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'Psycho' and the Scene that Changed Modern Horror Forever

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Friday, Oct 15, 2010
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho set the standard and post-modern horror has been hobbling to catch up ever since.
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Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Vera Miles, John Gavin

(Paramount; US DVD: 19 Oct 2010)

Horror never really hit “home” before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Sure, there were stories about killers on the loose, rampaging maniacs, and various B-movie combinations of the two, but with his $1 million “little black and white picture”, the legendary auteur and TV personality literally reshaped the conversation over what was truly terrifying. Not since Orson Welles and his ‘sky is falling’ radio prank of HG’s War of the Worlds had an artist tapped into the public zeitgeist so successfully. While we no longer look for attacking aliens in the sky, or any number of ‘50s schlock monsters, few can step into the shower today without giving a passing thought to Marion Crane, the Bates Motel, and the night she met the mild mannered man with a secret - Norman.


Because of who he was (and is), because of the body of work he amassed as well as its particular effectiveness, Psycho - now on Blu-ray in a 50th Anniversary Edition from Universal - stands out among the vaunted visionary’s best. It’s simplistic in its storytelling (desperate young woman embezzles money from her boss so that she can be with her financially strapped boyfriend…and pays the ultimate price) and yet complicated in its various symbols and subtext. While based on the pulp book by Robert Bloch, itself inspired by the sensationalized case of killer and cannibal Ed Gein, it bears little resemblance to the actual novel. Instead, Hitchcock dug through all the gore and gratuity to come up with a sly morality play, a means of making an audience comfortable with the causes before pulling the rug of expectation out from under them.
  
Hitchcock was a wizard at getting to the heart of a situation’s suspense. They don’t call him the “Master” for nothing. But in Psycho, it was more than dread. Unlike other movies of the era, which focused on threats from outside reality (most in response to the growing nuclear tensions between the rising superpowers), the director laid the fear right at your own front door - in the most private and vulnerable of places within said home. For a nation newly mobilized, discovering the sparkling new siren song of suburbia and the open road, a little rest stop oasis like the Bates Motel was commonplace. Even along the ever-widening expanse of the post-War interstate, no journey was complete without the occasional flop at a fleabag. It was a nu-frontier fixture.


Then there is Norman, nice boy proprietor doting over his invalid mother in what seems to be a lost cause - both financially and emotionally. He lights the neon even though he knows few will pass by and balances his obvious isolation with a penchant for etiquette and an obsessive with stuffing and mounting birds. As a character, and creepshow conceit, he’s a walking contradiction. He probably wouldn’t hurt a fly - probably - and yet there is something simmering at the core of this man, a meaning few ever get to see…and live to tell about it. While we later learn what’s driving Norman to distraction, the framework created by Hitchcock is similar to a celluloid spider prepping for a fly. The trap and “Bates” are set. Now all we need is the victim.


Myth holds firm on the fact that Hitchcock wanted a “star” to play Marion, the better to lure the unsuspecting audience into a sense of recognizable filmic formula. After all, you never murder the main attraction in the first act, and while her name was not the same as a Hepburn or a Davis, Janet Leigh’s status as a former MGM glamour girl and then working wife of matinee idol Tony Curtis gave her all the Photoplay presence the role required. Via a closed set during production and an ingenious “no one will be seated” ploy during its run, a pre-‘Net Psycho got away with this, its biggest gimmick. Today, spoilers would be spilling out of Messageboard Nation like ramblings on the latest Star Wars/Hobbit news. Back then, Ma and Pa Kettle were being lured into an ambush, a fictional fabrication where horror would come at the most unsuspecting, vulnerable of times.


Due to a still settling social conservatism and the usual outrageousness of censorship, everyday items like toilets and king sized beds couldn’t be viewed by ‘50s/‘60s moviegoers, their insinuation apparently too much for the Ike-era mind to fully comprehend. Similarly, violence was always relegated to the good vs. evil dynamic, cowboys killing off hordes of feathered primitives or policeman popping caps in wild-eyed criminal’s carpetbags - and almost always off screen. Even in the world of the macabre, certain standards and practices applied. Until Herschell Gordon Lewis and Blood Feast, there was no such thing as gore, and true brutality was reserved for the cartoonish or the craven.


Yet even in a world where nudity was a humungous no-no, where death had to be delivered with directness and dignity, where the body and its various functions were flattened out and filtered through a Hayes Code sense of compliance, Psycho stretched and then snapped the boundaries. For Marion’s murder - already a cinematic SOP taboo - Hitchcock stayed within Bloch’s basic designs. In the book, the character is indeed killed in the shower, an “old woman” surprising Mary/Marion suddenly and then beheading her in the process. Of course, the killer is actually Norman, taking on his mother’s facade instead of facing the deep seeded psychological issues he had with the domineering - and now dead - old bat.


By keeping the bathroom the center of the setpiece, Hitchcock certainly challenged convention. But the startling way he handled the crime, a sequence still studied in film schools for its invention and aesthetic effectiveness, remains Psycho‘s genre - and artform - calling card. With the help of graphic designer and credit sequence specialist Saul Bass and a series of storyboards, Hitchcock mapped out an impressionistic murder which saw the audience thrown off by mixed signals of security and familiarity. Few could imagine meeting their end in such a well worn locale. But thanks to the brilliant byplay between shots and editing, and the careful manipulation of the narrative beforehand, the filmmaker tapped directly into the darkest fears of his fans - and has since stayed there, seemingly forever.


Think back on the poor viewer circa 1960. He or she being thrown into a story starring one of their recognizable favorites, the narrative weaving a knotty web of passion and coy criminal intent. Relative newcomer Anthony Perkins appears onscreen and, for the moment it seems, the threats have subsided. Then - POW! - right where and when they least expect it, in a place many consider sacred, or at the very least, impolite for public discourse, the most heinous crime imaginable occurs. No explanations. No excuses. No long and languid set up. Just a simple shower and an accompanying case of butcher knife run amok. From that moment on, Psycho stated its intent to screw with convention, and it definitely did.


It’s a moviemaking motivation that continues on to this very day. For Hitchcock, it was the ultimate “MacGuffin” - that unknown element up which the entire movie seems to rest, if not really - and a further cementing of his genius status. Since Psycho, horror has become much more domesticated, from the living dead outside your door of George Romero’s many zombie masterpieces to the numerous rip-off and well-intentioned mimics including Dario Argento’s Profundo Rosso and John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween. For the most part, the monsters of the classic era are gone, replaced by the ever-present fear of death being around every door - even ones typically locked off from public view. The shower scene may be an over-analyzed piece of directorial razzle-dazzle, but its impact remains steadfast. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho set the standard and post-modern horror has been hobbling to catch up ever since. 


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