If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) may be the most fondly regarded film ever made, as well as one of the most emulated. For the original film this is not necessarily a good thing, malformed and duplicated have so many of its elements been. Even if you’re not a horror fan you’ll be aware of the infamous shower scene and the high-pitch ‘mee, mee, mee’ of Bernard Herrman’s unforgettable score. But does this diluting of a thriller classic lessen its power to terrify? Certainly not and I’m a prime example of Psycho’s power of retention to scare.
I was some years in to my enjoyment horror films when I first watched Psycho. I’d seen many of the movies that followed in its wake and had noted its fingerprints on everything from The Simpsons to Coronation Street, ‘You’re Norman Bates with a briefcase’. When I finally sat down in front of Hitchcock’s finest hour it was with lukewarm expectations. My movie senses having been bludgeoned by years of Argento, Craven, Carpenter et al, I doubted Psycho’s ability to scare. I crossed my fingers and hoped to be proved wrong; thankfully Hitchcock, Norman and the rest didn’t disappoint.
Psycho is the birth of the modern horror film. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) may have beaten Hitchcock to the punch by a couple of months, but it was the unprecedented success of Psycho coupled with the shock-packed story, sharp stings of violence, and convenient position at the beginning of a new decade that set it out as a starting point for the contemporary scare.
Psycho was also the first movie to terrify an audience with realistic scares alone, no radioactive ants, no fifty foot women, no bandaged-wrapped mummies. And audiences lapped it up; costing a mere $800,000.00 the movie to date has earned more than $40million, much of that taken on its initial run. Outside of theatres the film got people talking, even those whose usual movie fare was much less bloodcurdling.
The spark for this new direction in horror didn’t come from Hitchcock. Following on from North By Northwest (1959) the director wanted his next movie to have more ‘pulp origins’. He found the perfect material in Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho. Impressed by the tales twisting narrative and horror in an everyday setting, Hitchcock stumped up a then substantial $9,000.00 for the rights to the book. Ever the master thrill-maker Hitchcock then set about purchasing as many copies of the book as possible to guard the stories shock ending. But whilst the story of Psycho can be attributed to Bloch, the inspiration for the tales titular character came from a very real source.
In November 1957 Edward Theodore Gein was arrested for crimes the likes of which had never been seen before. The notion of a ‘serial murderer’ was not a new idea by the late nineteen fifties, but the world had never come across a person of such perverse nature as Gein. In a time long before the internet, or even hourly television news updates, it was Life and Time magazines that broke the story, taking its readers inside what it dubbed the ‘House of Horrors’. Gein’s list of crimes included grave robbing, murder, and necrophilia. But even more disturbing was his use of body parts around his home. The Police discovered a suit of human skin, shoe boxes full of female genitalia, and various human parts strewn around his rundown farmhouse. Bodies were discovered in various states of decay and with many parts missing.
Still Gein went further; he fashioned items around his house from the individuals he killed, among them an armchair made of human arms, an upturned scalp as a soup dish, and a chair upholstered in human skin. Fifteen bodies were discovered in all but Gein stated that he had no idea how many women he had killed. In an America still very much in the Eisenhower, apple-pie era, the fact that Gein had carried out these crimes in a quiet Wisconsin town for so many years undetected was the hardest fact to comprehend. To the locals he was just ‘weird old Eddie’. That there might be more people out there like Gein terrified many Americans. If their idyllic homesteads weren’t safe from such monsters, where would be?
Bloch was no doubt aware of the Gein case, and spying an unexplored horror used this newly opened wound in the public consciousness to craft a new breed of villain. Hitchcock recognised Bloch’s work as a potential on-screen money spinner and set about bringing Psycho to theatres. But a straight forward literary translation wouldn’t do, at least not for the master of suspense. Hitchcock set about sprinkling some of his own storytelling magic on Bloch’s novel.
In the director’s own words he wanted Psycho to ‘lead the audience up the garden path’. To do this he and screenwriter Joseph Stefano came up with the ingenious idea of providing the viewer with two stories in one. The first half of the movie details Marion Crane’s theft of $40,000.00 from the law firm she works for. The thought of her boyfriend’s mounting debts on her mind, we are made aware of just how out-of-character this act is for Crane by an unbearably tense first forty minutes. At every turn Crane is confronted by what, in her highly anxious state, seems an effort to thwart her getaway. From bumping into her boss whilst fleeing town, to the uneasy questioning by a highway patrolman, these small encounters effortlessly amplify the tension.
