When it comes to discussing ’60s British horror, most conversations usually begin and end with Hammer’s gothics and their sleazy derivatives. Mind you, it’s not hard to see why—the studio practically revived the genre in the UK during the late ’50s, and competitors would have to be fools to not want to ride their coattails, creating their own bloody (and occasionally brilliant) gothics chock-full of sex and violence. But the ’60s also saw the rise of a different, darker sub-genre—the modern psychological thriller, birthed from Alfred Hitchcock’s visual vocabulary and directors focused less on the supernatural and more on the depths of human cruelty and depravity. These thrillers are violent, sexual, and no stranger to controversy, and on today’s entry of the Crypt of Curiosities, we’ll be looking at three of the best and most noteworthy films.
The first big British thriller of the decade dropped in 1960 with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a title that predates Hitchcock’s Psycho by a single month. We follow Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), a shy young man who works multiple camerawork-related odd jobs (pinup photographer, focus puller on film shoots, etc.) around London. But Mark has bigger aspirations; he wants to be a filmmaker, a documentarian at that. And while others are content making documentaries on wars or nature or great people, Mark’s documentary is very peculiar, and he’ll need to kill and film a whole lot of women to finish it.
Yes, Mark is a serial killer, but he’s a far cry from the cackling madmen or calculated masterminds that define this particular type of criminal in pop culture. Instead, Boehm plays Mark like an awkward twentysomething—polite, reserved, and equal parts in love with and terrified of the concept of genuine human connection. Martin Scorsese, Peeping Tom’s most famous fan, described Mark as a character with whom the audience feels an “uneasy empathy,” and it’s true. Much like Norman Bates of the aforementioned Psycho, it’s easy to find yourself warming up to Mark as he stumbles his way through the world with a slight smile and wounded eyes—that is, until he kills again.
What sets the murders in Peeping Tom apart from those of its contemporaries is how they’re presented. While other killers are content to use knives, hammers, or other “traditional” weapons, Mark wields his movie camera, filming while he makes full use of its spiked tripod (and another attachment which I won’t dare spoil). The spiked tripod is not only a functional weapon, but there’s an unmistakable sexual bent to the murders that only a piercing weapon can deliver, making the cameraman’s gendered violence all the more unnerving.
And that brings me to the camera’s view itself, perhaps the most fascinating element of Peeping Tom. When you get down to it, Peeping Tom is a movie about movies, or rather, the sick voyeurism that draws us to watch depravity and carnage of all stripes. The first sequence in the film, after a close-up of Mark’s eye opening, captures this ethos perfectly. We’re put behind the camera’s lens, Rear Window style, for a long take as Mark tracks down a prostitute he hopes to prey on, camera rolling. He films her as she leads him up to a hotel room, leering at her body every step of the way with careful pans up her legs and rear, before he finally strikes, perfectly angling the camera to capture her scream head-on.
It’s a sequence that not only builds suspense, but is 100% in line with the stereotypical framing of women in genre films. Dehumanized, sexualized, brutalized, but with the added context of a movie-within-a-movie made by a killer, everything changes. In Peeping Tom, the very act of this exploitative and dehumanizing filmmaking is explicitly being portrayed as monstrous, the actions of a disturbed individual who sees the fairer sex as nothing more than objects, walking slabs of meat who must die for his art.
Of course, it’s not as if Peeping Tom is only attacking directors. It has plenty to say about the audience as well. Our audience surrogate comes in the form of Helen (Anna Massey), a children’s book author who finds herself incredibly attracted to Mark and his movies. Helen may not kill people, but she’s still unquestionably as much of a voyeur as Mark is, filled with a perverse attraction to his horrifying home videos. Even when she finally sees the carnage unfold, she doesn’t avert her eyes, and that says a lot more about her, and by extension, what Peeping Tom thinks about us, than it does about the quality of Mark’s directing.
