Saturday, October 1, 2016
I think by now we all know the big surprises of Psycho. If you don't, stop what you're doing immediately and watch the movie. I can wait.
Back? Good. Based on a book by Robert Bloch, Pyscho begins like a typical crime thriller. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals money from her company to help her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) settle his debts so they can get married. With $40,000, she hits the road.
Psycho has been called by many the beginning of the modern horror movie. The setting is mostly a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere, and while the Bates house overlooking it is suitably gothic and threatening, it's not an ancient castle. Its villain is not a supernatural monster like Dracula living in an ornate castle nor is he a greedy, power-hungry master criminal that populated the crime pictures of the previous decades.
Hitchcock loads the film with his usual, nail-biting suspense, but he also crafts what was at the time the most shockingly explicit horror picture to come out of Hollywood. The shower scene has been ripped off and parodied to death, but when it first came out, there was nothing else like it. Marion is naked, completely vulnerable, in the bathroom, a place movies at the time just didn't tread. When "Mrs. Bates" attacks her, it is a ferocious kill, not clean. Marion struggles in pain and fear as she is stabbed repeatedly.
Unlike many of the slashers that followed, that over-relied on masked lunatics slicing up oversexed teens, Psycho threads a compelling mystery, and the narrative presses forward with stunning efficiency. Hitchcock knows how to manipulate the audience, shifting focus from Marion to Norman, to a private detective (Martin Balsam), and to Marion's sister (Vera Miles) and Sam. We know Marion's dead, but they don't, and we know they're stumbling into danger but we also want to see what else they'll discover. The reveal of Norman in a fright wig and dress with his mother's skeleton in the fruit cellar pulls all the story threads together perfectly.
And in perfect Hitchcock tradition, it's darkly funny, too.