The opening events culminate in a surreal night time drive through a storm as Crane allows her mind to free associate. She imagines just what is occurring back at her office, at the car lot she purchased her getaway vehicle from, what is being said by her work colleagues, by the police patrolman, by her sister, by the businessman who is now $40,000.00 worse off.
The rain overcoming Crane, she pulls in to rest at the Bates Motel. It‘s here that the film’s two story lines meet and Psycho’s magic takes hold. For the first time our attention is drawn away from Crane’s plight and we become suspicious. Our interest is directed towards the peculiar motel innkeeper, Norman Bates. A seemingly gentle but bizarre fellow, his affection towards Crane hides an element of threat that is hard to place.
Should we be worried about our heroine in the presence of this man? How does his appearance fit in with the story of Marion and her stolen money? Bates’ odd lifestyle doesn’t help us to anticipate the flow of the film. It is an apprehension much different from the clear cut ‘flee or be caught’ tension of the movie up until now, a much more subtle form of fear brought on by the character Norman, who swings from the delightfully sincere and sweet, to the downright odd, ‘A son is a poor substitute for a lover’.
But an awkward chat over supper finally brings this element of the story into focus; it’s this quaint hotel keeper who makes Marion see the error of her ways, ‘I stepped into a private trap back there and I’d like to go back’. Happy that we have successfully worked out how Marion’s story will unfold, we begin to relax, joining a much calmer Marion as she unwinds in the shower.
It’s the most silent part of the movie, the only noise on the soundtrack the sound of water falling from the shower head. But wait, there is something over her shoulder there, barely visible through the shower curtain; someone has entered the bathroom.
If Alfred Hitchcock had done nothing else in his career he would have still been granted genius status for delivering this, the greatest sucker punch in cinematic history. It is a jaw dropping moment, our heroine slashed to pieces by Norman’s ‘mother’ at the very moment she has realised the error of her ways. No sooner have we relaxed, safe in the knowledge that Crane is no longer on the run, she is violently killed. Where on earth this is story is going to take us now?
A slow realisation creeps over the viewer; this story was never about Marion Crane at all. She was merely a pawn used to bring us to this point, the Bates Motel. This tale concerns something much nastier than an envelope of pilfered dollars.
The shower scene has passed into movie folklore (and even inspired film dedicated to dissecting it, 78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)), but if you’ve only seen the shower stabbing in isolation you’re missing out on the full extent of its power. In the context of the film as a whole it’s much more horrific. Viewers is 1960 swore blind that they saw the knife sink into Crane’s flesh, but the wonder of Hitchcock’s direction and the editing work of George Tomasini ensured that the weapon never once touched Crane.
The notorious Bernard Herrmann score over the scene is as vital to the action as anything seen on screen. Hitchcock originally envisioned the entire scene as silent, but Herrmann scored the scene anyway; once the director heard the finished work he knew the music had to be in the scene. For 1960 the scene was brutally honest in its portrayal of a killing; see the undignified and un-staged manner in which Marion slumps over the side of the bath. The slow, spiralling pullback shot from Crane’s eye, frozen in shock, gives us plenty of time to take in the enormity of the event. Bloch’s novel in comparison began with a scene between Norman and his ‘mother’, thus negating any chance of pulling off such an abrupt about-turn.
Sixty years on it’s hard for viewers to appreciate just how momentous the killing of Marion Crane would have been. Janet Leigh had been chosen to play Crane (beating out the likes of Lana Turner, Eva Marie Saint and Piper Laurie) and she was, at the time, the biggest name in the cast by some considerable distance. Killing Leigh half way through the movie must have jolted the audience to an incredible degree. It was unheard of in Hollywood to kill off your leading lady or leading man before the movie had reached its second half. We are fully at the mercy of Hitchcock from this point onwards, and if he’s daring enough to dispose of his top-billed star he’s crazy enough to pull off any sort of terrifying trick.
