Release date: August 10, 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Frank Albertson and
Halloween is rightfully considered to be the father of the modern slasher film. In the end, all the Friday the 13ths, Nightmare on Elm Streets, and Screams owe their existence to that one low-budget film that made its way across motion picture screens in 1978. Halloween was indeed important on how the horror genre developed during the '80s and '90s, of course John Carpenter's classic did not invent this horror; it re-invented it by paying homage to one of the most frightening movies of all time: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. (Not only did Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis, the daughter of Psycho's Janet Leigh, but the character name of Sam Loomis was also re-used.)
There are those who say that Psycho is Hitchcock's best movie. I tend to agree with that 100%, Psycho is a brilliant excursion into fear that pushes many of our primal buttons, even if it does lack the story and character complexity of Vertigo and Rear Window (two other Hitchcock films). Unlike Hitchcock's other movies, Psycho had as profound an impact upon the American psyche. When it was first released in 1960, it was a huge box office hit (there are stories of 3-mile long lines at drive-in entrances), and even now this popularity has not decreased. In fact, the fascination with Psycho has grown to the point where 1998 saw the unthinkable - a remake.
Sure the plot can be remade, the characters recycled, and they can even reuse the music, no one - not Gus Van Sant or any other director - can recapture the uniqueness of this film. Even the idea of remaking Psycho is bad, because Hitchcock's version is a classic that can not be remade. The shower scene alone is one of the greatest single examples of execution and editing in the history of films. How can anyone remake a sequence that was perfect in its initial form? Impossible!
With Psycho, Hitchcock pranced in cinematic taboos, pushing the censorship envelope. For example, this was the first American motion picture to feature a flushing toilet (most movies of the era didn't even acknowledge the existence of toilets). Also, Janet Leigh is shown in her underwear in more than one scene, and, during the famous shower scene, you are able to see hints of flesh. The script also features a man saying the word "transvestite" - a line that survived in the movie only after a Herculean struggle on Stefano's part.
Psycho starts out in typical fashion for a Hitchcock film. A woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), desperately wanting to be with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), steals money from her boss, then runs. She's not a very smart criminal, however, and she leaves a wide trail. A used car salesman notices her nervous mood and uses it to get some extra money out of her. A policeman follows her, almost to the point of stalking. Eventually, she ends up at the Bates Motel, where the shy but nice manager, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), gives her a room, a meal, and a sympathetic ear. During her conversation with Norman, when he talks about the traps that life places everyone in, Marion decides to go back to her boss on the following morning and return the cash. Events of the night, which involve violence and the angry rage of Norman's sick mother, put an end to Marion's plans. Soon after, more people arrive at the Bates Motel looking for marion, including Loomis, a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles). They all end up making terrifying discoveries.
The story is not extraordinary; its true brilliance lies in its construction. Hitchcock and Stafano have developed the film in such a way that it consistently disregards typical expectations. There are two major surprises that most never see coming: the shower scene murder and the final discovery about the Mother. A viewer who sees the movie for the first time without knowing about either will feel the full impact of what Hitchcock intended. The greatest shock for the not prepared is the early exit of Janet Leigh. This is unexpected because, to this point, the screenplay had tricked us into believing that Marion is the main character. When events dispel that illusion, and the POV shifts to Norman Bates, viewers are understandably bewildered. In order to keep this crucial aspect of the film secret and intact when Psycho opened in 1960, there were no advance screenings and no one was able to get in after the movie already started.
Whenever anyone speaks about Psycho, the first images that come to mind are those of Janet Leigh being hacked to death in the shower. The scene is so famous that even people who have not seen the film know of it. Bernard Herrmann's strident, discordant music has been used in countless other films to announce the appearance of a "psycho." The brilliance of the scene lies in the editing. Those who go frame-by-frame through it will see how much is left to the imagination. We see a knife, blood (actually chocolate syrup), water, and a woman's naked body (with certain parts strategically concealed from the camera), but only briefly is the penetration of the blade into the flesh shown. The full terror of the murder is only hinted at on-screen. It takes the power of the viewer's imagination to fill in all the blanks. (that's probably the reason why a lot of today's unimaginative movie-goers, who are accustomed to having a screenful of gore presented for their consumption, find Psycho non-gory.) It's not surprising that Psycho generated a wave of shower phobia, some people, knowing of their vulnerability during a shower, started taking baths. (Janet Leigh is one such victim -- she claims that she never took a shower again after making the movie.)
Today, the film still holds up extremely well (another reason why a remake is pointless). With the exception of Halloween, no other horror/thriller has been capable of generating as many goosebumps. The black-and-white view is excellent for the film's tone and mood - the adding of color would have blurred the horror quality. The extreme care with which Hitchcock composed every scene is obvious in the quality of the final product. Psycho too some people might not represent the master director's pinnacle, but it is the motion picture for which he is best known for, and its legacy is one of the most far reaching of any film to come out of a Hollywood studio.
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