Film & TV

From the Mouth of Madness #1: An Ode to Psycho

In the first of a series of posts delving into the world of horror, Felix discusses the legacy of the slasher that started them all, Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Robert Bloch wrote the novel, Alfred Hitchcock brought it to the big screen and over 50 years later Psycho remains one of cinema’s defining moments. It’s a film with a legacy, spawning three sequels (Psycho II, Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning), a remake (Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot reproduction starring Vince Vaughn),Psycho Poster a not-half-bad television series with Freddie Highmore as the pubescent killer, and countless academic studies, documentaries and art shows besides. It has managed to wedge itself so firmly into our culture that if ever I take a shower in a hotel it becomes difficult not to hear Bernard Herman’s violin shrieks and see the shadow on the curtain of the knife-wielding maniac himself: Norman Bates.

But why does it hold so much power? What is it about the story and the characters that make filmmakers return to its bottomless swamp of inspiration? And why is it so damn good? James Franco asks the same questions in a Vice article a few months ago in which he discusses his new art exhibition ‘Psycho Nacirema’, but because he doesn’t exactly give an answer (it’s more of a self-indulgent ramble) I thought I’d try to provide one.

Part of the answer lies in the story. Killing the main character off after 30 minutes (to paraphrase Helen Mirren in last year’s Hitchcock) is the very definition of a plot twist: something almost unheard of when the film was released in 1960, though these days fans of Game of Thrones will be almost bored to tears by it. The director reportedly bought every copy of Bloch’s novel he could find before shooting began so that the ending would remain a secret, and forced the entire crew to swear an oath not to reveal anything to their friends or family. Sadly nowadays most people know the plot even if they’ve never seen the film, but just imagine what it would have been like to watch it in the cinema for the first time.

Psycho 2

It usually sounds pretentious to talk about camerawork in film reviews, but it’s unavoidable when discussing Hitchcock; this guy cut his teeth on mysteries and thrillers and wanted as many screams as he could get. Of course there’s the infamous shower scene, intricately shot using 77 different camera angles, but what really makes me shiver is Mrs. Bates gliding out of her room to stab Detective Arbogast; it’s a direct aerial view so that her appearance is so sudden and so seamless that it feels almost unnatural. And then there’s the big revealat the end in the fruit cellar when the chair swings round and all you can do is stare helplessly into those hypnotic, shrivelled eye-sockets. Undeniably good cinema.

Psycho ArbogastBut I think it’s the psycho himself who fascinates and enthrals us so much. When creating the character of Norman Bates, Bloch was inspired partly by the Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man who spent his time exhuming corpses that resembled his dead mother and then making belts out of their nipples (the full list of his creations is on Wikipedia). Both Leatherface and Hannibal Lector also share certain of Gein’s characteristics, but Norman stands out because of his complete ignorance; the schizophrenic connection to his dead mother means that in some twisted way he’s innocent of the murders, whereas any other serial killer would just be fucking insane.

Norman is so nervous and eager to make friends (‘I don’t set a fancy table, but the kitchen’s awful homey’) that I end up sympathising with him more than anyone else in Psycho – that money-stealing liar Marion Crane just sits there asking the most patronising questions and making snide comments about Norman’s hobbies – aren’t you just slightly glad that she dies?

In terms of actual horror Psycho is still up there with the best of them. It’s got a certain atmosphere that only a few films of the genre have managed to replicate (the deep-Southern isolation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes closest) and its characters are some of the best ever created. Let’s hope Norman’s mother will be around for a long time yet. Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.

Felix Taylor

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Film & TV

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