Even if one were to strip Peeping Tom of all of its commentary and thematic content, they’d still be left with a technically brilliant film. Powell has a very strong grasp on the essence of suspense, clearly setting up the pieces of every scene and planting impressions of all the ways they could turn horribly violent in the viewer’s head before letting them play out with colorful lighting and perfectly placed cuts that are both clever transitions (there’s one match cut between brandy and tea that’s everything) and elegant reminders of just how easily any given situation could descend into madness.
Unfortunately, contemporary critics appreciated neither the thematic or technical elements of Peeping Tom. The film was ravaged on release due to its uncomfortable and dour content, and by the time the smoke cleared, the beating was so severe that Michael Powell had become a persona non grata in the industry. Thankfully, Martin Scorsese intervened in the late ’70s, restoring and screening the film to a much more appreciative audience in New York, and today, the film is rightfully regarded as a classic of the genre.
Five years after Peeping Tom shocked critics, a 32-year-old Polish upstart named Roman Polanski would take the genre’s lurid content even further with his sophomore effort and English-language debut, Repulsion, the first part in his critically acclaimed, thematically-connected “Apartment Trilogy” consisting of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant. Like the films that would follow in the series, Repulsion is the story of a woman on the brink of insanity—this time, it’s Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a manicurist who lives with her sister, Helen (Yvone Furneaux). But Carol isn’t like Helen, nor any of the other women she spends her life with. Carol is, as the title suggests, repulsed by men. Unfortunately, she has a suitor in the form of Colin (John Fraser), and when Helen leaves the apartment for a trip with her boyfriend, Carol’s sanity begins to slip.
Catherine Deneuve plays Carol like something of a zombie, going about her business lost in her own world, rarely showing emotion in her day-to-day interactions. That is, except where men are concerned. It’s clear from Carol’s awkward interactions with the seemingly good-hearted Colin and Helen’s boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry) that she’s none too fond of interacting with men, but when it comes to the male body itself, she’s downright disgusted. Even Michael’s straight razor, left by the bathroom sink, is seen as a vile object, a symbol of everything Carol fears and abhors.
Repulsion is hardly the most dialogue-filled film around, so the heights of her titular repulsion are captured with nothing more than objects, visions, and sound alone. It’s clear that, even on his second film, Polanski has a firm grasp over the craft, as every part of Carol’s life and apartment—from the nunnery across the street to the ticking clock heard when Michael and Helen make love to Michael’s discarded straight razor—is milked for as much symbolic value as possible. Unfortunately, not every symbol in the film is a hit, and the recurring motif of increasingly larger cracks in the walls and the floor reflecting the growing cracks in Carol’s sanity is not only blisteringly on the nose, but also never receives a satisfying payoff.
Carol’s dwindling sanity not only leads to her committing increasingly violent and terrifying acts, but brings with it an overwhelming wave of paranoia and hallucinations. At Repulsion’s highest moments, the apartment itself seems to be conspiring against her, with careful camerawork and trippy effects distorting the locale into a nightmarish hellscape, where groping hands reach from the walls and heavy feet pace behind every door. However, the most infamous element of the film comes along with Carol’s crumbing psychosis—her deeply upsetting visions of brutal rapes, all shot in an uncomfortably aggressive style, the camera’s zoom barreling towards Carol like it was an attacker itself.
While the camerawork may be good during the nightmarish visions or hyper-close-ups (keen-eyed viewers may notice one shot of a finger pressing an elevator button that Tarantino loves to mimic in his films), I’m afraid to say that it all falls apart during the most crucial scenes. While she may be helpless in her nightmares, Carol is more than capable of defending herself in reality, leading to her violently dispatching the men who prey on her. And unfortunately, the framing for these kills are just terrible. Hyper-close-ups of the attacks and POV shots reveal just how poorly done these kills are, with weak choreography and laughable reactions from those under attack. It’s bafflingly bad direction, and outright ruins what would otherwise be very chilling and effective scenes.
