Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom posterIn a strange way, Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom reminds me of the Lewton/Tourneur Cat People from 1942: both centre on a human ‘monster’, whose monstrousness was passed onto them by a parent (Irena in Cat People inherits her mother’s lycanthropy, Mark in Peeping Tom is the creation of his biologist father’s constant experimentation with fear); both try to escape their curse when a new relationship (Irena’s marriage, Mark meeting Helen) reminds them of all they’re missing by not being ‘normal’; and when they fail to become ‘normal’, both lapse with renewed vigour into their monstrousness, with tragic results. In both cases, the still new-seeming sciences of psychiatry and psychology utterly fail to help (in Cat People, the lascivious Doctor Conway tries to seduce, rather than cure, Irena; in Peeping Tom, the police bring in a psychologist, but he’s more interested in the ‘extravert’ film director, than the introvert killer who comes to him for advice). The main difference, of course, is that Peeping Tom’s Mark is not a supernatural monster, but one created by human means. In him, the cold, experimental eye and camera of his father has become a symbol of the abuse he suffered as a child, and which, like so many of the abused, he takes up in adulthood as his only way of dealing with a world he’s been made utterly unfit for.


Mark’s goal in life is to complete the documentary his father was working on, and so show the ultimate results of Doctor Lewis’s experiments on his only child: that it has made him into a serial killer, intent on filming the moment of terror as it appears on his victims’ faces before they die. In a way, this is Mark’s only way of getting revenge on a father who, though dead, is still a dominating presence (his initial response to being asked who owns the house he lives in is that it’s his father’s, even though he’s long since inherited it).


I feel Peeping Tom is the wrong title for a film that’s not really about voyeurism: Mark isn’t hiding behind his camera, he’s using it as the only way he knows of interacting with the world. The camera completes him; its lens is the perfect metaphor for his own disconnection from the world of normal human relationships. (Something heightened by the fact that Mark, an English boy born in the house he’s still living in, is played by the Austrian Carl Boehm, his accent as much a signifier of social alienation as it is for the Serbian Irena in Cat People.)


The only person to see through Mark is Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, who sleeps in the room beneath Mark’s cinema, and hears him watching his silent movies every night. She instantly dislikes him — a man shouldn’t creep around in his own house.

Powell played the villain in his own film.

Powell played the (only briefly-seen) villain in his own film.

Peeping Tom is infamous for effectively ending Michael Powell’s career, after the British critics tore him and his film apart — not because he so explicitly mixed psychological aberrance, cinema, and the saucy-minded prurience of early 1960s Britain, but because he dared to invite his audience to see that his lead character wasn’t just a monster, and perhaps thereby see themselves in him. The film’s sin was not to exploit its audience’s prurience (film critics of the time were surely used to that), but to see beyond it.


Cat Girl

Cat Girl is a UK take on Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 US film, Cat People, a favourite of mine that I reviewed a little while back. Released in 1957 (the same year as Tourneur’s other well-known horror, Night of the Demon), it’s been put out on DVD as part of Network’s British Film series — coincidentally in the same month as Cat People finally gets a Region 2 release (from Odeon Entertainment). It’s not a film I’d heard of, and I was immediately intrigued.


Newly-married Leonora (Hammer Horror’s Barbara Shelley in her first starring role) is summoned back to the family home by mad old uncle Edmund. She goes reluctantly and, despite her uncle’s stipulations, not alone, bringing her new husband, Richard, as well as his (unknown to her) lover Cathy and Cathy’s hanger-on, Alan. Her uncle has doleful news, but waits till the dead of night before summoning her to his study. (In the meantime, he nips outside to take a bloody bite or two out of a raw rabbit, in the company of a leopard he keeps in a cage.) On the back of the DVD case, Network say Cat Girl is an “updating” of Jacques Tourneur’s earlier film, but already it seems to be taking a step backwards. Cat People was set firmly in the contemporary world, and certainly got some of its power from having the supernatural emerge into a modern reality at utter odds to the fantastic. But here we’re in full old-fashioned Gothic mode, complete with blustery thunderstorm, old dark house, mad uncle poring over piles of ancient books, foreign-accented retainer with a limp, flickering candles, billowing curtains, long, frilly nighties, and a 700-year-old family curse.

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

Cat Girl in Gothic mode

The curse is Uncle Edmund’s news. He is about to die (as predicted in one of his musty old books), and Leonora, as the only remaining member of the Brandt family, will take on the curse. It’s lycanthropy, but with a twist: instead of turning into a wolf (or, in this case, a leopard — though the film posters mostly feature a panther), at night Leonora’s soul will enter that of the leopard Uncle Edmund keeps in a cage in his study. It will be “the servant of your mind, the strength of your body”, and she’ll feel its “love of darkness, the craving for warm flesh and blood”. His message delivered, Uncle Edmund then goes out into the blustery dark to become the leopard’s next victim, and the curse is passed on. The following day, an already slightly unbalanced Leonora enacts her first lycanthropic revenge: finding her husband and Cathy canoodling in a copse, she sets the leopard on them. Cathy escapes, Richard doesn’t.

Cat Girl getting more modern...

