Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom furnishes a psychologically torturous explanation for its protagonist’s murderous impulses and on first glance the film is easily comparable to Psycho for charting new territory in the realm of psychological horror. But the footage that Powell places upfront of Mark as a child in the throngs of his father’s cruel experiments is only one part of a puzzle that has more to do with artistry than with trauma. Peeping Tom is about the mania of directing a film, and Powell begins his exploration of the medium’s underlying terror by putting us in the subjective position of our hero, who later talks of going on to be a director and who is reprimanded at his part-time job as a lurid photographer of women for making his pictures too artistic. This disconcerting opening, wherein the man holding the camera systematically murders a prostitute, makes clear the directed nature of the footage and consequently ignites all manner of thoughts concerning the act of viewing a film. But while we are called upon to ponder our own viewing habits, we are beckoned with greater urgency to understand the artist’s, and when we finally get a glimpse of the mysterious filmmaker, our first impression is of a withdrawn individual disinclined to interact with others.
What emerges is a portrait of a man who only intervenes in life when behind the comfort of his camera, whose tripod leg constitutes a clear phallic symbol and without which Mark feels emasculated. It is a direct meditation on the concept of director as both passive observer and active manipulator, while working in various meditations on sex, murder and the cinematic voyeurism that infuses them. We may at first feel in the security of Powell’s assumedly ‘objective’ camera when removed from the vantage point of Mark’s, but as the film progresses it is Mark instead of Powell who emerges as the film’s director; he more or less states that he has willed the events leading up to his own demise as he obsessively films everything he can. Powell bravely identifies with this tortured individual, whose series of grisly murders is, in his mind, the building blocks of a grand work of art that can only achieve fruition in his death. It is one of the great films about artists, and in the running parallels between a large film crew working on an up-and-coming hit and Mark’s own directorial ventures we see in the latter a personal intimacy and nurturing instinct absent in the former (auteur theory encapsulated). Mark’s murder of one of the film’s extras places a morbid irony on the idea of directing actors, and this crops up later when the studio film’s leading actress's reaction to the corpse (placed by Mark in one of the prop suitcases) invariably becomes an extension of her own performance within the film she’s making.
These dissolves of the line between art and reality as they apply to the voyeurism at the heart of the film medium are manifold, even among the notions the film raises about fear and sexuality and childhood trauma. Amidst this swarm of challenging ideas, what lingers longest is the horrific image of a demented perfectionist of an artist leaving corpse after corpse behind until he achieves the right result, which is almost as terrifying as the fact that we can’t help but sympathize with him.