From the moment Marion meets her maker it’s entirely Anthony Perkins movie, in the role of the disturbed Norman Bates. It’s a performance worthy of the greats, as he handles Norman with skill, grace, and utter realism. The aforementioned Ed Gein had a harsh upbringing it was later revealed. He’d suffered the torment of an over bearing mother, who taught him that sex was a sin and to avoid women. His mother died when Gein was thirty nine but the damage had already been done. He sealed off a number of rooms in the house, keeping his mother’s room just as she had left it. His strange upbringing finally manifested itself in the form of extreme homicidal behaviour.
A similar mother-complex was the catalyst behind Norman Bates’ violent tendencies, in this case causing a severe case of split personality. Norman is not only the timid hotel keeper but also his mother, keeping her spirit alive by ‘becoming’ her whenever he feels the need.
It was this twist that Hitchcock tried so hard to keep quiet, that there was no ‘mother’ character and only Norman. It allowed for a tremendous final scare as Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), in her attempts to discover the whereabouts of her missing sister, stumbles on the rotting body of Norman’s mother in the cellar of his house. To ascertain which of the fake corpses his effects department concocted was the scariest, Hitchcock would place them in Janet Leigh’s dressing room and listen to see which one produced the biggest scream.
Whether this second ruse was as successful as the first hinged as much on Perkins’ performance as it did Hitchcock’s ability to keep the critics silent, though the director had a few tricks up his sleeve such as auditioning actresses for the role of 'mother', having a canvas chair with 'Mrs Bates' placed on the set, and personally requesting that audiences and critics alike keep the ending to themselves so not to spoil if for others.
Perkins to his credit handles both Norman Bates and Mrs Bates expertly. At those points where we still believe that it’s his mother committing the murders at the hotel, we feel great sympathy for him, his shock at discovering Marion’s shredded body stirring our sensibilities. Yet, we sense there is more to him than meets the eye, his cheeky smirk on the disposal of Marion’s car in the convenient nearby swamp providing ample evidence of that. But it’s not until the very last scene that we see him, or should I say her, in her true guise, Norman in body, mother in mind; watch out for a chilling subliminal shot of Norman/mother in the movies last frame.
Of equal merit is Leigh’s performance, handling the movie’s first deception with as much skill as Perkins does the second. Her combination of tenacity and fear during the film’s first third sells the trick that this is a movie that revolves solely around her plight. We get a true feel for a character with a much broader story than this episode. We meet her work colleagues, her boyfriend, and we learn as much about her as possible in the opening few minutes. With such effort placed in fleshing out this character it is all the more shocking when she is hacked to death.
Some may complain that by today’s standards Psycho is a touch tame. But the scares here do not lie in Bates’ fondness for a messy slice and dice. Indeed, only two people feel the sharp end of mother’s knife. The horrors here owe their power to the shock of the unexpected, requiring an expertly constructed lead-in; like a good joke, the build up is just as important as the punch-line. There has been no finer craftsman of this scare tactic than Hitchcock and Psycho represents his finest swindle. Tight, precise, paced to perfection and nary a scene wasted, it is the blue-print for constructing a cracking scary movie.
It’s little wonder that filmmakers from 1960 onwards tried to recapture the magic of Psycho’s many wonderful parts, from straight-to-video horror junk, to subsequent classics of the genre. Hitchcock was also bold enough to use Psycho to push the boundaries of onscreen violence and sexuality, from the knife murders to the crossing-dressing and homosexual tendencies implied in Norman; they were kicked in doors through which many a writer and filmmaker subsequently strode.
The ultimate Psycho imitation was carried out in 1998 when director Gus Van Sant remade Psycho for late nineties audiences. With slasher movies in the midst of a revival it seemed worthwhile taking audiences back to the Bates Motel. But remaking a classic is always a risky business and Van Sant’s Psycho effort received an exceptionally harsh reception, even by remake standards. In re-filming the movie, Van Sant did exactly that, a water-tight reshoot using Hermann’s soundtrack and filming every scene almost shot for shot with the original. The dialogue was identical, and Van Sant even had video players on set showing the 1960 version to map out the exact timing and camera angles Hitchcock used.
