Review by Kristin Battestella
Everybody’s heard of Psycho-and like The Sixth Sense, even if you haven’t see it, most people nowadays know Psycho’s twist ending. Today’s visually desensitized young adults cannot fully appreciate Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece even though it has become the grand daddy of slasher films. Oft emulated but never equaled, Psycho needs to be re watched with vigor anew.
Anthony Perkins stars in the Hitchcock thriller as Norman Bates, a quiet and lonely young man who befriends Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) while she spends the night at the Bates Motel. Wishing for a respectable life with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin), Marion steals $40,000 from her boss and sets out for California. Following Marion’s trail is her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). All come to suspect Norman, the Bates Motel, and Norman’s mother- the innocent Mrs. Bates.
Under Hitchcock’s direction Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates to the T. Forever typecast by Hollywood and fans alike-we still can’t separate Perkins from Bates. The actor himself was conflicted and confused sexually, and Perkins gives this genuine emotional conflict to Norman. The way he cleans up after his mother, stays on in an empty motel-we feel bad for Norman the moment we meet him. Likewise Janet Leigh plays the good girl gone bad. Even though Marion’s at odds with the law, we open the film in the middle of her situation. We see her plan and prepare, yet we want her to get away with it. When Lila and Sam come calling for Marion-we root for them as well. We care for each, fear for them or of them-the audience relates to each character, regardless of their standpoint in the spectrum.
No one is filler or miscast. Even though Vera Miles has played the tough cookie in films like The Searchers and other early television westerns, and Janet Leigh the sweet tart in Bye Bye Birdie- the women are perfect as sisters. Even though Sam is Marion’s lover, we see him more with Lila. The underlying chemistry between Miles and Loomis hints at something more. As simple as Psycho can look on screen, everything from the actors to the props is multitasking.
Oscar winner and suspense king Hitchcock intentionally made the film black and white-a cringe worthy concept to today’s effects happy filmmakers. Using the film crew from his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and good old fashioned film making ingenuity like chocolate syrup for blood, Hitch stuck to Psycho’s $1 million budget. There are no effects to speak off, just swift camera angles and perfected lighting techniques. Multiple actors were used to keep up the illusion of Mrs. Bates, and the attention to detail regarding costumes, props, and sets is top notch. Psycho perfectly captures the early sixties in every detail. The bullet bras, poofy dresses, even Norman’s taxidermy isn’t taken for granted. Those stuffed birds, of course, allude to something else.
Based on the book Psycho by Robert Bloch, Psycho benefits greatly from sound source material and screenplay work by Joseph Stefano. It’s intelligent, yet light at parts. Innocent yet dark, modern imitators don’t have the psychological complexities of Hitchcock’s work. Today, some may find the story slow, but the first hour sets up the unraveling yet totally explained and satisfying ending. After Psycho premiered in theaters, Hitchcock demanded no one be seated after the start of the film in order to preserve the suspense. Every word is timed perfectly onscreen, every shot, every scene says something-not a frame is wasted in Psycho.
Several scenes in Psycho are so iconic and oft imitated or parodied that audiences forget the original. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 inferior and useless homage remake of Psycho stars Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche. The color recreation is almost a frame for frame imitation of Hitch’s original. Can you name another film that has that kind of backward flattery? Psycho’s infamous shower scene is genius in its editing, illusions, and it did for the bathroom what Jaws did for ocean swimmers.
Psycho and its score by Bernard Herrmann are the best music marriage since Gone With The Wind. Composer of other Hitchcock scores as well as Citizen Cane and The Day The Earth Stood Still, Herrmann’s haunting strings aren’t a hum-able tune, yet everyone knows the theme when he or she hears it. Herrmann’s score fits Hitchcock’s layered suspense and sixties mood. Long after you’ve watched Psycho you hear those strings in the shower and in your sleep.
Psycho’s undoing is its audience’s inability to forget and be surprised again. Today’s information hounds have been spoiled by sub par sequels like Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) , and a prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Unlike most low budget or obscure old flicks waiting to be rediscovered, the stalwart Psycho has never quite left the public eye. Despite previous acting prowess in Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, Anthony Perkins will be forever associated with this role-Perkins played the alter ego Norman Bates nearly up until his death in 1992.
My VHS copy contains a short making of featurette. The set was fun, but Janet Leigh actually spent very little of the shoot with Perkins. Deeper documentaries on Hitchcock, Perkins, and the film are available and filled with trivia and antic dotes. Collectors should definitely upgrade to DVD for restored picture, sound, and additional documentaries and insights.
Deemed too gory, shocking, and risqué at the time, Psycho will not loose its iconic status-despite the popularity of gory, gimmicky, and quick fix films. Detailed, intelligent suspense thrillers will always have an audience. Psycho’s bonus is its duality-quiet, simplistic onscreen, yet complex and full of optical illusions.
I fear not only a lack of appreciation for fine horror films like Psycho, but also I wonder if modern teeny boppers and fans of bloody horror understand the nuances presented? While Psycho is gore free, the spooks might still scare kinds under 10. Truthfully anyone with a heart condition should avoid Psycho. If you’re new to classic films, old movies, or Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho is a must see. Study it and appreciate it thoroughly.