Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Review: Sinister

My friend Natalie is a fan of horror movies, but she typically finds them them more fun than scary. When I asked her whether she's seen any good ones lately, she said 'Well, there's this one, Sinister (2012, trailer). That one is like...proper scary. I had a hard time going to sleep after that one.'

'Why?' I asked her. 'Did it have really shocking images or something?'

'Not really. I've seen similar stuff, but in this they did it in this way...'


A Midwestern suburban family are hanged from a tree in their yard. Four of the five are killed, and the remaining daughter disappeared.

Months later, washed-up true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into the family's house with his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two children (Michael Hall D'Addario and Clare Foley). Ellison plans to investigate the mysteries surrounding the family's death and write his literary comeback about it.

His new local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is less than welcoming: 'I find this to be in extremely bad taste.'

'Why was he pointing at the house?' Tracy asks Ellison. 'We didn't move in a few houses down from a crime scene again, did we?'

'We didn't...I promise.'

Well, I guess that's technically the truth - they're not down the road from Death House, they're inside it.

What an ass.

Ellison finds a box in the attic that contains an 8mm film projector and a number of reels that appear to be home movies. He sets up the projector (I guess he was in A/V club in high school) and plays Family Hanging Out '11...

...which turns out to be a film of the family's deaths.

My Take

Sinister was the most frightening movie-watching experience I've had since Alien. I saw it alone at midnight in an empty house, and the only way I could stand to finish it was to take breaks to watch funny Internet videos.

It isn't a hugely original movie, but Sinister does dodge a lot of idiotic inconsistencies that are typical of the horror genre. One of the primary ways it does this is by clearly defining Ellison as an insecure and egomaniacal character.

Ellison's big hit Kentucky Blood is over a decade old, and his subsequent books haven't made him much money. 'Why can't you just keep writing in the old house?' his daughter asks. ''Cause I was gonna have to write college textbooks to pay for that old house', which he refuses to do out of pride. Ellison's wife would rather he write textbooks, as their son is starting to experience night terrors.

This familial conflict made a lot of sense to me: if this guy Ellison spends his nights in a locked study doing research on gruesome crimes, then this behavior would surely have a disturbing effect on his children.

Just about every horror movie contains at least one scene in which the protagonist investigates an ominous creak or bump in his house at the dead of night. It's a classic idea, and countless horror flicks have milked some great tension out of it. However, in many instances of this setup the audience thinks: Why doesn't he turn on the light, or call out if anyone's there, or get someone else to come with?

In Sinister Ellison can't flick on the lights at midnight or go around yelling 'who's there?' because he's already on thin ice with his family for pursuing his macabre work. Nobody else wants to live in this new house. If Ellison's wife found about the snuff films and creepy nocturnal goings-on within its walls, she would instantly take the kids and move out.

When the logic is consistent like this, my brain relaxes into the movie and believes the horror. When nothing makes sense, my brain distracts me by pointing out how contrived everything is.

During one of Ellison's film viewings we see him turn away at a particularly dark moment, and our view of the projection blurs out of focus. I thought this was a great moment that made Ellison's character more vulnerable and relatable. The way Sinister handled the grisly details (or details implied to be grisly) made much more sense to me than most violent movies where the images appear to the viewer in crystal-clarity. Surely the characters would be running away in terror; not standing there and examining the gory details of whatever has just happened.

In a lot of horror films the characters are only scared during the actual scary bits, but Sinister has a fantastic scene where Ellison - visibly shaken by all he has seen and experienced lately - desperately tries to keep it together while talking to a police deputy (James Ransone). Props to Ethan Hawke's acting ability.

The period drama, the western, and just about every other film genre can benefit artistically from a larger budget: the more expensive the costumes, sets and special effects are, the more authentic-feeling the film experience ends up feeling to the audience. The horror genre, on the other hand, is unusual in that more money does not equal more scary. The writers (C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson) and cinematographer (Chris Norr) of Sinister knew how to concentrate its modest ($4 million) budget for maximum atmosphere.

Take the disturbing and mysterious 8mm films, which are frightening because of how cheap they are. Each one starts with a family doing regular things together, like fishing or having a barbecue. Even before the murder starts happening there is something inherently creepy about the way the Super-8 footage looks: it's grainy, scratchy, and the edges of the frame fade into darkness. This lack of clarity  made me feel uneasy, like there might be something horrible lurking in the background or just off-screen.