Van Sant managed to obtain a stellar cast including Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Philip Baker Hall, William H Macy, Robert Forster, and James Remar. One might question how a movie so close in identity to its brilliant template ended up getting so panned by critics, but its failings aren’t too difficult to spot. Vince Vaughn does his best Anthony Perkins impression as Norman Bates, and while it is still a fairly decent performance it is ruined by two glaring mistakes; the decision to have Norman masturbating as he watches Marion through his office peep hole was totally unwarranted and turns Bates into more of a pervert rather than the titular psychopath, and while Anthony Perkins looked utterly terrifying in a dress and wig combination, Vaughn just looked hilarious.
Also, with a cast chock full of top drawer acting talent it was impossible for Van Sant to obtain someone with a reputation large enough to ensure that the killing of Marion Crane remained as shocking as it did in 1960. He settled for actress Anne Heche. The cat was also already out the bag; only viewers who’d been living under a rock for forty years would be fooled by Psycho’s twists by 1998. The most damning reviews simply asked what the point of the film was, being an absolute carbon copy of the 1960 version; if someone wanted to see that they’d just put on Hitchcock’s original.
As a curio piece the remake is worth viewing, if for no other reason than for the cast the director assembled. Also worth noting is how, with the very same dialogue and camera work, a number of scenes contain entirely different connotations than Hitchcock’s original. Most notable is Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Marion’s boyfriend and the subsequent relationship with Marion’s sister Lila, totally different to the 1960 version. His blasé attitude to the disappearance of Marion when faced with her equally attractive sister Lila is something John Gavin never came closer to capturing.
Sequels to the original followed, though Hitchcock had passed away by the point of their inception. Psycho II (1983) hit cinema screens in 1983, a year after Robert Bloch released his own follow-up novel. Bloch’s story told of murders occurring on a Hollywood production of the Bates story, the fictional film in the novel entitled ‘Crazy Lady’. Rather tellingly, Bloch’s original novel painted Norman Bates as a short, over-weight and quite onerous, but tor his next Psycho novel Norman had changed into an Anthony Perkins facsimile.
The movie sequel chose a more time-tested formula with Norman released twenty two years after the original murders. Vera Miles returned to reprise her role of Lila Crane, along with Perkins who had by this point suffered inevitable ‘psycho’ type-casting. Richard Franklin had the unenviable task of following in Hitchcock’s footsteps as director, and while his film didn’t match the original it was as good a follow-up as fans could reasonably expect. With Norman having served his term in prison he returns to his old home to try and get on with his life. But someone is determined to ensure he doesn’t live on in peace, and when murders around the Bates property start again Norman starts to question his sanity for a second time.
Reviews at the time were not particularly favourable and the box office take was fairly meagre. As the years have passed though horror fans have come to greatly appreciate Psycho II as a superb continuation of Norman’s story. It even had a nice twist in the end to pay homage to its predecessor.
Disappointingly, subsequent sequels couldn’t maintain the quality. Psycho III (1986) arrived three years later and showed that visits to the Bates Motel were starting to become formulaic, with Norman back running his hotel and suffering the meddling of a curious journalist. Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) was released as a made-for-television movie and even though it took a fresh look at Norman and attempted to use snippets of his origin story to craft a full length plot, the results were equally bland.
Psycho finally received another worthwhile follow-up of sorts when the story of the original films production was wonderfully told in Hitchcock (2012). Based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Anthony Hopkins performs wonders under heavy make-up as the portly director, matched by Helen Mirren on fine form as his stalwart wife and film editor Alma. Most intriguing of all are the imaginary conversations Hitch has with Ed Gein (the always excellent Michael Wincott) who acts as an expression of the director’s subconscious as he wrangles with the controversial aspects of the film’s plot and his eroding relationship with this wife.
It would have been wonderful to see how the director would have handled a sequel to his most renowned movie. His request to shoot a movie of more ‘pulp origins’ may have worried studio backers at the time but the director stuck to his original concept and produced one of, if not the most respected scary movie ever made. No doubt a man of his talent and humour would have surprised us all again with a stunning sequel.
Hitchcock’s grounded manner when considering all things Psycho came to the fore shortly after the movie hit screens worldwide. He received a letter from a man whose daughter had seen the film; having been terrified by the shower scene she was refusing to take showers. The girl had also been scared to take baths after seeing Les Diaboliques (1955). The girl’s father was somewhat perturbed with Hitchcock now that his daughter had no way of washing herself. The director sent the man back a simple note, ‘Send her to the dry cleaners’.
See also Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), Psycho (1998), Hitchcock (2012)