In America, 1960 belonged to Psycho, the shocking ode to sudden violence that came with the pedigree of the Master of Suspense and changed the way movies were watched. That film will get its due in a couple days on Halloween, but as an extra treat consider a couple films that also found terror in rooms thought safe, where the supernatural wasn’t necessary to create a monster. Peeping Tom and The Housemaid climbed out of the same primordial goo, premiering the same year as Psycho – two months earlier in the case of Tom – and at least one ocean away.
The Psycho: Mark Lewis, camera operator. Peeping Tom features a less subtle psychopath than Norman Bates, though restraint was shown in not actually naming the main character “Tom.” Mark (Karlheinz Böhm, credited as Carl Boehm) works as a camera assistant by day and side hustles as a nudie photographer. He also has a passion project he’s working on, a “documentary” as he describes it, where he murders young women with a blade hidden in his tripod, filming their faces as they die. Norman may be fond of leering through a small aperture, but his makes for a more ephemeral experience.
Where it Overlaps: Bravura (if less famous) murder sequences. The opening presages Psycho’s shower scene with its close-up on a woman’s screaming face. We’re watching it through the camera’s viewfinder, following the woman up the staircase in an unbroken POV before the kill that also predicts the opening of 1978’s Halloween. The blade coming for her isn’t held in a hand, though, it’s attached to the camera itself that’s pushing in on her scream. During the opening credits, the footage replays in black-and-white as Mark watches his work. Had it not been released two months before Psycho, it could serve perfectly as a meta-commentary on the filming of Marion Crane’s demise.
Where it Diverges: Sympathy for the Devil. Unlike the bait-and-switch point of view that made Psycho so surprising, Peeping Tom sticks with the killer most of the time, only pausing to catch up with the police investigators trying to solve the murders. He’s messed up from a parental relationship as well, but he’s more clearly a victim. Because he somehow earns the affections of both his downstairs neighbor Helen (Anna Massey) and would-be actress Vivian (the radiant Moira Shearer), Mark gains our sympathies more easily than Norman. This despite his more aggressive brutality, as he lures women in front of his camera with the intent to kill, rather than awaiting the right opportunity.
The Fallout: Director Michael Powell – the first half of the famed Powell and Pressburger directing team – was friendly with Hitchcock and no doubt familiar with his work. Since the voyeurism and violence of Peeping Tom much more resembles Vertigo or Rear Window than, say, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it’s fair to presume Tom was born of the same influences as Psycho. Unfortunately, the culture was far less kind to Peeping Tom, which was found so grossly outré that Powell became a Career Killers candidate after the film’s release and resounding rejection.
The Psycho: Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), domestic servant. Composer and music teacher Kim Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu) and his middle-class family struggle with finances to keep their middling lifestyle, and bring on the seemingly demure Myung-sook as a housemaid. Myung-sook goes above and beyond the usual cooking and cleaning, blackmailing and eventually seducing Dong-sik. Already unsettling, events take a dark plummet from here as the Kim family gets trapped in a claustrophobic battle of threats and murder.
Where It Overlaps: A simple plan gets out of control. There isn’t a bag of money as in Psycho, but the family’s financial ambitions play a role in finding themselves in the presence of an unhinged individual. From there the execution is Hitchcockian, as the film takes Hitch’s old adage about creating suspense by revealing there’s a bomb under the table and stretching it to movie-length. It’s a bottle of poison rather than an explosive in this case, and though it’s ostensibly for rats, every drink and bite taken by the characters is fraught with tension.
Where It Diverges: Madness calibration. Psycho’s expertly simmered suspense is effective, but it’s difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Hitchcock presenting a plate of writhing poisoned rats, an unnoticed exploding tree, or an illicit kiss hid by hair yanked around the faces. Kim is more often compared to Luis Buñuel or filmmakers he influenced like Bong Joon Ho, and that gives a more complete idea of the near-surrealism that marks The Housemaid.
The Fallout: At least director Kim Ki-young fared better than Powell. The film became the first entry in a trilogy with variations on the same setup of a seductive housekeeper and deadly consequences. It’s funny to think that while Hitchcock’s shower scene was being sent back for allegedly containing a fleeting glimpse of a nipple, The Housemaid could get away with more explicit skin, (for that matter, it’s weird that Psycho had to fight to keep its first scene between two unmarried people in a hotel room while Peeping Tom opens with a the camera following a prostitute to her murder). Psycho may have faced some censorship from a weakening Production Code but it all pertained to what things couldn’t be included in the film. The Housemaid had to please censors by tacking on a strange extra scene that frames the whole movie as a sort of allegory told by Mr. Kim. The patriarch then turns to the camera and delivers a smiling public service announcement about the perils of older men with young maids. The wordy psychoanalysis at the end of Psycho only seems slightly less universal and infinitely more naturalistic.
Psycho quickly became one of the most widely imitated and influential films of all time, making it difficult to imagine encountering – let alone making – either of these movies without knowledge of it. Perhaps the worldwide emergence of the movie psychopath was an amplification of cultural echoes started by Hitch himself in his domestic crime explorations like Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train. Maybe it was the international reporting of real-life crimes like the grisly murders by Ed Gein that inspired Psycho’s source novel. Maybe it was a harbinger of global shifts in social mores and artistic demands that allowed for more depictions of violence and sexuality, or evidence for a collective consciousness or the theory of Multiple Discovery.
At least our fears of danger with an unassuming face aren’t limited to one part of the world. We all go a little mad sometimes.