Trust me, it's scary.

The footage is also shaky and shot on hand-held. Whoever the psycho killer is is doing the filming like 20 feet away! The killings incorporate household items such as plastic wrap, duct tape, lawnmowers and cinder blocks; which are chilling in their mundane-ness.

The 8mm films are the centerpiece of Sinister, and were what got me really freaked. Towards the end the story veers away from the films and into real life, but for a good two-thirds the movie is petrifying.

Horror movies live and die by their music and sound design, and on Sinister horror composer Christopher Young (The Grudge, Hellraiser) and sound designer Dane A. Davis bring create a nightmarish, industrial soundscape at a low, guttural register.

The only sound the 8mm films produce is the whirring of the projector. This brought in multiple levels of suspense, as not only are we waiting for something horrible to happen in the footage, we are also aware that Ellison is sitting there watching it, and that something horrible could happen to him.

Maybe that's why I kept having to leave the dark room I was watching Sinister in.


To those of you who want to watch Sinister at home: you better do it at night, or in a fairly dark room. The movie has Caravaggio levels of darkness in its frame, and if you watch it with too much glare you'll just be staring at your reflection for an hour and a half.

Behold: the darkest family dinner ever.

Further Reading

For more horror, see my post about Peeping Tom.

Screengrabs: Sinister was produced by Alliance Films, Blumhouse Productions, Automatik Entertainment and Possessed Pictures, in association with IM Global. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review: Catfish

Shouldn't people know by now not to trust the Internet?

In the documentary Catfish (2010, trailer) a young girl e-mails photographer Nev Schulman an image of a painting she has done of one of his photos. Nev starts to chat with Abby, and he soon starts talking with her mother Angela and her older sister Megan.

Eventually Abby and Angela start mailing Nev paintings, and Megan exchanges steamy sexts with him.

These people live a few states away, and Nev has never met them in person.

What are you talking about? How could this not be a good idea?

Nev tries to show his brother Ariel and friend Henry (the guys filming the documentary) a recording of Megan singing an original song. When the link doesn't work, Nev Googles the song title and finds the exact same recording under a different artist's name.

Nev investigates a number of other songs sent to him by Megan and discovers that they, too, are stolen. 'They're complete psychopaths!' Nev exclaims. 'I've probably been chatting with a guy the whole time!'

The three decide to drive to Angela's home in Ishpeming, Michigan to confront these people and figure out what's going on.

SPOILER ALERT: Although the reveal happens fairly early in the movie's runtime, Catfish's marketing and trailers are geared towards ensuring its mystery. I'm including this notice out of respect to the filmmakers and to anyone who wants to watch Catfish cold.

Now I will leave a gap so that spoiler-avoiders won't risk reading my next bit by accident.

It turns out that almost everything is a ruse. Abby is really the daughter of Angela, but Angela and her husband Vince look completely different from their Facebook pictures. Abby didn't do the paintings, and Megan plumb doesn't exist. Angela fabricated their Facebook profiles, and has been contacting Nev as a whole interconnected network of fictitious people.

As illustrated by this creepy roster.

My Take

Despite its claiming to be the truth, I believe that the whole of Catfish is fake.

First of all, why is Nev's brother filming the documentary in the first place? Catfish doesn't even have a story until we find out that Nev's new Facebook buddies may not be who they seem. The opening credits display the following text:

'On August 13, 2007, one of Yaniv's photos appeared in The New York Sun. Three months later Yaniv received a painting of his photograph in the mail...After a few months, Rel and Henry started documenting Abby and Nev's friendship.'

Are we supposed to believe that Catfish is a Zapruder-like film in which the filmmakers just happened to stumble upon something big whilst minding their own business? Thank God there turned out to be a conspiracy; Nev's Internet Girlfriend probably wouldn't be as interesting a film.

For what is supposed to be an average guy, Nev seems almost idiotically naïve. 'Abby' sends Nev a T-shirt of 'her brother's band' The Casualties - which is a name that even the most cursory of Google searches can reveal is a 20-year-old punk band. I guess Angela was pretty lucky that Nev is neither a punk rock fan, nor is he smart enough to look these things up.

Also, if I 'met' a girl online who was recording music as good as Megan's, the first thing I would do would be to look up whether she has made a CD or is enjoying any success. Looking everything up might seem paranoid, but even the most ignorant Internet-user nowadays knows that there's tons of false information out there, and that corroborating your facts is always a good idea.

