho) are female. In Psycho, it is a young secretary who steals a large amount of money from her employer and flees, eventually staying in the Bates Motel, while in Peeping Tom the victims are a string of women - a whore, a film stand-in and a model, all of whom are obsessed with their physical appearance. Bates and Lewis chose sharp, penetrating implements as their weapons1, which could be linked to a repressed sexual theme which is underlying in the films, especially in Peeping Tom where Lewis is a porn photographer.

Important Aspects of Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom was released early in 1960, prior to the more popular Psycho which was released later that year. When released, it was considered to be ahead of its time, dealing with real issues and with a plot that hit too close to home to be accepted by the reviewers.

The story follows the events leading to the death of Mark Lewis, a young photographer for a pornography producer and a focus puller in a film studio. His job alone was a subject for controversy with reviewers. Pornography, although part of society, was never represented in mainstream film, and was part of what made the film initially so unpopular. Lewis lives in a boarding house that used to be owned by his deceased father. In his flat is a secret room he has converted into a processing centre and theatre for watching the films he makes.

The first unsettling thing that a character who meets Mark Lewis notices is that he always carries a small movie camera with him, cradled beside him with his bag - almost like a comfort blanket. He is also very quiet, and has no friends except for the one he made during the film, Helen Stephens, a naïve and inanely cheerful girl who lives in a room below him. We learn, from the beginning of the film, that Lewis is killing women and watching their deaths on his projector. What we don't know immediately is why. This is revealed later, through his conversation with Helen. He is observing the fear of the women and lets them see it too, by placing a mirror above the camera/weapon so that they see their own face as they scream in anguish. He is repeating experiments, admittedly to an extreme, first conducted on him as a child by his father. We are shown archive footage of Lewis' father (played by Michael Powell, the director) filming Lewis as a child (played, perversely, by Powell's own son). In the footage, you can see the reflection made by a mirror hovering over the boy as he cries. Lewis's father is the most apparent cause for his mental condition, and it is obvious that Lewis had a peculiar relationship with him. Lewis implies that he is proud of his father's work and this is shown by the fact that he's got a collection of books written by his father on the subject of fear. It was not the books, however, but the constant analysis and filming that left him unstable.

The film was controversial not simply because of the graphic violence (even though the actual stabbing is never seen), but because the character of Lewis is such that viewers finds themselves sympathising with him - and this was not a feature the reviewers were happy with. Another feature which was a cause for concern at the time was the 'voyeuristic' camerawork used to portray events; Lewis enjoys watching the murders, but we are forced to see through his 'eyes' and his camera. The film could be viewed almost as a tragedy, almost the tale of a man who can only find control over himself by ending his life in the same way as he killed his victims. Would we have found his character as acceptable if he had not committed suicide? If he had continued his private pursuit of sadism, killing Helen and her blind mother?

The film's use of symbolism, with Helen Stephens' blind mother the only character to truly see Lewis for who he is, and its enjoyable dig at the conservative movie industry at the time, make it a classic to be remembered, if not enjoyed, for years to come.

Important Aspects of Psycho

Psycho deals with themes of violence, secret voyeurism, and insanity, but in a less sympathetic manner. Its monster, Norman Bates, does not have a girlfriend for instance, and during the film we are only shown his negative aspects.

Psycho is very contemporary in feel, even 40 years after its release. This is likely to be because it had a large impact on many films which followed it, meaning that in some ways it created the contemporary 'slickness' of many modern films - the opening titles, for instance, are very smooth and visual. At the beginning of the film, the story follows the exploits of a young real estate secretary, Marion Crane, beginning with her adulterous affair in a hotel and followed by her decision to steal a large amount of cash from her office. As she escapes in a new car she buys with some of the money, the film could well be a simple story of her eluding the police and her family. However, we are soon reminded of the film's title as she reaches the Bates Motel to spend the night. We are introduced to Norman Bates, the proprietor. He appears friendly, nervous and is obviously attracted to Crane, as he invites her for sandwiches in his office. This is the first time that a sign is given that Bates may not be all that he appears to be. When he first talks about his mother, which is obviously a subject he is greatly concerned about, he becomes agitated. We also discover that his hobby is taxidermy.

