Peeping Tom: The 1960 British flop that invented the slasher movie

Michael Powell’s daring 1960 British horror Peeping Tom disgusted critics and ended his career for nearly 20 years. It’s often credited with inspiring the all-American “slasher” movie.

The setting is unremarkable, most often an unassuming American suburbia. The villain is a blade-wielding, unapologetic killer, warped by past trauma into luring strangers to their (preferably bloody) deaths. The protagonists, typically young and horny, are all at risk, except perhaps for one: a “final girl” who may be resilient and morally pure enough to survive.

Even only casual viewers of horror will recognise this as the common outline of a slasher movie. Cemented in hit “Golden Age” slashers like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (not to mention the many sequels to and imitators of each), the tropes of the slasher subgenre have been laid bare and then parodied and deconstructed in horror movies ever since Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) kicked off its own self-aware slasher genre.

Alamy Peeping Tom was met with revulsion by critics at the time: its British distribution was cancelled and the film and its director were forgotten for nearly 20 years (Credit: Alamy)

Those tropes that are now so familiar, however, have their origins in a film made almost two decades before the so-called Golden Age of the slasher began – and by a Brit, no less. But though hailed today as one of cinema’s best and most groundbreaking horrors, Peeping Tom found no such adulation when it was released back in 1960.

The film’s director, Michael Powell, had recently parted ways with his creative partner of nearly two decades, screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, with whom he had made some of Britain’s most spellbinding pictures, among them The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947) – humanistic, romantic, fantastical works that tested cinema’s then-limits in photography and optical effects. For Peeping Tom, Powell had a new partner-in-crime, World War Two codebreaker-turned-screenwriter Leo Marks, and together they had in mind a different kind of innovation.

Noir in the 50s suddenly becomes a lot more brutal and more willing to follow protagonists who are pretty loathsome – Dr Matthew Asprey Gear

By the late 1950s, the relaxation of film censorship, society’s evolving relationship with the taboo and cinema’s competition with the increasingly popular medium of television were changing films, in Hollywood and the UK. Dr Matthew Asprey Gear, tutor at the Edinburgh College of Art, tells BBC Culture that films at this time would become “more lurid and titillating and dwell in the murk a little bit, to pull the audience in”. This meant more sex and violence, says Gear; it also meant less moral certainty when it came to depictions of crime. “Noir in the 50s suddenly becomes a lot more brutal and more willing to follow protagonists who are pretty loathsome… Even if they do get their comeuppance, the focus on their immorality feels like something new,” he says.

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Record Review: Harp “Albion”

A decade in the making, Midlake’s magisterial mainman returns

By Tom Pinnock

Take a look at the cover of Albion and you’ll see a bearded, robed traveller – Harp’s Tim Smith – on a bleak, snow-dappled moor, guitar held at his waist in place of a sword, an ill-advised and dangerous quest no doubt weighing heavy on his mind. It’s a brilliant, and silly, image, and yet it says something about the long journey Smith has been on since he left Midlake, the band he fronted and ostensibly led, back in 2012.

The Texans had been trying and failing to make the follow-up to 2010’s The Courage Of Others when Smith departed, fed up of it all. While 2006’s stellar The Trials Of Van Occupanther had been a record that predicted much of what was to come in indie-rock over the following few years – Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and more – The Courage Of Others was a puzzling sequel, with some fans and critics bemused by the austere pace and super-serious English folk within.

Attempts to write and record his first album as Harp became an epic struggle, however; a decade-long quest, during which Smith met and married Kathi Zung, now an integral part of the project, especially in its production, and moved to North Carolina. Like most foolhardy crusaders, Smith continued doggedly on, seemingly working out how he could make the courtly folk of The Courage Of Others even more dour: the answer, he discovered, was in the influence of ’80s goth, especially The Cure’s masterpiece of misery, Faith.