The clincher of Catfish's fakeness comes right at the end. Angela's husband Vince, who is previously portrayed as a fairly clueless simpleton, suddenly busts out a full-blown parable: 

'They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China...By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put some catfish in with 'em, the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life...They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish, because we'd be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.'

This reminded me of a line in The Dark Knight: 'You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.' Both quotations blatantly announce themselves as big themes in the movie. 'Listen up and remember this, this is important stuff here.'

Anyway, so what if it is a fake? The mockumentary and found-footage filmmaking styles have yielded great films before. If Blair Witch Project was a horror film and This is Spinal Tap a comedy, Catfish is meant to be a drama wherein Angela tuns out to not be malicious, but tragic:

'I didn't want to lose the friendship...I didn't want to lose that, but then I was like; if I'm lying, it's not really a friendship anyway...And I really thought you'd just end up hating me. You were able to show me things that I don't have access to...So a lot of the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself. Fragments of things I used to be, wanted to be, never could be.'

So there you have it; Angela is a misunderstood soul just looking for an emotional connection. Aww.


I really don't like it when movie characters' unhinged behavior is downplayed like this. In Lars and the Real Girl, Ryan Gosling believes that a sex doll is both alive and his girlfriend. Instead of finding him psychological help, Gosling's friends and neighbors humor his delusion by acting as though the doll is real.

Likewise, in American Beauty Wes Bentley's character secretly follows around Thora Birch with a video camera, and sometimes films her through her bedroom window...but she decides this incredibly creepy habit is okay because he says he's 'just curious.'

I guess the actions of the 'normal' characters in these movies are supposed to be understanding and sympathetic, but their thinking seems to be: 'Oh, these poor, strange people; they just can't help themselves! What they need is for me to play their little games and pity them.' That's not sympathy. At best it's condescending, and at worst it's inviting danger. 

In Catfish, Nev lets Angela off the hook because she gave up her dream of becoming a dancer to start a family, and because she now has to take care of Vince's severely retarded twin sons. I understand that Angela has gone through a lot of sadness and hardship, but I don't think that excuses certain nasty aspects of her online deception:

When Nev presses Angela to let him meet Megan, Angela resists admitting that Megan doesn't exist, and instead texts Nev as 'Megan' to tell him that she is an alcoholic and has just entered rehab. For some reason Angela also tells Nev that she herself has cancer, which also turns out to be a lie. If these aren't flat-out emotional manipulations, I don't know what are.

Also, there's the sexting thing. Here's Nev reading out some of their exchanges:

'Megan: 'I'm in the bathtub, thinking of you.' Nev: 'Funny, I was just thinking about you in the shower earlier.' Megan: 'Mm. I'd love to hear about that...My body is craving your touch tonight.' Me: 'What exactly would you do if you had me there?' Megan: 'I'd have you in the tub with me between my legs...begging you to make love to me.''


For all the deep meaning the catfish-monologue wants to have, I don't see it. What does 'thank God for the catfish' mean? Thank God for liars and deceivers? Is Vince suggesting that Angela's ruse is a good thing? Does this mean he's okay with his wife pursuing sordid online affairs behind his back?


Despite my having problems with its execution, I actually think that the premise of Catfish has a lot of ingenuity behind it. Not only does it allow its penniless filmmakers to make a film just with amateur actors and limited resources; the premise only works with amateur actors and limited resources.

Straightforward fiction films require expenses such as design, costumes and lighting to appear convincing, and documentaries tend to require distinguished interviewees. Catfish's naturalistic premise doesn't require much money, and its unknown subjects didn't require connections to get a hold of. The idea is genius in its resourcefulness.

Catfish must have been a good strategic move to break into the film world, as Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have since directed the third and fourth instalments of the lucrative Paranormal Activity franchise. 

Further Reading

For more about the horrors of the Internet, see my post about Hard Candy.

For more about fake documentaries, see my post about Troll Hunter.

For more about deceit, see my post about Nine Queens.

Screengrabs: Catfish was produced by Supermarché and Hit The Ground Running Films. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Review: Nine Queens

Juan (Gastón Pauls) performs an elaborate money-changing con ('If you have a $100, I'll give you 50, and another 50...') on a convenience store cashier, right before her shift ends. When he attempts the same trick on the next cashier, the first one returns to catch him. Juan tries to run, but the store manager grabs him. 'Son of a bitch! Call the police!'