When Crane retires to her room, for the first time we are left alone with Bates. Just as we were 'spying' through the hotel window at Crane and her lover at the beginning of the film, Bates now spies on her getting undressed to have a shower, using a peephole he has made in the wall. As he retires to his house, where he says his mother is, we hear her unfairly scolding him for renting a room to a young woman. As Crane takes a shower, suddenly the shape of an old lady is seen approaching her with a knife, and a now-famous musical score begins which mimics the stabbing of the attack with the pronounced screeching of stringed instruments. The murder is sudden and brutal, the main character is dead 45 minutes into the film and the audience is left stunned. We are left to contend with Norman Bates, after 'finding' the body and screaming, destroying the evidence, methodically and without remorse. Crane's friends soon realise she is missing and set out to find her, employing a private detective. Eventually their trail leads them to the motel, where the detective is murdered while investigating the mansion. The audience is then shocked to discover that the murderer is not Mrs Bates. In fact, it is revealed that Mrs Bates has been long dead, only her rancid skeletal corpse remains, but Norman, a schizophrenic, still believes she is alive and carries out her horrific acts as if possessed.

The story still manages to shock today and when Psycho was first released it caused a massive amount of hype. The film is special for many reasons, from the meticulously planned camerawork (director Hitchcock is well known for his storyboards) and surprising plot, its graphic violence (the detective was stabbed at the head of a staircase and staggered down it backwards before collapsing) and gimmicky marketing. The film is well cast, with Anthony Perkins perfect as Norman Bates, who appears too weak and sensitive to behave contrary to his 'mummy's boy' appearance.

Because it was more popular, Psycho had a greater influence on future films than Peeping Tom. It also spawned many cash-in sequels, none of which were directed by Hitchcock but did star Perkins once again as Bates. It will be remembered as the classic horror thriller that transformed horror from unconvincing scenarios and characters to real-world locations, with monsters with almost supernatural qualities such as Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween.

Differences between the Films

The most prominent difference between Psycho and Peeping Tom is their respective successes with critics and the box office. While Peeping Tom was previewed by critics who gave it slating reviews due to its content, Hitchcock refused to let critics preview his film and they had to watch it with everyone else. While Powell, Peeping Tom's director, was fairly popular, his status was not equal to that of the highly-renowned Hitchcock. This meant that people went to see Psycho because Hitchcock was a reliably proficient director, and that the film, aided by a superb marketing scheme which meant that people could not enter the theatre after the film had started, was successful at the first public showing. Peeping Tom did not have this privilege, and instead people were discouraged by the reviews it received.

Although the two films are about mentally unstable murderers, Bates and Lewis are subtly quite different. Neither fits the stereotypical psychopath of the few films of that genre, as they are not initially obviously insane. Rather, they each have a particular reason for their murders as being mad is not a reason in itself. Both men are quiet and shy, but Lewis is not as 'good' as Bates is likely to be. While Bates watched Crane undress in secret, he would never have the audacity to do anything else, and not when she could see him as himself. He required his mother's persona to actually do damage. However, Lewis carefully plans his attacks (he might claim they were 'experiments' or 'research'), while not visually appearing excited he does it with the same fascination as a person going about any other hobby, or a scientist finding results in an experiment. Furthermore, while Lewis may be quiet, he has no shame in being a pornographer - something which Bates could never do. Bates does not take pleasure from his murder, and is even shocked when he first finds the body of Crane, although we cannot be sure that he is genuinely surprised. This could have been a ploy used by Hitchcock to dupe the audience.

The films also approach insanity in different ways. We know from the very beginning of Peeping Tom that Lewis is insane, that it is he who is killing people. That is what creates the tension of the film - what will he do next? However, we are not immediately sure who the psychopath of the title is in Psycho. At first we may think it is Mrs Bates, who Norman Bates describes as 'not being quite herself today'. Crane even suggests putting her 'someplace' (an institute) which is met with aggression from Bates. It is only near the end of the film that we learn who the true psycho is - not Bates's mother, who is long dead, but Norman himself.

Finally, there were visual differences between Psycho and Peeping Tom. The most striking is that Psycho is in black and white, while Peeping Tom is not only in colour, but also almost in enhanced colour - it is lurid and gives the film an almost comic-book appearance (in a similar fashion to Dick Tracy).

Final Reel

Psycho and Peeping Tom managed to stop the horror genre in its tracks and make its public think again. The films moved horror away from gothic mansions, fantastic locations and fairy tale monsters and right into the modern contemporary world, where evil is an aspect of the human psyche. They used convincing actors to perform horrific acts filmed in ways that broke the conventions of film making, taking the audiences into the action instead of simply showing them its results. They proved, as The Blair Witch Project has reminded more recent audiences, that convincing horror could still be produced on a low budget, and they forced viewers to realise that the world isn't always nice and that there doesn't have to be a straightforward happy ending. They scare you with the unexpected, the distasteful and with the sides of life that you wish were not there.

1Bates uses a large knife while Lewis has a sharpened metal stake made from a tripod leg.

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