Still, some terribly done scenes aren’t enough to ruin what is otherwise a stone-cold classic. In fact, I may be the outlier when it comes to critical opinion on Repulsion, considering its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and beautiful Criterion release. Besides, even as the weakest film I’ve seen on this Crypt, it’s still very good, and very much worth your time.
The final film in this unofficial trilogy of thrillers is Twisted Nerve (1968), one of the last British thrillers of the ’60s, and one of the final films directed by Roy Boulting. Twisted Nerve is the deeply unsettling story of Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett), a young man who has been infantilized and stunted by his family, who have spent most of their lives paranoid that he’d “develop” Down syndrome like his younger brother. Hated by his stepfather and coddled by his mother, Martin finds himself falling for the beautiful Susan (Hayley Mills) and decides to craft an elaborate plan—one that’s poised to get him with his love and eliminate anybody who ever wronged him.
Hywel Bennett absolutely kills it in Twisted Nerve, passing the seemingly Herculean task of portraying both Martin and his alter ego—a crude parody of his younger brother’s Down syndrome named “Georgie”—with flying colors. Hywel’s performance works best when the foundations of Martin’s Georgie act begin to crumble, the briefest breaks of character from the sweet young boy showing the true monster behind the mask. There’s also something to be said for his deeply upsetting Georgie persona, which as mentioned, is less of Martin’s attempt at accurately representing Down syndrome (despite being very close with his much more sympathetically portrayed, albeit rarely seen brother) and more of an open mockery of it, the ignorance of those around him causing them to completely buy into his weak cover.
Martin may not be as unnervingly sympathetic as Mark Lester or as disconnected from reality as Carol in Repulsion, but his narcissistic sociopathy lends itself to a particularly special villain. He’s not sympathetic in the slightest, in fact, he’s an overwhelmingly petty and violent bastard, but he’s always fascinating to watch. Martin has quite a few hang-ups with his family, himself, and the world around him, and not all of them are clearly spelled out. In particular, the early reveal of his sexual insecurity is done entirely with a single pan across his room and one, violent cut. The scene is a masterpiece of visual storytelling, and the whole film is packed with similarly well-done mixtures of pans and cuts to reveal new info about, or entirely re-contextualize, a scene and its characters.
Of course, it’s impossible to write about Twisted Nerve without mentioning its legendary score by the late Bernard Herrmann, the genius composer behind the soundtracks for everything from Psycho to Citizen Kane to Carrie. And you know what? Twisted Nerve might just be his best work, with a score that remixes and re-scores a single haunting leitmotif to great effect. The film’s signature whistle theme has even taken on a life of its own outside of Twisted Nerve, being used in everything from Kill Bill to American Horror Story to car commercials.
Much like the other films on this list, Twisted Nerve debuted to great controversy from British critics and audiences, particularly over its depiction of Down syndrome. Many people read the film as Martin actually having Down syndrome instead of merely replicating his brother’s condition, and through that logic, saw the film as portraying Down syndrome as a dangerous condition. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t help much by taking its title (and closing line) from the Viereck poem Slaves, which reads, “A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry/Predestinates the sinner and the saint.” Thankfully, this isn’t the film’s message, and it goes to great lengths to make it clear that there’s a wide gulf between Martin and people who have Down syndrome, even including a narration before the movie emphasizing that there’s “no connection between mongolism (the very, very antiquated term for Down syndrome) and psychotic or criminal behavior.” While it’s understandable why audiences and critics took the wrong message away from the film, it at least did everything it could to clarify its positions in this minefield of subject matter.
Twisted Nerve isn’t quite on the same level as the unquestionable masterpiece that is Peeping Tom, but it still holds the distinct honor of being the second-best film yet covered on the Crypt, and a perfect cap to an appropriately twisted era of British cinema. They were dark, they were boundary-pushing, and they paved the way for the likes of everything from Don’t Look Now to The Wicker Man to The Omen. They’re all beautiful and brilliant in their own special way, and they’re all worth recognizing for the genre classics they are.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: The Chilling Westerns of Lucio Fulci