Another man appears and reveals a gun in his jacket. 'That won't be necessary'. He then apprehends Juan: 'You think I'm an idiot, just like all the assholes you swindle? You fucking thief! Freeze, motherfucker!'

He seizes Juan and the money, and tells the manager: 'You'll get a call from the precinct to file your report and to return this to you.'

The man turns out to be Marcos (Ricardo Darín), another con artist who saved Juan from real arrest by using a toy gun stolen from inside the store.

Marcos asks Juan to work with him for the day, since Juan has a natural advantage of having a more open and trustworthy-looking face than Marcos.

Would this face lie to you?

Their game is brought to the next level when Marcos's associate asks if he's up to selling a counterfeit copy of an old and rare sheet of stamps called the Nine Queens.

'My best work ever. Original paper. 1920. Hand-cut; one perforation at a time. The trick is the time involved. I know they wouldn't pass a lab test. But they're taking the guy to the airport tomorrow. He doesn't have the time to check them thoroughly. That's why they must be sold today. He'll go for it.'

My Take

Movie con-men often have a lot of help. The massive swindles that the anti-heroes of The StingThe Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven pull off require access to so many costly resources - actors, cars, explosives, fake store-fronts and radio signals - that they'd be lucky to make any profit at all from their winnings. (Incidentally, this is an apt metaphor for Hollywood's current business model.)

The scammers in Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas in its native Spanish) (2000, trailer) get by just on their wits: Marcos and Juan's cons seemed so plausible to me that writer Fabián Bielinsky probably lifted them directly from real accounts. In one such trick, Marcos asks 'Auntie?' into apartment intercoms until one lady answers: 'Yes, who is it?'

'You can't recognize your favorite nephew?'

'Fabián, is that you?'

'Yes, Auntie, it's Fabián.'

'What a miracle!...You came to visit me?'

'No...I'm with a friend. We came to visit someone near here, and my car broke down...They're about to tow it to the garage, and after checking my wallet I realized I had no money. Then I noticed I was close to your place. Could you lend me some money, say 50 or 60 pesos?...I don't want to leave the car alone. My friend's down here, give him the money.'

The film's scenes alternate between these clever schemes and the two leads conversing while they thread through the streets of Buenos Aíres like crooked beat cops. The content of Nine Queens may be more pedestrian than the glitzier caper flicks, but its characters and dialogue outshine them all.

We find out pretty quickly that Marcos is a shameless conniver with a superiority complex: 'Of course I can buy it, but I can also not buy it. As everybody else would do if they could...The thing is they don't have enough balls. You think I'm a thief? I don't kill people. I don't use a piece. Anyone can do that.'

Marcos may be a bastard, but he is a thoroughly entertaining bastard who delivers the best lines of the movie. After arguing into a cell-phone, Juan asks him: 'Problems?'

'I don't know. Maybe. I'm going to see my sister.'

'And what shall I do?'

'Come along. You never know with my sister. I might need a witness.'

Marcos and Juan visit Valeria (Leticia Brédice), whose attitude towards her brother is neatly summed up by her face.

Come on, I told you this face wouldn't lie to you...

The true extent of Marcos's ruthless opportunism is revealed when he learns about the Nine Queens deal. Marcos's counterfeiter cohort Sándler planned to sell the stamps himself, but he succumbed to a seizure due to nerves. Collapsed, sweating and awaiting an ambulance, Sándler tries to hammer out a deal with Marcos:

'When I fell ill, I saw your sister and I thought, why not? It's been a long time. You didn't expect this, did you? Here I am, trusting you again.'

'You're desperate. You had no-one else to call...Let me tell you what the situation is. You don't set the percentages; I do. Because if I leave here, all you'll get will be an enema at a public hospital.'

'Listen, I'm 73. I don't have many opportunities left, and this one is mine, rightfully. Don't fuck with me, Marcos. I can call someone else.'

'If you could call someone else, you'd have already done so.'

'Let's do it 50-50.'

'I'm not negotiating. I'm making you the only offer you'll ever get. 10% for you, or nothing, zero.'

Juan is the more relatable character. He is trying to raise $20,000 to buy parole for his father, and only plays the con game because his past business ventures have failed. He even feels guilty when one of his marks fondly compares him to her son.

