Perhaps no other film changed Hollywood's perception of the horror film so drastically as did PSYCHO. Nowadays, when any psychological thriller featuring a loony with a knife is designated "Hitchcockian" in some quarters, it's easy to forget just what a dramatic change of pace this was for
Hitchcock. Though renowned for stories of murder, intrigue, and high adventure, Hitchcock's Hollywood films of the 1950s generally boasted top drawer production values, big stars, picturesque surroundings, and, more often than not, Technicolor. In comparison to the likes of, say, NORTH BY
NORTHWEST, PSYCHO was intentionally sleazy and cheap both in look and subject matter.
The now familiar plot concerns Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nervous, bird-like motel proprietor who lives under the domineering influence of his aged invalid mother. Norman takes care of Mother and, in return, she protects the disturbingly boyish man from temptation and corruption,
particularly in the form of attractive single women who come to stay at the motel. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stops at the Bates Motel after impulsively fleeing from her workplace with a large sum of stolen money. She had hoped this cash would allow her married lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), to
divorce his wife and marry her. After chatting with Norman, Marion appears to resolve to return the money. However Mother intervenes, leaving a bloody mess for Norman to clean up. After he's scrubbed down the bathroom, the dutiful son places the corpse in the trunk of Crane's rented car and sinks
all the evidence in a nearby swamp. The situation gets tense for Norman when Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles), Marion's lover, Sam, and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) arrive to ask some questions.
PSYCHO is not at all like the many movies that tried to imitate it. It's got a jet black sense of humor that becomes increasingly apparent upon repeated viewings and there's no doubt that it is masterful filmmaking. Hitchcock himself approached it almost as a technical joke: he wanted to see what
would happen to audiences if you killed off the star in the first reel. The film is a textbook example of audience manipulation, as Hitchcock shifts our identification from character to character with the alacrity of a magician.
Inspired by the life of the demented, cannibalistic Wisconsin killer Ed Gein (whose gruesome acts would also inspire THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and DERANGED), PSYCHO's importance to the horror genre cannot be overestimated. The influence comes not only from the Norman Bates character (who has
since been reincarnated in a staggering variety of forms), but also from Hitchcock's use of pop psychological themes (the probable cause of the mayhem stems from the character's perverse familial and sexual history rather than an outside supernatural agency); Bernard Herrmann's famed all-string
instruments score (his innovative nerveracking violin "screams" have been oft-mimicked); and new levels of screen violence. One intriguing difference between PSYCHO and the horror films of today is in the age of the characters. There isn't a teenager in sight in the Hitchcock classic--a revealing
sign of the subsequent evolution of the genre and the downward shift in the age of moviegoing audiences.
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