Peeping Tom: Mise-en-Abyme After Mise-en-Abyme

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I just discovered this cult gem of a film. Peeping Tom (1960) directed by Michael Powell is masterful in it’s use of horror, its psychological explorations and its use of Freudian themes. The film follows Mark, a reclusive film maker, who films young women’s deaths in order to capture their final moments of terror. As a child, Mark was the subject of his father’s Freudian experiments. He was constantly tormented and its suggested, forced to watch his father murder other women as well. Of course this was all captured on film, and Mark’s life seems to follow suit.

What I really enjoyed about this film was the beginning and the POV shots which riddles so many horror films today (REC, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Grave Encounters, etc.). Right off the bat we understand the killer’s modus operandi. The entire film however is not filmed in this mode, subjected to only certain scenes.

One particularly illuminating scene is when Mark after shooting for the day has a date with one of the extras on set. Mark begins to film the young woman as she dances, but tries to get her in “character” for a horror scene he is shooting (little does she know…). Basically what we are watching is a movie being filmed within a movie, being filmed within a movie. Mise-en-Abyme. Or literally a mirror within a mirror within a mirror etc. One particualrily illuminating scene which aptly articulates this concept can be found in none other than Orson Welles’ (1941) seminal film Citizen Kane:

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A reflection within a reflection going on forever. This is the concept at play in Peeping Tom in regards to filming and also viewing. We are subjected to the Lacanian concept of scopophillia, or the pleasure in the gaze. We watch as Mark takes pleasure in his murders, but we also take pleasure in watching mark commit his atrocities. There is another level of viewing which we don’t discover until the very end of the film as well, in that Mark has a mirror on top of his camera which forces his victim to watch their own face of terror as they die. Another level of viewing, another level of mise-en-abyme.

Following it’s less than critical reception, the film garnered a massive cult following, even from influential filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has said of Peeping Tom that one can learn everything they need to know from the film:

“I have always felt that Peeping Tom and  say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two.  captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates… From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.”

The film further follows my belief that horror films can be about far more than the murders. This is also why I don’t just watch torture flicks, I feel they have nothing more to “offer” the viewer. This is truly a tasteful horror film, on par with that of Hitchcock, in terms of psychological involvement and interaction with the filmic diegesis. It comes as no surprise that Powell and Hitchcock were lifelong friends.

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