The first time I ever saw director Michael Powell's disturbing masterpiece "Peeping Tom" (1960) was on a late night airing on the KHJ Channel 9 TV station in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. As I realized years later, after having watched the movie again on DVD, the Channel 9 airing did not appear to have edited much of its violent and sexual content for television because the print was in color and I was able to recognize many of the scenes I witnessed from that first viewing. In that sense, I feel fortunate that I was given as appropriate an introduction to "Peeping Tom" as possible, given the fact that the movie was attacked and censored in the U.K. upon its original release and also because the original U.S. theatrical release was in black and white and was edited by at least 15 minutes. "Peeping Tom" is a brilliant film but I admit that it would be hard to watch if it weren't for the sympathetic performance of lovely Anna Massey as the sweet young woman who doesn't realize that the mysterious man living upstairs from her in a London boarding house is actually a serial killer of women. Massey's pure and wholesome presence strikes a refreshing contrast to the seedy nature of the rest of the movie and gives the audience someone to identify with and root for.
Karl Boehm stars in "Peeping Tom" as the homicidal and disturbed Mark Lewis, an aspiring film director working as a focus puller at a film studio in London who also works part time as a nudie photographer of glamorous women. Unbeknownst to everyone, Mark is a serial killer who has been murdering women throughout the city by filming their terrified faces up close as he is murdering them. He does this by attaching a mirror and light to his film camera, so that the women can see their own expression of fear just as he kills them with a sharp spear attached to one of the legs of his camera tripod. Mark is obsessed with capturing images of terror in people's faces because his late psychologist father used to film and audio record images of Mark being frightened as a young child in order to study how fear affects the nervous system. He still lives in the same house that he grew up in and rents out rooms in order to help pay for the upkeep.
Mark's complex life becomes even more so when he strikes up a friendship with the lovely young Helen Stephens, played by Anna Massey, who lives with her blind, alcoholic mother Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) on the first floor of Mark's house. Helen, who works in the children's section of a library, strikes up a friendship with Mark and asks him to help her illustrate a children's book that she has had accepted for publication. Mark opens up to Helen about the experiments his father used to perform on him, which evokes a sense of compassion from Helen, and the two become close. Mrs. Stephens, however, suspects something is amiss with Mark and asks him to seek psychological counseling and to stay away from her daughter. As the police start closing in on Mark, Helen stumbles upon the films that Mark has made chronicling his murderous crimes and, in so doing, puts herself in jeopardy of becoming his next victim.
Anna Massey gives a winning and sympathetic performance as Helen, the one person who genuinely cares for Mark and has only his best interests at heart. We first see Helen celebrating her 21st birthday party with friends and other neighbors in the boarding house when Mark is spotted peering into the window spying upon the party goers. Rather than being put-off, Helen uses it as an opportunity to try and invite the reclusive and withdrawn Mark to join the festivities. She later brings Mark a slice of birthday cake and, upon learning he is an aspiring filmmaker, asks if she can see some of his films. When Mark shows Helen filmed footage that his father took of his experiments while frightening Mark as a child, she is disturbed and unsettled by what she sees. Anna Massey is particularly good throughout this scene, demonstrating the proper sense of revulsion at reacting to what Mark is showing her. But, rather than turning her off to Mark, the realization that he has been deeply hurt as a child only serves to make Helen more compassionate and interested in him.
I think this has to do with the fact that Helen lives with her blind and alcoholic mother, who is a very self-aware and caring woman but suffers from an underlying sense of bitterness over losing her sight. What's amazing about Helen's personality is that she doesn't appear to have been psychologically damaged by her mother the way other people might be by their troubled parents. I think Helen demonstrates strength of character in not allowing her mother's drinking problem and bitterness to adversely affect her. I believe that Helen's experiences with her mother have allowed her to be sensitive to the needs of others who have a complex relationship with their own parents. That's why I believe Helen has such interest and compassion for Mark. She recognizes how Mark's father has hurt him and tries to provide a sense of friendship and moral support to help him rise above his difficult upbringing. The fact that Helen doesn't outright reject Mark after having watched his father's cruel experimental films, where young Mark is emotionally tortured, makes her a very admirable individual because of her inherent sense of patience and tolerance.
My favorite scene in the movie is the one where Mark gives Helen a belated birthday present of a jeweled dragonfly pendant, after which Helen asks Mark to help her work on a children's book that has been accepted by a publisher. Even though Mark is at first unnerved when he learns that Helen's children book is about a magic camera that photographs images of adults as they once were as children, I like the sense of genuine enthusiasm that Mark feels about Helen's book project. You can tell that Mark is sincerely flattered and moved that Helen has sought out his consultation and knowledge as a photographer that he volunteers to take the photos himself in order to help Helen. The scene is very touching and tragic all at once, because you can sense the deepening feelings that Mark and Helen feel for one another, but you also realize that their relationship potential is limited since he is mentally disturbed and has already killed several women.
I also like the sequence when Helen and Mark have a dinner date and Helen encourages Mark not to bring his camera and photographic equipment along on the date. As Helen points out to Mark, before they leave for the restaurant, "I don't think I've ever seen you without it. But are you going to need it tonight? Well, are you and, if so, shall I bring some work with me too?" Helen urges Mark to either let her leave the camera and photographic equipment in her room downstairs, or take it up to his own room because "I thought it (the camera) was growing into an extra limb." With her gentle encouragement, Mark is able to leave his camera behind for once in his life and he is able to genuinely enjoy himself while at dinner with her. Helen is trying to teach Mark to become independent and to not continue carrying the psychological burdens of his past.
