Saturday, October 1, 2016

Psycho (1960)

What else can be said about Psycho? It's another masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock, arguably his best work, and its influence is still felt today, inspiring the modern slasher sub-genre and changing the face of modern horror. It's filled with unexpected twists and turns and contains one of the most iconic performances in cinematic history, Anthony Perkins as the deranged Norman Bates.

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.

Marion is the worst fugitive ever. She lies to her boss, gets caught in the lie, acts suspiciously around the police, and does all she can to draw attention to herself. It's easy to imagine the story following this track, watching this young woman getting more and more in over her head as she compounds one mistake after another. That would have been the traditional story, but with one scene, the entire movie changes, along with the history of cinema. Marion checks into the Bates Motel, run by mother-fixated Norman, but does not check out.

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.

Norman Bates resembles nothing if not the boy next door. He's not suave or cultured. He's skittish, awkward, and under the thumb of his domineering mother, even though she's long dead by the time the movie begins. His violent behavior stems not from rational motives - like say the opportunity to steal $40,000 and start a new life away from a failing motel and an overbearing mother - but from psychosexual neurosis. When he becomes attracted to a woman, "Mother" overtakes his mind and eliminates the competition.

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.

Ironically, the shower scene is not explicit by today's standards. We don't see too much of Marion's body nor do we see the knife penetrate her flesh. Through rapid-fire editing, coupled with Bernard Hermann's iconic music, the effect is felt. As blood flows down the drain, which dissolves into the lifeless pupil of Marion's eye, we know without a doubt she's dead.

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.

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