Psycho (4 of 4)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 groundbreaking film Psycho is my third film selection in a genre study of horror. And it is an exceptional movie.

Psycho tells the story of Marion Crane the lover of a man caught in a high-priced annuity with his ex-wife. Marion is tired of meeting her man, Sam, in cheap motels during her hour lunch breaks and with flecks of even cheaper-morality she pleads with him to be married. Sam doesn’t want to be married. He likes the way things are, so he sends her back to the office further frustrated.

Back at work, her boss’s client hands her $40,000 cash to deposited in the bank–flashy and flirtatious payment for a new property. Her mind is reeling with ideas. In a flash of madness she steals the cash and makes off down the highway to the next town to meet Sam and give him the money. But when the sun goes down and the rain starts pouring she is forced off the road and into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. Vacancy. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

Suddenly the 40 minutes of movie you’ve watched is revealed as merely an extended opening scene. Psycho‘s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, said of the film that “half-way through it changes from being about this beautiful gal, to being about him [Norman]”. And he’s right Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, steals the show.

Norman, after making a sandwich for Marion, begins his rambling explanation of one of the creepiest world-views in film history. Including the hauntingly delivered line: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” When talking with Norman, Marion realizes the wrong she’s done and how crazy it was to have absconded with $40,000. She decides while back in her room that the forty thousand must be returned and feeling purified she steps into the shower for a scrub.

Norman didn’t leave their conversation with the same purified feeling. See, he liked Marion. He was attracted to her. He wanted her interested in him, but she simply judged him for being trapped by his mother when he realistically could have escaped her control. So while, Marion is showering and deciding to do the right thing with the money, Norman is moving picture frames and watching her undress through a peep-hole.

Marion didn’t realize that her purifying shower would be her last as Norman’s mother, jealous of the attention a new more attractive woman is getting from her son, stalks into the shower with a 12″ blade (and musical accompaniment)  to murder her in perhaps the entire genre’s most famous scene (and sound effects). 

The next hour of the film follows Sam, Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective named Arbogast as they try to solve the disappearance of Marion. Arbogast is killed along the way and that sets Sam and Lila off to the motel to see for themselves “what’s going on out there.” Sam and Lila sneak around the motel and it’s grounds uncovering clues and solving the mystery of Marion’s murder and the psychotic world of Norman Bates and his mother.

This is such a wonderful film that I hate to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it. So my synopsis will skip and end. If you haven’t seen Psycho, it really is an incredible movie and a must see. Frightening in a few scenes, but leaning toward what we would consider pure thriller more than “horror” as understood in the new millennium.

But there is still plenty to talk about. Psycho did great things cinematically and simultaneously had horrendous repercussions on culture through Hollywood–let me explain. Horror must come from one of two places, the external (monsters and aliens etcetera) or the internal (psychopathy). Psycho is the first masterpiece combination of these two devices. What we have is a murderer (external) and a raving-maniac (internal). This is scary because the external the “monster” side of Norman is hidden by an exterior that is not only normal but physically appealing. We aren’t able to pinpoint the deformity or paranormal or extraterrestrial aspects of the external fear. This was a wonderful thing for a film in the hands of genius director. But…

What it led to is a film-making world that simply saw an opening for further depravity. We no longer needed monsters or aliens or mutated beasts to scare us. We simply needed an excuse. And a madman would work just fine.

Psycho also instilled in cinematographers and directors a first-person perspective for their murderers. We are put “behind the knife” if you will in Psycho‘s killings. I think it’s also important to note that this first-person violence of horror films (nearly solidified by the end of the 1960’s) has been almost completely focused on women, and continues in the same trend of today’s common horror flicks. Horror from the 80’s on is commonly known as the most sexually explicit genre (outside of porn, which I won’t ever be reviewing). It’s such an overused device today that even spoofs will give screen time to the hot-girl getting chased/stabbed/raped or otherwise being horrified or maltreated. Think House of Wax or Jennifer’s Body for more serious, recent horror and Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show for spoofs. What does this say about our culture or it’s devolution? Hitchcock worked endlessly and even argued with cinematographer and screenwriter to keep nudity out of the film. It was careful camera placement and carefully directed movements that made Psycho what it was. Horror of today uses that same nudity as it’s selling point and then kills the character’s in more violent and disturbed ways for its shock value. The sex-violence intermingling of the horror genre has been steadily growing since the 1920’s.

There is an undeniable connection between Psycho and the slasher films of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, American Psycho, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and all the sequels they produced. Movies where the monsters tend to be more like perverted killers and less “monstrous”.

The sexual aspect of Norman Bates character in regard to the the history of the genre is important. If we think back about classical horror monsters, like Dracula, we see a sexual appetite connected to their destruction. The same is true of Norman Bates. Before the murders he wants to flirt with and spy on his female victims. The mother side of the murders comes from a jealously of those victims. It’s sick and twisted and horrible I know, but the genre is called horror is it not?

Psycho is a masterful thriller and mystery. It’s villain–iconic. It’s director–legendary. It’s writing–near flawless. It’s precision–endless. But don’t forget that even artful depiction of the macabre is still macabre.

I feel like this could open up some discussion so please feel free to comment. (Even if this post is old at time of reading!)

–Tyler

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  1. Very insightful writing. I confess, I have never seen the entire film. (Which is probably some kind of film-acological sin!) Nevertheless, I think you are right.

    I suspect that Hitchcock would be appalled at the developments that his film introduced, but that is always the case. Every action we take in live is pregnant with unintended consequences.

    Even when we are creating “art.”

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