During their date, Helen describes the images she needs for her children's book of images taken by a magical camera that capture adults as they once were as children. As they return from their dinner date, Mark becomes so excited by Helen's project that he tells her "There's not a single face in the crowd that doesn't look like a child, not a single one, if you catch it at the right moment...Oh Helen, I would like to find those faces for you, with you." In so doing, we see how Helen is able to help Mark channel his photographic talents and skills towards something positive. We see how Mark's life could have taken a turn for the better if the two of them were acquainted before he had become a killer.
As Helen and Mark's relationship develops, we sense how Mark has become protective of her in order to ensure that he never comes to harm her. Mark objects when Helen playfully holds his camera and then turns the camera towards herself, announcing with determination "Not you...It will never see you. Whatever I photograph, I always lose." I particularly like the scene when Helen's mother, Mrs. Stephens, confronts Mark in his room with her concerns about his mental state. The thing that's interesting about this scene is that, even though Mrs. Stephens is worried about Mark's influence on her daughter, she never gets excessively cruel with him, even though he frightens her and almost kills Mrs. Stephens when he turns the camera on her. For once, Mark reigns in his homicidal urges, partly because Mrs. Stephens admonishes him to "put that camera away" but also because he realizes that hurting Helen's mother will destroy his relationship with Helen.
Despite her inherent harshness and bitterness, and despite how she confronts Mark by getting to the root of his disturbances with her rhetorical questioning, Mrs. Stephens informs Mark that her instincts tell her "all this filming isn't healthy and that you need help. Get it, Mark. Get it quickly. And, until you do, I don't want you and Helen to see each other." When Mark promises Mrs. Stephens, "I will never photograph her. I promise you." Mrs. Stephens continues, "I'd rather you don't have the chance. I mean it, Mark. And, if you don't listen to me, one of us will move from this house. It would be a pity, because we'd never find a cheaper place." When Mark promises her that they will never have to move because of him, Mrs. Stephens takes Mark by the hand and approvingly says "Good boy." Mrs. Stephens is protective of Helen, but she's not cruel about it with Mark. She doesn't denigrate him the way another concerned parent might in a similar situation and Maxine Audley's surprisingly sympathetic performance allows one to see where Helen's inherent sense of humanity and compassion came from.
However, "Peeping Tom" must come to its inevitably tragic conclusion as the police begin closing in on Mark just as Helen realizes he is a homicidal maniac. As Helen leaves a manuscript of her book in Mark's room as a gift, she turns on his movie projector out of curiosity. While watching what she eventually realizes are snuff film images of women reacting in horror at witnessing their own deaths in the mirror Mark has attached to his camera, a frightened Helen backs away in terror and walks right into Mark's arms. Anna Massey is particularly good throughout this sequence. In one take, Massey is able to demonstrate Helen's gradually growing sense of curiosity, amusement, confusion, realization, and horror as she watches Mark's snuff films. We realize how much Helen means to Mark when he tells her "Don't let me see you are frightened. So leave, hurry up!" He has no intention of harming her at all. However, Helen refuses to leave until Mark has explained to her what these snuff film images mean. "That film...that film...that film is just a film isn't it? It's horrible...Horrible, but it's just a film isn't it?" When Mark admits that the film is real, he tells Helen "You'll be safe as long as I can't see you frightened. So stand in the shadows please."
Mark begins to explain how his father took audio recordings and films of his experiments in order to document his efforts to make Mark suffer from being frightened and that all the rooms in the house are wired for sound and that he's recorded conversations in every rooms. Helen admonishes Mark to look at her and tell her what exactly he did with those girls. "What did you do to those girls? What did you do? If you want to torment me for the rest of my life, then make me imagine. What did you do to those girls? Show me...Show me or I'll remain frightened for the rest of my life. Show me!" In so doing, Helen demonstrates how deeply she loves Mark that she'd rather know what he did with those girls, rather than allow her imagination to haunt her the rest of her life, by creating images in her mind that might be even worse than the reality, of something that someone she is in love with has committed. Helen's admonition is for her own peace of mind and not out of morbid curiosity, and demonstrates Helen's strength of character that she doesn't want to spend her life in a state of denial about who Mark was.
Karl Boehm and Anna Massey have an endearing chemistry throughout "Peeping Tom" that allows their relationship to transcend the sort of colorless romantic scenes that pad out the running times of other horror thrillers. In this instance, the romantic subplot isn't a mere formality, and Helen herself is not simply a plot device to help resolve the story, because director Powell uses both to help illuminate Mark's inherent humanity despite his evil and homicidal acts. Helen brings out the best in Mark and allows this tragic and dangerous individual to still come across as unexpectedly sympathetic, a morally troubling artistic decision that explains the negative reaction this film has had with some viewers. Helen's presence and influence in the movie demonstrates the sort of bright future Mark could have had in his life if he had not already crossed the line by becoming a killer. Throughout "Peeping Tom," we want to see Mark and Helen have a happy ending, but know that such a conclusion is simply not possible because Mark must face the consequences of the murders he has committed.
Anna Massey is superb at demonstrating Helen's intelligence, courage, compassion, and integrity. She clearly loves Mark, even after learning he is a killer, but doesn't try to justify his actions. The fact that she urges him to turn himself in at the end, doesn't offer to go on the lam with him, and tries to discourage him from killing himself demonstrates what a realist that she is. Despite her love her him, she knows that there's no hope for a future with him and wants him to do the right thing in what little time he has left so that he can pay for his crimes. Helen's insistence at knowing the truth about Mark, and her courage by not showing fear on her face when Mark films her with his camera, shows her to be a stronger "final girl" than other horror movie heroines who resort to physical violence, rather than demonstrating emotional and psychological strength and assertiveness, while directly confronting a homicidal killer. As such, one of the many reasons why "Peeping Tom" holds up beautifully as a genuine cinematic masterpiece over 50 years later is because of the sympathetic human dimension that Anna Massey's Helen brings to the movie.