As graphic mayhem (“Saw VI”) and the power of suggestion (“Paranormal Activity“) battle at the box office this weekend, I’ll be presenting trailers from three movie milestones all made in 1960 that all broke the longstanding cinematic taboo against what was then deemed extreme horror and violence.
Now, this trailer isn’t classy and it’s a lot more lurid than the movie, but it is fun, though it didn’t do much good for the success of “Peeping Tom.” The film was mired in obscurity for decades on both sides of the Atlantic, known only to hardcore film nerds, and even mocked with zero affection by TV horror hostess Elvira. Today’s it still not well known enough for my taste. Not even close.
“Peeping Tom” actually contains no onscreen blood at all as far as I can remember, but its content so horrified English film critics that they effectively scared away audiences and it actually became a virtual career-ender for its director, Michael Powell, who only made one more notable film before passing away thirty years later. Ejecting Powell from the British film industry was like ejecting John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock from American films, though the fact that he was best known in tandem with screenwriter Emeric Pressberger perhaps made it seem like it was okay to disregard him after the collaboration was over. Despite such earlier worldwide hits with Pressberger as “The Red Shoes,” Powell wound up something of a movie refugee before eventually settling down in New York, befriending Martin Scorsese, and marrying his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
Going back at least to the premiere of 1931’s “Frankenstein,” the British have always been much harder on horror and violence than Americans and, despite the natural restraint and subtlety of Powell’s portrayal of a serial killer who shoots film of his victims as he murders them, it was, in fact, a film about a serial killer who films his victims. That was that. The most horrified reviews you might now read for a “torture porn” flick were absolutely nothing compared to the throttling Powell received from the British press.
It wasn’t fair, of course. I’d argue that, at least until “Silence of the Lambs” was released, “Peeping Tom” was easily the class of the entire psycho-killer genre — and I know what movie you’re thinking must be better, but I disagree. Powell’s is a film that explores the roots of violence and our fascination with it. It’s actually a work of great taste and beauty though if I’d written that for an English newspaper back then, I’d likely be fired.