Yet, like some hooded alchemist of yore, Smith has skirted disaster and finally transformed these elements into a glittering bounty. His preoccupation with an olde-worlde Britain may be alarming to some – that title, that cover, the medieval dress-up in the “I Am A Seed” video, lyrical nods to William Blake and a few “thee”s and “thou”s here and there – but they are pursued so avidly one can’t help but engage with it all on Smith’s own terms. The result is as if early-’80s Robert Smith suddenly discovered his parents’ Fairport records; not an entirely fanciful idea, considering the threads of misery and detachment within both new wave and the darkest traditional folk. Continue reading

Wonka, review: the most fun you’ll have in a cinema all year

The brains behind Paddington – plus a charming Timothée Chalamet – give Dahl a Goon Show-ish prequel full of irresistible velvety sweetness

When it was announced that the creative team behind the Paddington films were making a musical about Willy Wonka’s early life, some cynics speculated that we were just going to get Paddington again, but with more songs, less marmalade, and a different shape of hat. To which the rest of us could only respond: ooh, yes, that sounds lovely, thanks.

Wonka – which is one of the best times you’ll have in the cinema this year – isn’t exactly that film. But it’s far closer to the recent big-screen adventures of Michael Bond’s beloved bear than it is to Dahl’s original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel – and, frankly, is all the better for it. This is no conventional prequel, full of bucketloads (or even Bucket-loads) of laborious foreshadowing: there’s no breezy cameo from a hot Grandpa Joe, a la Jude Law’s young Dumbledore, in tasteful midcentury knits.

Nor is it an effortful Dahl cover version. The plot has villainy to spare, but no sadistic streak – even Olivia Colman and Tom Davis’s venomous hoteliers are a good deal less toxic than, say, the Twits – while all confectionery-based mishaps aren’t matters of cosmic punishment but industrial sabotage.

Instead, director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby have concocted a wholly self-contained caper about a plucky young chocolatier taking on a cartel of older, meaner rivals – then dusted it with enough details drawn from both Dahl’s novel and the 1971 film to make the branding add up.

Devout Wonkarians are rewarded with nods and winks: a turn of phrase here, a visual echo there, or a tinkling of Pure Imagination in Joby Talbot’s magical score. (The suite of new songs, by Talbot and his old Divine Comedy collaborator Neil Hannon, are witty and wondrous: a set of instant, hear-once, hum-forever classics.) Otherwise, though, the film largely just gets on with its own Great Chocolate Caper thing.

As the youthful Willy Wonka, Timothée Chalamet does throw in the odd Gene Wilder-ish line reading or gesture, but the script doesn’t furnish him with many opportunities for those. Rather, he’s mainly required to be bright and charming, sell some amusingly silly lines, and hold a tune – which, with perhaps a little help from the sound engineers, he does.

And yes, perhaps sometimes, if you squint a bit, you could almost be watching a shaved Paddington in a natty purple suit. But his new film’s comic tone is riper and madder: King’s first directorial work was on the BBC sitcom The Mighty Boosh, and Wonka plonks itself squarely in that very British tradition of surreal escapades with a satirical kick. Long before the Boosh came Not the Nine O’Clock News (whose famous gorilla joke makes a cameo of sorts), then the Pythons – and before them all The Goon Show, of which Wonka often feels like a feature-length episode.

Paterson Joseph’s Arthur Slugworth, head of the town’s wicked chocolate cartel, is a deliciously smarmy Grytpype-Thynne type, while Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton’s sidekicks are a pair of perfect Moriartys. Meanwhile, supporting characters constantly chime in with Goonish non-sequiturs, such as Jim Carter’s dark mutterings of an abbey of chocoholic monks, or Natasha Rothwell’s plumber warily asking Willy, after his clandestine midnight jaunt to the zoo: “Where have you been, and why do you smell of giraffe?”

Even Hugh Grant’s Oompa-Loompa, Lofty – who, with his green hair and orange complexion, must be the film’s cleanest lift from Wonka lore – has an uproarious, martini-dry “must-we?” demeanour that screams Peter Sellers.

Perhaps the film’s only real sop to nostalgia (aside from the encore performance of a certain song) is its replication of the 1971 film’s weirdly ambiguous setting, which has been fleshed out into a gorgeous storybook hybrid of Bavaria, Paris and an English university town. Of all the things to bring back, it’s an odd one, but something about it just tastes right.

Like any good chocolatier, King has obsessively focused on texture and flavour. And it’s those qualities – tuned to mass-market tastes, yet held in connoisseurish balance – that give his film its irresistible velvety sweetness.

PG cert, 116 mins. In cinemas from Friday December 8

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