Juan also has the power to be as deceptive as Marcos, although in a different way. In order to retrieve Sándler's fake stamps, the two must convince Sándler's wife to hand them over. When Marcos's aggressive opening gambit fails, Juan wins her over with a gentler touch:

'I know your kind' the old lady scolds. 'You take advantage of old ladies like me. But I won't allow it. That's why I don't open my door to anyone.'

Juan glances at a marriage certificate on the wall: Basavilbaso, Entre Ríos, 1984, then apparently moves to the retreat: 'Let's go, the lady's right. There's no point. Your mother will understand. It's not that bad. If we ever visit her again we'll take her the photos, otherwise we won't. Forgive us, madam.'

'In that envelope there are photos for your mom?'

'Some photos of my uncle Libor and his family in Poland. Your husband promised us some copies of the originals. We wanted to give them to Mom now that we're going to visit her.'

'Where does your mother live?'

'In Entre Ríos'

'Ah...Entre Ríos!'

This face you can trust.

Marcos may be the scene-stealer of the two, but Juan gets his occasional funny moment. In an awkward situation when Marcos briefly leaves him alone with Valeria, he arbitrarily asks her: 'Do you remember a song by Rita Pavone, 'Il Ballo del Mattone'?'

Juan is constantly on the lookout for when Marcos might screw him over, and just when Marcos thinks he can dump him, Juan will suddenly become invaluable to the plan. The struggle is sort of Darwinian, and the life-energy of Nine Queens lies in the perpetual sparring between the two leads. Personal information about both characters is doled out in increments, and each uses these scarce details to try and beat the other.

And since it's a film about deceivers, the 'facts' are always suspect.


An English-language remake of Nine Queens entitled Criminal was released in 2004. Although it had a solid cast (John C. ReillyDiego LunaMaggie Gyllenhaal) Criminal failed to match the original's cleverness. It felt to me like your garden-variety perfunctory Hollywood do-over.

In 2006 Nine Queens writer/director Fabián Bielinsky died at age 47 of a heart attack. His short career in feature filmmaking yielded only one further film;  El Aura

Nine Queens won a litany of national awards on its release, and Wikipedia tells me it's now considered a classic of Argentinian cinema.

Further Reading

For more about con man movies, see my post about The Brothers Bloom.

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about MotherThe Skin I Live In, and Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Nine Queens was produced by FX Sound, Industrias Audiovisuales Argentinas S.A., J.Z. & Asociados, Kodak Argentina S.A., Naya Films S.A. and Patagonik Film Group. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Review: Rubber

Rubber (2010, trailer) is an independent, micro-budget monster movie in which the monster is a black rubber tyre.


In the California desert a discarded tyre raises itself up and rolls away. It is now sentient, and we see it experience anger and longing.

The tyre also has the power to kill via psychic explosions.

My Take

Rubber intends to be more than just a silly, shlocky horror movie; it actually wants to deconstruct the whole concept of movies. We learn this right at the start, when Chad (Stephen Spinella) addresses us directly with the film's thesis:

'In the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., why is the alien brown? No reason. In Love Story, why do the two main characters fall madly in love with each other? No reason...In [Texas] Chain Saw Massacre, why don't we ever see the characters go to the bathroom or wash their hands like people do in real life? Absolutely no reason...all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason. And you know why? Because life itself is filled with no reason...Ladies, gentlemen, the film you are about to see today is an homage to the 'no reason', that most powerful element of style.'

I guess 'no reason' is also why the first shot of Rubber is of a car knocking down chairs, why the guy talking to us climbed out of the car's trunk, and why he poured a glass of water onto the ground after his speech.

And why there's a tyre going around killing people.

I guess what Rubber writer/director Quentin Dupieux is saying is that every detail in every movie is contrived. This is, of course, true. Writing, acting, aesthetics, sound, stunts and every other component of a movie requires input from someone.

I suppose it's also true that all ideas appear out of the ether, and that their existence could be chalked up to 'no reason'. However, I think that only the vaguest shape of a story idea can be attributed to the ether: a huge majority of the work that goes into the making of a (decent) film goes towards making sure everything links together and makes sense.

I should think that E.T. is brown because brown is a skin color that the audience can believe a real creature would have. A flourescent-purple E.T. would look so blatantly unrealistic that nobody watching would accept him as a real character on the movie's terms. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn't have a hand-washing scene because that would be too boring and mundane for a film that is trying to tell an exciting story in 84 minutes. These are both reasons, not 'no reason's.