Cat Girl getting more modern…

Cat Girl then leaves the gothic for something a bit more modern. It’s already been established that Leonora’s real love is for a former crush, now a Harley Street psychiatrist, Dr Brian Marlowe. He, however, is married (to Dorothy — the psychiatrist’s wife’s Dotty!), but, in the usual tradition of silver screen headshrinks (none of whom seem to have any sense of ethics), elects to treat the increasingly besotted/deranged Leonora himself. In what is, perhaps, the film’s most chilling sequence, Leonora books herself into Marlow’s institute, only to find herself being rendered increasingly powerless. Her belongings are taken off her, her room has bars on the window, and glimpses of her fellow inmates confirm that this is, despite Dr Marlow’s assurances, an asylum for the fully insane. Then night falls, and she goes properly bonkers — or, rather, goes into full mind-meld with her leopard, and is left convinced, the next day, that her hands have been turned into claws and her face is that of a hideous predator. Her descent into a cat-like frenzy, tearing at her bedsheets, her clothes, and her own skin, is a moment of genuine horror — though it’s not the sort Cat Girl is ultimately aiming for. Because, after this, Leonora shifts from the film’s heroine to its monster.


Not quite as useless as Cat People’s lecherous Dr Judd, Dr Marlowe still believes he has the situation under control. So under control, in fact, that after this one night of madness, he decides this obviously dangerous and self-harming woman will recover better in the company of normal people — of his wife, in fact, despite Leonora’s clear hostility to Dorothy. (Dorothy, meanwhile, produces a string of cat-related double entendres whenever talking of, or to, Leonora. My favourite: “Be a pet and zip me up.”) Dorothy at least has the sense to start feeling creeped out when, having left Leonora alone with her budgie for a moment, she comes back to find nothing in the cage but feathers.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

One of these women is a lycanthrope.

Cat Girl has neither the brooding, pressure-cooker feel of Cat People, nor its sense of tragedy (Irena’s scrabbling for normality, then her resigned and finally gleeful backslide into lycanthropy, are so much more sustained than Leonora’s madness), but it does provide some new variants on the same situation. The most interesting aspect is Barbara Shelley’s passage from helpless gothic heroine, through to a more modern gothic victimhood (trapped in an asylum, teetering on the verge of madness), then to an increasingly torrid darkness, ending the film as a psycho-killer in a black mac, almost as if you can see horror cinema in the process of sloughing off the skin of its own Gothic past. Unlike Cat People (which has two distinctly tense horror scenes in a tightly orchestrated plot), Cat Girl has only one real build-up of tension, at the end, as Leonora stalks her love-rival through the night streets of London. The moment she slips out of her shoes to better pad after her prey you know the game is really on — though, by this time, the film is almost over.

An interesting add-on to Cat People, then — and a film that’s left me wondering, what other good British horror films were there in the 1950s?



I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie posterAfter Cat People, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur worked together again on I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Despite its even more lurid title, Zombie is less of a horror film than Cat People, though it occupies a very similar territory of dark psychology and the supernatural.

The film starts with young Betsy Connell being taken on as a nurse to Mrs Jessica Holland on the island of St Sebastian in the Caribbean. Apart from bouts of sleepwalking, Jessica is almost catatonic, and it’s later revealed that her illness began just as she was about to run away from the island with her lover, her husband’s half-brother, Wesley Rand. Having fallen for Mrs Holland’s strong, silent type of a husband, nurse Betsy tries everything she can to cure Jessica, and when the latest medical methods fail, takes her ghostly charge to the local voodoo cult, who of course recognise her as one of their own. As someone says of her: “She makes a very beautiful zombie.”

Where Cat People’s Irena was a foreigner bringing her wild, foreign darkness to the shores of civilised modern America, I Walked with a Zombie’s Betsy is a Canadian, who journeys into the wild, foreign darkness of St Sebastian’s highly-charged atmosphere of repression, betrayal, jealousy, bitterness, resentment, beauty and death, love and mental illness, and willingly becomes caught in its emotional tangles: while Paul Holland, “strong, silent and very sad”, whose first words are to inform Betsy that the supposedly beautiful phosphorescent lights in the sea are caused by things dying (“There’s no beauty here, only death and decay. Everything good dies here, even the stars.”) — and the fact that he chooses to hang a copy of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead in his sick wife’s bedroom probably says a lot about his state of mind — bears the burden of his wife’s malady like a family curse, his half-brother Wesley teeters on the verge of alcoholism, and his otherwise level-headed mother keeps the extent of her dabblings in the local voodoo cult secret. In both films, troubled souls are failed by the latest advances in Western medicine (psychiatry in Cat People, insulin shock therapy in Zombie), but only because the cause of the malady is supernatural: Irena really does turn into a panther, Jessica really is a zombie.

But the main difference, what makes Cat People a tragedy and this a Gothic romance (as Kim Newman and Stephen Jones point out in the DVD commentary, it’s basically Jane Eyre with voodoo) is perhaps its attitude to the supernatural. Here, far from the civilised streets of Cat People’s New York, the lines between what should be believed and what shouldn’t are blurred, and it is the practical-minded Betsy’s willingness to take a walk into the twilight realm of the voodoo “home fort” (a nightmare journey fraught with spookiness, and the film’s high point) that separates her from the ultimately censorious and condescending attitudes of Cat People’s Alice, Ollie and Dr Judd.

I Walked with a Zombie is not so much a horror film as one dripping with a very shadowy Gothic. And it takes a surprisingly un-sensationalist approach to voodoo, neither presenting it as an excuse to wallow in lurid shock imagery, nor as a Hollywood cliché of “native superstitions”. A good, ghostly-tinged film, then, probably better in terms of characterisation and drama than Cat People, though I have to say I still prefer Cat People for being so intense, weird, dark and tragic.