In 1978 John Carpenters low budget independent movie swept its way across the country on its way to becoming the most successful independent feature of all time (until Blair witch stole its thunder). In its wake ‘Halloween’ gave birth to most of the modern horror movie we know and love. Everything from ‘Friday the 13th’ to ‘Scream’ in the slasher sub genre owes its existence to Halloween. now most people give Halloween the props its due but a lot of folks go overboard and claim that carpenter gave birth to the slasher movie. Not true I’m afraid, very not true. What it did do was re-invent the slasher for a new generation by paying homage to one of the true classics of horror. Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’.
Now I say homage because of some very little things I find cute in a tribute sort of way. For one the star of Halloween ( Jaime Lee Curtis ) is the daughter of Psycho leading lady Janet Leigh. Also the name “Sam Loomis” is used in both movies. So before you all start creaming you pants over the shear mention of Halloween lets take a moment to look over the one that started it all.
Now some folks will argue that this is Alfred’s greatest movie, but I am not one of them. Sure this is a great journey into the primal nature and fear of mankind but it lasts the real character depth of say Vertigo or Frenzy. However non of those movies are as well known or successful as Psycho. In fact when it was released in 1960 there was rumors that the lines went as far back as 3 miles. To say the least the popularity of Norman Bates and his mother has not diminished over the last 34 years. In fact it has grown, to the point that it was even bastardized in a 1998 remake. May go have mercy on their souls.
The weird thing is, that even as they remade the movie practically shot for shot, word for word it was a complete failure. No one could recapture the atmosphere and tone of the original. The shower scene alone still stands out as one of the most accomplished shots in the history of film. How do you re do something that was perfect the first time round. More to the point, why would you want to. Don’t even get me started on Vince Vaugh.
One of the best reasons for the success of psycho was the timeless performance by Anthony Perkins as the simple minded Norman. Now to fully understand Norman you really have to read the novel of Psycho. In the book Norman is a real real bad mother fucker. He is fat, bald and nasty. When the script was being written for the movie they had to reinvent Norman in order to make him a more sympathetic character.
Psycho is also famous for a few other weird reasons. For example this was the first movie to feature a toilet being flushed. Also it was the first feature movie to show some flesh and a woman in underwear. It was also the first movie to feature the use of the word “transvestite”, but this was only after a mammoth fight against the rating board to have it included.
The movie begins with Janet Leigh’s character Marion on the run after stealing $40000 from her employer. She is desperately searching for a way to spend her life with her lover Sam. However she is not the world most adept criminal. She has left an obvious trail . she appears nervous and even get conned by a car salesman into paying over the odds in her over nervous state. She is so obvious that soon a cop begins to check her out. She eventually ends up at the Bates motel where simple Norman puts her up for the night, serves her dinner and lends a sympathetic ear. It is during this conversation with Norman that Marion resides herself to going back in the morning and returning the stolen loot. Unfortunately for Marion the morning never arrives. Soon others come looking for her including her lover, a private investigator and Marion’s sister. All meet with violence and the twisted rage and jealousy of Norman’s mother.
Plot wise this movie is nothing special at all. Its real quality lies in the way Hitchcock constructs the movie. In such a way it constantly defies expectations. The 2 major surprises in the movie, which are the shower hack scene and the revelation of Norman’s mother both come straight out of left field at the time. Sure they are not that shocking today, but back in 60 these were “holy fucking shit” scene. Both were very unexpected because up to the point of her death Marion is portrayed as the movies main character. Then all of a sudden she is gone and all attention shifts to Norman. Awesome screenplay.
Of course when ever anyone thinks of Psycho they immediately think of the shower scene with the chilling score blasting overtop of the violent images. The scene is so famous even people that haven’t seen the movie know about it. It has been parodied and mimicked in everything from the Simpson’s to pro wrestling. The real greatness in the scene is the editing, if you go frame by frame you will notice how much is left to your own imagination. First you see a knife, then blood that is amazingly effective considering that it was really chocolate syrup. All this is mixed in with the pouring water and strategic frames of naked flesh. Come to think of it if you watch this frame by frame there actual knife to body contact is only shown for 4 frames, 4 frames people that’s less than a second of actual film time. So its up to you to picture the grizzly murder for yourself (Presumably, that’s the reason why so many of today’s unimaginative movie-goers, who are accustomed to having a screenful of gore presented for their consumption, find Psycho tame.)
To sum up what has turned out to be a very scrappy review, Psycho is still today a very well made movie and widely accepted by critics and audiences alike. Yet another reason as to why a remake was not needed. It is shot very nightmare style in black and white. This adds a lot to the atmosphere that color would have otherwise detracted. This may not be Hitchcock’s best work, but it certainly is his most famous. And in 20 years I believe it will still rank up there as one of the most history horror movies of all time. 9 out of 10.