When filmmakers put enough effort into establishing a logical story and plugging plot holes, we the audience can believe in the film's reality enough to become immersed and entertained. The more the filmmakers care about their projects and apply 'reason' to them, the more engaging the finished films end up.

Rubber's 'no reason' premise just seems lazy to me. If every single plot point can be explained away by the same two words, then Rubber is infinitely more contrived than the films it mocks for being contrived. I also got the feeling that Rubber's script was the result of some sort of highfalutin, absurdist writing exercise; and that Dupieux doesn't really care about his own story. And if he doesn't care, why should I?

'No reason. Whatever. How 'bout we break for coffee?'

I can't get immersed in a film whose efforts to explain its simplistic, gimmicky agenda overshadows its efforts to be a good movie.

One thing I did like about Rubber was the animation of the tyre (identified as 'Robert' in the credits, presumably because the name's French pronunciation sounds like 'rubber').

'Robert' is an expertly realized creature effect that seems convincingly alive, not just rolled across the frame from off-screen. The footage of 'his' movement through the arid desert plays like a pleasantly surreal nature program.

You'll believe a tyre can murder.

In addition to writing and directing Rubber, Quentin Dupieux also did the music (with Gaspard Augé) and the cinematography. I hope in the future Dupieux's talents can be corralled into producing a more meaningful film.

Or any film that isn't Rubber 2.

Screengrabs: Rubber was produced by Realitism Films in association with Elle Driver, arte France Cinéma, 1.85 Films, Backup Films, Sindika Dokolo; and in participation with Canal+ and Arte France. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing Ltd.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Review: Peeping Tom

A man activates a secret camera inside his overcoat. Through its lens, we experience the man advancing towards a woman. She leads him through an alley side-door, up some stairs and into a bedroom. She starts to undress, and suddenly we hear a click. The camera slowly closes in on the woman as she stares at us, terrified. She screams.

 Welcome to the perverse world of Peeping Tom (1960, trailer)

Welcome. You won't be staying long.

By day, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a film studio focus-puller. By night he corners women, impales them on a blade attached to his tripod, and films their deaths.

My Take

Peeping Tom employs a few interesting angles with its story and makeup.

Where in many serial killer movies the motives and trauma of the madman are extrapolated late into the runtime (invariably to piece together clues towards saving the final girl from his clutches), we find out fairly quickly where Mark's psychosis originates.

Mark shies away from the other tenants in his house, until Helen (Anna Massey) goes out of her way to meet him and invite him in to her birthday party. Mark declines, but Helen comes up to his door to give him a slice of cake. Touched by her kindness, Mark invites her in. 'When I came in, were you looking at some films?', she asks him.


'Of yours?'


'I'd like to see them. I know I'm being rude, but I really would like to see them. It would be a birthday present from you to me!'

Mark digs out an old reel and projects it for her. It depicts Mark as a child, upset by a lizard thrown onto his bedcovers while he was sleeping. Mark explains that his father took the video. Helen is immediately disturbed:

'So he was a scientist. What kind of scientist, Mark?'


'What was he trying to do to you?!'

'He was interested in the reactions of the nervous system to fear. Especially fear in children, and how they react to it. I think he learned a lot from me. I'd wake up sometimes screaming. He'd be there taking notes and pictures...'

If you think this is too sadistic to be true, you obviously have never heard of the 1920 Little Albert experiment; wherein behaviorist John B. Watson used loud, distressing sounds to condition an infant to experience emotional terror in response to benign stimuli such as pet rabbits and mice.

Most serial killer movies (including the seminal and revered Silence of the Lambs) follow the gumshoe on the maniac's trail. A detective does figure into the story of Peeping Tom eventually, but only in a subplot.

Since we already know who the killer is and why he's so messed up, the traditional murder-mystery story elements are absent. Peeping Tom isn't a straightforward cat-and-mouse that plays Mark Lewis as an evil cipher that must be 'solved' and jailed by some authority.

Instead, director Michael Powell and writer Leo Marks make the movie a character study. We do see Mark murder, but we also see him go to work, and we see him develop a relationship with Helen. Most importantly of all, we have an idea of what Mark has gone through to twist his soul and give rise to such violent compulsions.

Leo Marks infuses a lot of sly humor into the script of Peeping Tom: Mark revisits a cordoned-off crime scene with his camera, and when a rubbernecker asks him what paper he works for, he replies 'The Observer'.

