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.
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.Continue reading