Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho (1960) marks storied director Alfred Hitchcock’s first tentative steps into the horror genre. By today’s standards, in which the amount of gore and viscera is (seemingly) directly proportional to box-office performance, it’s virtually tame. Yet at the time of production, Psycho was utterly revolutionary. Its success contributed to the decline of the Production Code, loosening the bonds of censorship in Hollywood and leading to more graphic depictions of adult themes on the silver screen.
Psycho stars Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, a young woman from Phoenix who longs to marry her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). They cannot wed, however, until Sam manages to work his way out of debt. In a weak moment, Marion steals $40,000 from her employer and hits the road to meet Sam at his home across the state, but gets lost during a storm and ends up at the Bates Motel. The proprietor, a nervous young man named Norman (Anthony Perkins), strikes up a conversation with Marion and later spies on her through a peephole in the bathroom as she prepares to take a shower. Marion, who has resolved to return to Phoenix and return the money, is then murdered by an unseen woman, whom we are led to believe is Norman’s mother. Norman covers up the crime, but as an investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Marion’s sister, Lila Crane, (Vera Miles), and Sam all converge on the motel in search of Marion, “Mother” is far from happy.
The movie has become such legend by this point in time that it’s no shock to say that “Mother” has been dead for some time, and “she” is killing people through her seriously disturbed son. People who have never even seen the movie know the truth about Norman Bates, and the surprise element of the film that was so effective upon its release has been diluted over the years.
But what a shock for 1960 audiences! Not only the twist ending; I’ll get to that in a moment. But who sitting in the audience for one of the initial viewings of Psycho expected the star of the film, Janet Leigh, to perish with two-thirds of the movie left to go?!? It was unheard of–and it was an absolutely brilliant move on Hitchcock’s part (one that would be borrowed extensively in the horror genre in years to come, most blatantly by 1996’s Scream, in which Drew Barrymore’s character is killed within the first fifteen minutes of the movie).
Psycho is truly the most suspenseful movie Hitchcock ever crafted–because if the star of the movie isn’t safe, who is? It removes any expectation the audience may have had about who will survive Norman’s rampage, making every death and every twist and turn of the plot an utter surprise to viewers. Not for nothing is Psycho a master class in how to construct an effective horror film.
The thing I appreciate the most about Psycho is that Hitchcock is able to convey the absolute horror of Marion’s murder without ever once resorting to outright gore. Obviously, the director couldn’t have done this even if he had wanted to, considering the limitations of the Code. Instead, the unparalleled shower scene, constructed in a rapid-fire series of cuts and close-ups, focuses on quick flashes of the knife and the thick stream of blood (chocolate sauce, in actuality) going down the drain. The horrific nature of the act is suggested more so than laid bare for our viewing; that in itself makes it ten times more effective, at least in my mind (this is, in essence, the issue I have with horror films–you can show me things that will make me want to vomit in my own shoes, but even the most disgusting things shown on screen are no match for what I can imagine in my own head. That’s where the true horror lies–in the things we cannot fully see, and thus cannot fully quantify).
As in most of his films, Hitchcock uses (at times heavy-handed) symbolism to build the mystique surrounding his characters. First and foremost, he plays with shadows and light to heighten the tension in the film. This extends from the more obvious instances (the darkened house on the hill; the shadows created by Norman’s beloved stuffed birds), to such seemingly mundane things as the characters’ wardrobes. Much as he did with Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Hitch uses dark and light clothing to depict the shifting attitudes of his female protagonist, dressing Marion in white in her initial appearances in the film, and then putting her in black clothing after she steals the money. And speaking of Norman’s birds, they are representative of not only his talent as a taxidermist (important considering what he does to his mother’s corpse), but of his own stifled ability to “fly from the nest,” bound as he is to “Mother’s” whims.
Water, too, plays a large part in the film, symbolizing different things to different characters. A rainstorm causes Marion to stop at the Bates Motel, where she is spiritually “reborn,” in a sense, making the decision to stop running and return to Phoenix to face the consequences of her actions. Leigh herself underscores this motif in a 1995 book about the making of the film, explaining, “When [Marion] stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul…” But for Norman, water is something of an accomplice, a means for him to conceal “Mother’s” crimes, as he sinks Marion’s car (and her enclosed body) into a swamp.
Though the psychology behind Norman’s condition is suspect–it’s all Oedipal and Freudian to these people, isn’t it?–this film boasts one of the greater twist endings in all of moviedom. That shot of Norman, dressed in his mother’s clothes, knife raised to attack Lila just after she’s discovered the grotesque, yet lovingly-preserved corpse of Mrs. Bates, is one of the most chilling scenes in the film. You realize, finally, that this unassuming young man, so devoted to his bat-shit crazy mother, is seriously bat-shit crazy himself. And at the end of the film, after the psychiatrist’s rather mundane explanation of Norman’s behavior, “Mother’s” closing speech about her son’s “badness” contains one of the best closing lines ever:
“It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn’t allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They’ll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man … as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can’t move a finger, and I won’t. I’ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do … suspect me. They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching … they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly …'”
Everything comes together in this movie–a phenomenal story; great performances (particularly from Perkins, whose take on Norman evokes precisely the right mix of sympathy and horror); the black-and-white cinematography (done, by most accounts, as both a cost-cutting measure and to lessen the impact of the bloody scenes), which contributes to an edgy, noir-ish feel that serves to increase the tension; and a killer soundtrack (horrible pun intended). Bernard Herrmann’s score is a masterpiece, and the screeching violins accompanying the murderous acts in the film are an excellent counterpoint to the action on screen, ratcheting up the audience’s fear and making the film a thousand times more effective than it would have been otherwise.
The impact of the original was lessened, in later years, by a series of unnecessary sequels, all produced after Hitchcock’s death in 1977. Perkins, who had become inextricably associated with Norman in the eyes of the viewing public, returned to the role in all three sequels (and even directed Psycho III), and Miles returned as Lila Crane in the first of them. Trust me: if you don’t want to see the brilliance of Hitchcock’s film tarnished and trampled to death, don’t watch the sequels. While Psycho II has an interesting premise, following Norman after his release from the mental institution 22 years after the events of the first film, it quickly delves into shlock. And don’t get me started on the last two films in the series; quite simply, in my humble opinion, they suck. A lot.
Nor, in my opinion, is Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film worth a look. While some critics have praised Van Sant for the artfulness with which he put his version together, the film is severely lacking, particularly in the performances of Anne Heche (as Marion) and Vince Vaughn (whose tepid take on Norman never quite connects in the brilliant way Perkins’ did). Hitchcock’s magical touch is missing, too; the elements of black humor that make his Psycho a creepily fun mixture of suspense and uneasy laughter are missing in Van Sant’s take on the material.
Nothing beats the pure, unadulterated original. One of Hitchcock’s finest films, Psycho practically paved the way for some of the most notable films of the horror genre to come, all of which have tried to recapture the shocking, scintillating magic of this film, but few of which have even come close.
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