Later, Mark sees a fusty, middle-aged man stumble through an under-the-counter porn purchase, - 'I'm told by a friend that you have some views for sale?' - then walk out carrying a brown envelope entitled EDUCATIONAL BOOKS.

Scenes depicting Mark's studio workplace rib the film industry: a hack director (Michael Goodliffe) constantly rows with a diva-ish starlet (Shirley Anne Field) to make what is evidently an extremely lame movie:

'The thing about this scene is I must have some comedy in it. Now, you do understand, darling, instead of taking the first trunk, you must ask to see a red one. When he brings that, I want you to look around, and ask him for a white one...And you, Michael, bring the trunks one by one, getting more and more fed up...Understand?'

'I don't feel it.'

'Don't feel it, just do it!'

All the plot elements of Peeping Tom fit together into a very fluid piece. A scene featuring the filmmakers at the studio transitions into a Mark-centric sequence when he meets up with a stand-in at the end of his work day. We see the detectives working together, and we see them question Mark after the stand-in is found dead. Peeping Tom always has a different and interesting scene to move on to.

Peeping Tom is a great-looking film. The footage of Mark's childhood is unsettling in its blurry, black-and-white handheld style; and the opening POV scene is appropriately sleazy, with the prostitute bringing Mark down a narrow, creepy archway.

I particularly liked the set of Mark's cavernous darkroom: the equipment necessary to develop film - harsh red lights, blackened windows, vials of chemicals, cold metallic racks, and arcane machinery - is assembled in an exaggeratedly menacing way. It all alludes to the gothic romance spirit inherent in Peeping Tom's story, and gives it an aesthetic reminiscent of old Universal horror movies such as the original Frankenstein.

 'The neck's broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain.'


Peeping Tom was one of two significant 1960 slasher/thriller films. The other was Psycho. The reason why nobody's heard of Peeping Tom is because it was torn apart by critics on its release:

 'Sick minds will be highly stimulated.' (The Daily Telegraph)

'It's a long time since a film has disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom.' (The Observer)

'However intriguing psychologically, the film is frankly beastly.' (The Financial Times)

The film was withdrawn from cinemas after just one week. Despite Michael Powell's long and illustrious directorial career (49th Parallel, The Red Shoes) Peeping Tom alone brought so much infamy to his name that he became a persona non grata in the UK film industry, and could only continue his filmmaking career by seeking out smaller projects in other countries.

So why did the critics hate it?

Well, they were certainly shocked by the violence, voyeuristic theme and sexual undertones. However, the final nail in Peeping Tom's coffin was the reprehensible fact that the killer is presented as a relatable human being - which I find to be an ironic thing to complain about, since the critic's lament nowadays is all about how movie antagonists have too little depth.

In the Seventies Peeping Tom became a point of interest for cinephiles, and Martin Scorsese (whose 1976 opus Taxi Driver borrowed heavily from Peeping Tom) championed its 1979 re-release, which brought it critical recognition at long last.

Thirty years later, the very same papers that dissed Peeping Tom so relentlessly on its original release now refer to it as a masterpiece.

I believe that Peeping Tom was simply ahead of its time: even though Hitchcock was starting to push the horror envelope with Rear Window in 1954, movies were pretty tame for a long time. The movie violence revolution only really started happening in the late Sixties with controversial flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). The whole reason why it was a revolution was because people bought tickets in droves instead of listening to the pansies who wrote the reviews.

Like Peeping TomPsycho was panned on its release, but that didn't stop the public from lining up around the block and earning Paramount $12 million on an $800k budget. Perhaps if the cinemas hadn't retracted Peeping Tom, the young people would have embraced it, and Powell may have had his most profitable film ever.

Maybe the British censors are just too tight-fisted: even into the Seventies, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's The Devils were straight-up banned for decades.

In any event, Peeping Tom has been obscure for so long that it may never earn a place in the canon of classic horror cinema, and perhaps its greatest legacy will be the considerable inspiration it gave Taxi Driver.

I personally appreciate Peeping Tom's obscurity since I like to seek out diamond-in-the-rough films, but somehow I don't think Michael Powell and his ruined career would take much consolation in that.

I've got it! The critics hated the movie because...they thought it was bad taste that Powell himself played Mark Lewis's father in Mark's old reels?

Sorry, Michael.

Further Reading

For more about horror, see my post about Sinister.

For more about 1960s cinema, you can see my post about Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Screengrabs: Peeping Tom was produced by Michael Powell. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing Ltd.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.