October 31st, 2009

PSYCHO (1960) ****

Horror Franchise Movie Month has come to a close and we’re wrapping things up with the granddaddy slasher movie of them all; Psycho.  What else can you say about this flick that already ain’t been said?  We all know that Alfred Hitchcock kicked everybody’s ass on this one.  We all know that the shower scene is the greatest scene ever filmed.  We all know that composer Bernard Herrmann crafted the greatest score of all time.  What more NEEDS to be said?


Well… allow me to add my two cents.




To me what makes Psycho so horrifying is that the killer isn’t a vampire or a stitched together monster, but a seemingly “normal” human being.  Norman Bates is the guy next door.  Up to this point in time, killers in the movies were out and out bad guys.  What was so revolutionary about Norman Bates was that he was the kinda guy that in real life you have to watch out for. 


Anthony Perkins gives us a performance for the record books.  He plays Norman like a guy uncomfortable in his own skin.  He’s hiding a horrible secret so he has to “act” as normal as possible.  The fact that he isn’t very good at it is an immediate red flag.  Norman makes little jokes (“Twelve cabins… twelve vacancies”), acts jittery, and doesn’t like to say the word “bathroom”.  He clearly has a screw loose.  (“We all go a little mad sometimes.”)


BUT… Norman has a kind of boyish charm about him that makes him immensely likable despite his twitchy uneasiness.  He’s also a bit pathetic (“A hobby is supposed to pass the time not fill it!”) and we feel particularly sorry for him because of his overbearing mother.  Norman may be nuttier than a squirrel turd but he definitely has our sympathies.


The film’s other major character; Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is equally fascinating.  She works at a bank where she sees some money and is immediately tempted.  The cash is her way out of a dead end job and a means to pay off her boyfriend’s debts.  After she steals the money though, she has a change of heart.


Psycho is an amazing exercise in audience loyalty.  In the beginning, you’re with Marion all the way.  She’s committed a crime, but you like her and you want her to do the right thing and give the money back.  The way Hitchcock constructs the suspense around Marion is astounding.  The scene after she takes the cash and catches sight of her boss at the stoplight will put a lump in your throat.  That feeling of dread increases when Marion stops along the side of the road to get some sleep and a cop wakes her up and tells her to move along.  Then while she quickly tries to get rid of her automobile at a used car lot, the cop relentlessly stalks her; which ratchets up the suspense. 


By the time Marion finally gets to the Bates Motel, her conscience has been eating at her.  When she meets Norman and talks to him a bit, she finally makes the decision to give the money back.  First thing though, she wants to take a shower to cleanse herself of her sins.


And that’s all she wrote.


I could sit here and go on and on about how great the shower scene is but you already know that.  Instead I’ll discuss the ramifications of this scene.  It’s here where Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us.  We’re disoriented.  We’ve lost our leading lady.  This movie used to be about Marion’s moral dilemma.  Now it’s about poor Norman covering up his mother’s crime.  The stolen money is quickly forgotten.  We’re now more worried about how fast Norman can mop up the blood off the floor.  Even though Norman didn’t show up until about a half an hour into the movie, he’s now our de facto hero.  Now the audience’s loyalty is squarely with Norman.  We want to see him get away Scot free.  I mean, he’s only doing these hideous things because “Mother” is forcing him to, right?


What’s amazing about the film (even 50 years later) is the amount of suspense Hitchcock milks out of the tiniest scene.  Like when Norman tries to sink the car containing Marion’s body in the swamp.  When that baby stops sinking you’re like “SHIT!”  Psycho is peppered with little moments like that. 


When Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam from Muthafuckin’ Death Wish 3) comes to the motel looking for Marion, the suspense doubles.  For someone who knows the final “twist” of the movie, his appearance is especially troubling for Norman.  I mean Norman is not only hiding the fact that Marion is dead; he’s hiding the fact that he’s his own mother.


Every shot of Psycho is Hitch on his A-Game.  The shower scene gets all the kudos but Arbogast’s murder on the steps is awesome too.  Once “Mother” slashes his face and he falls down the stairs, the camera follows Arbogast all the way down.  The shower scene was a shocker.  It showed that death could be unexpected.  Here, Hitchcock keeps the camera fixed on Arbogast’s face the whole time.  Hitchcock edited the shower scene into 78 little cuts.  Arbogast’s death is one shot.  Whereas Marion didn’t see it coming; Arbogast KNOWS he’s going to die.  We see it on his face every step (literally) of the way.


After Arbogast’s death, Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and boyfriend (John Gavin) show up looking for answers.  If Psycho does have a fault; it’s this section of the movie.  The problem is that Miles and Gavin make are poor substitutes for Leigh and Balsam.  (What do you expect when all the good actors get killed first?)  The scenes of them snooping around are the weakest of the film but they are easily forgiven once Miles goes down to the fruit cellar and meets “Mother”.


You know, everyone bitches about the final “explanation” of Norman’s psychosis by Dr. Richmond (Simon Oakman) but I like it a lot.  Given the extreme nature of Norman’s case, Oakman’s overly-theatrical performance is right on the money.  While the explanation seems a tad superfluous I guess; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock.  I bet 60’s audiences needed a quick re-cap though.  Split-personalities, matricide, and transvestitism were heady topics back then, so they probably needed to be spoon-fed all the loose ends. 


I’ve seen Psycho dozens of times but it’s incredible how well it holds up even after you know all the twists. You may know everything there is about the film but you can still marvel at the way Hitchcock works his audience over. 


Alfred Hitchcock is The Master and Psycho is his masterpiece.


In addition to being Numero Uno on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of the Year for 1960, Psycho is also Number 6 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of All Time List, sandwiched in between Halloween and John Carpenter’s The Thing.


<On a personal note, I’d like to thank everyone for checking out the site for your daily dose of Horror Movie Franchise Reviews.  I never actually thought that I’d be able to meet all my deadlines, but I surprised even myself on this little endeavor.  Some time in the near future I will hope to do a similar month-long look at some Action Movie Franchises.>