Films / Horror / Thriller


Hitchcock was released in cinemas last week, a biopic staring Anthony Hopkins in the leading role and dealing with the eponymous director’s struggle to make his now most infamous feature – Psycho. And with the release of Hitchcock this spring, it’s only fitting to take a look back at the classic movie on which it’s based and to decide whether or not it still holds up for modern audiences, as well as to explore it’s vast cultural influence. Psycho is a hugely difficult movie to review or discuss, as in the 50 or so years since its release, the movie has been endlessly scrutinised, analysed and picked to pieces; there’s really very little left to say about the movie, and Psycho suffers from vast over-exposure in pop culture – putting it’s influence on the movies in general to one side for a moment, think of every parody or reference there’s been, every play on Norman Bates and the infamous shower scene – Psycho is one of those films that even people who haven’t seen it, feel like they’ve seen it. But just because the film has been discussed to death doesn’t mean people should stop talking about it – Psycho is a brilliant little shock of a movie and generally, deserves its reputation as one of cinema’s finest achievements; it’s certainly one of the most influential movies of all time.janet leighEverybody knows the plot here – young secretary Marion (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her trusting employer and runs away. Marion intends to use the cash to help boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), who’s having divorce-related financial troubles, and drives to meet him, being pursued along the way by a suspicious police-officer. Pulling over to a motel for the night, Marion meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a man who isn’t quite as clean cut as his boy-next-door image suggests, and the story suddenly switches gears with a very-well known scene in the shower, moving from crime drama to suspenseful murder thriller, leaving Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) to team up with PI Arbogast (Martin Balsam) in order to solve the unpleasant mysteries of the Bates’ motel and discover the grim truth about Norman.anthony perkinsIt’s difficult to truly judge the plot of Psycho these days, as the story has been so over-exposed, but in context, the film’s narrative structure stands up as very bold and unconventional; Hitchcock begins his movie as a crime story about a woman on the run, with Bernard Herrmann’s hurrying score providing a tense backdrop for Janet Leigh’s flawed escape into a new life. The audience is then teased with a possible romantic plot at the Bates’ motel before the sudden and seemingly random bathroom murder completely alters the movie’s tone. This sort of bait-and-switch plot didn’t happen in 50s movies and so audiences were genuinely shocked by the shower scene; it also helped that Leigh was the film’s biggest star, and killing off the biggest star, especially 45 minutes into the movie, was unheard of at the time. With Leigh gone, the movie loses its centre and the audience feel dislocated; this works to make the rest of the movie feel uncertain and alien and really helps strengthen the second half by conversely, making it so unsteady.janet leighAnd of course the scene where everything changes – the shower scene – is incredible. A succession of sudden shock followed by extreme, rapid-fire editing leaves the audience feeling like they’ve seen more flesh and stabbing and they actually have, a remarkable feat of direction which has the audience fill in the deliberate blanks themselves, coming to the worst conclusions. Bernard Herrman’s outstanding score – built on all strings to match the movies stark, black and white look, it’s easily the most influential horror score ever recorded and really sets the scene apart. The piercing, sharp screeches are jarring and violent; the score understands what it is to be attacked, and combined with the horrors on screen, is tremendously powerful. Audiences at the time had never been exposed to anything like the shower scene – which worked on levels of sex and violence previously unheard of in American cinema – yet the scene remains strong to this day, playing on Leigh’s vulnerability and helplessness to really drive the terror home; people don’t tend to realise just how defenceless they are in a shower until it’s been pointed out. The scene is fantastic despite 50 years of parody and deserves its reputation as one of the best scenes in all of cinema, if not the best scene in cinema.psychoAfter Leigh’s death, the film becomes something of a long running con-act, with Hitchcock working to keep the audience guessing and constantly muddying his plot. The second half of the movie has been criticised for being weaker than the first – as the audience know what’s up and the rest of the characters chase an aimless money-motive – yet this actually works to highlight the horrible banality of the murder, and illustrates the attitude towards such things at the time; murders in movies had reason behind them – someone wanted money, power, etc – people didn’t get murdered seemingly randomly. So Lila and Loomis represent the movie going audience at the time, as the murders in Psycho have psychological motive not material, which must have been terrifying to a 60s audience who had never been exposed to such elements before. The epilogue too, in which the psychiatrist lays down everything that’s happened in the plot, does admittedly come across as dated now and overly exposition heavy, but at the time it was important to clarify the workings of a movie monster which audiences couldn’t really comprehend.pyschoPrior to Psycho, most horror movies featured monsters as antagonists – vampires, werewolves and various ghouls – and so Norman Bates stands as something of a trendsetter, and to audiences back in the day, something new. Norman Bates is the monster under the surface – he’s the innocent, seemingly shy boy-next-door with a hidden dark side and unstable, dangerous complications with identity and duality. Bates is played amazingly by Anthony Perkins who shamefully, didn’t get an Oscar nod for his performance. Perkins is uncomfortable, awkward, and yet likeable, endearing, and even attractive, with a simmering undercurrent of instability and madness just hinted at beneath the surface. Perkins has the difficult job of playing two roles – Norman for first-time audiences, and Norman for audiences who know the twist, and Perkins manages to make both work perfectly. The motel dinner scene between him and Leigh, where they discuss their various demons, hers metaphorical and his more literal, is one of finest scenes in all of cinema and contains an uncomfortable level of painful tension. There’s a level of sexual horror to Bates which audiences hadn’t seen before and which must have been terrifying at the time, as the character works on a Freudian level of uncomfortable Oedipal tendancies which Perkins and Hitchcock use to great effect. There’s also a scene towards the end where Vera Miles opens one of Norman’s books – we’re not shown what’s inside, yet the expression on Miles’s face says everything we need to know. Bates is a fantastic cinematic monster – the inspiration for all future Buffalo Bill style movie murderers – both alien and frightening but also scarily sympathetic too. By the end of the movie, we know why he ticks, though this knowledge doesn’t necessarily make us feel better.p5Norman Bates, and the film in general, stand as hugely influential. The serial killer movie didn’t exist untilPsycho, which moved the horror genre away to more human monsters and set the ground-work for the first slasher films in the 70s – Black ChristmasHalloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all owe Hitchcock for their existence. The film altered perceptions of narrative structure – the switching of plot, the important twist ending – which changed the way directors made movies. It’s also responsible for changing American attitudes towards sex, nudity and violence in cinema – after Psycho, movies got darker, and the film is responsible for the big, bleak and violent flicks of 70s – it opened cinema up essentially; Hitchcock changed the game. Watching the movie today, it’s important to remember just how hugely influential it was – a lot of its tropes which seem common to modern audiences didn’t exist until Psycho created them. It’s a hugely important film in cinematic history.anthony perkinsPsycho still remains a powerful movie with a lot to offer and served to change cinema forever. It’s a film which has, yes, been dissected a thousand times, yet it’s importance should be stressed. There’s a reason it’s considered one of the greatest movies of all time.


7 thoughts on “Psycho

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