Movies |11 | Psycho
The 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, by Gus Van Sant, was an ambitious but futile experiment. The movie – that was a shot-for-shot remake of the original – could not do much except generate renewed interest in the old classic itself. The explanation is but obvious – It’s impossible for us to be that shocked, surprised and horrified a second time. Not just because we know what’s coming, but because we can’t forget what we know and imagine what movie-going was like, before Psycho changed the rules.
One may dare say that we live in the world Psycho made, and we can’t go back. Perhaps, the history of horror filmmaking, can be divided into two parts – pre and post Psycho. Decades down the line, the film – which back then was not even considered one of Hitchcock’s good movies – still manages to keep the interest alive around itself. Thanks to several aspects of filmmaking that were brilliantly – or even accidently – discovered and turned about, Psycho has become a source of learning for filmmakers and film enthusiasts.
The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by author Robert Bloch. Remarkably, Bloch’s 1959 novel was based on the legendary real-life psychotic serial killer Edward Gein, whose murderous character also inspired characters in Deranged, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that of the serial killer Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs.
In the film, Marion Crane works as an office clerk in a real-estate agency. Marion is utterly unhappy with her life, mostly because her lover Sam Loomis can’t marry her because of huge alimony owed to his ex-wife. Marion steals a large sum of money from one of agency’s clients and sets off to meet Sam. She makes a stop at isolated motel where she meets the manager – lonely, sometimes odd but basically friendly – Norman Bates. Bates lives there with his physically and mentally ill mother. Marion’s stay in the motel is terminated when she gets stabbed under shower. However, a private detective sent by the agency to retrieve the stolen money, tracks Marion to the motel and Marion’s sister Lila is also more than eager to find what actually happened to her sibling.
In an era before the Internet and spoiler frenzy, Hitchcock did everything he could to prevent revelation of the plot’s jolting twists. He bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s source novel on the cheap, then bought as many copies of the book as he could to keep the plot twists hidden from potential moviegoers. He distributed script pages on a need-to-know basis. He released a long teaser trailer in which he took viewers on a tour of the Bates Motel and the Bates House, pretending to be about to spoil the plot while keeping crucial details hidden. He refused to screen the film in advance for critics. And he planted posters in theaters warning that no one would be seated late, lest they miss any of the film’s surprises and horrors, and urging audiences not to spoil the ending for other viewers.
The Director’s Rebellion
Psycho was considered to be the least typical Hitchcock film when it was first released. It lacked many of his distinctive trademarks. Hitchcock is said to have shot it very quickly and very cheaply, using his second-hand crew, an unknown cast and even a passive distribution of prints. Hitchcock even didn’t use his trademark technique of building suspense and instead simply shocked the audience with totally unexpected plot twists, and depictions of violence and sexual innuendo that was very daring for its time.
Besides being one of the best known movies, Psycho is also one of the most studied films ever. It was very revolutionary film for its time – the first major Hollywood film to feature women dressed in underwear, toilet bowls and flushing water, vivid imagery and the confusion in characters.
A top box-office draw at the time, Janet Leigh is the central character for the first 45 minutes. She’s the star, and audiences had routinely come to expect the star to survive to the last reel of the film. Hitchcock completely upended audience expectations, learned over the previous 60 years of film going, by killing her off less than halfway through the movie. By shattering the rules of star-driven filmmaking, Hitchcock introduced us to a world where the comfortable old assumptions can no longer be trusted, and where no one is safe.
The Title Character
Before Psycho, dramatic movies didn’t really bother to explain their villains, and horror movies didn’t bother to explain their monsters. Villains simply crave money or power or sex, some monsters are simply evil or cursed. But Psycho – from the hint within its title to the epilogue where the psychiatrist explains Norman’s pathology in detail – introduces a villain (or a monster) who isn’t driven by the usual motives. The psychiatrist is there to provide a Freudian explanation and to give an element of established authenticity.
Viewers empathise with Norman throughout the movie, either because Perkins made him seem like a nice, cute, lonely guy, or because the viewers have been forced to participate alongside him in his acts of voyeurism. So at the end, the psychological explanation is necessary to show how someone not that different from the ordinary viewer could become such a twisted killer. Ever since Psycho, it is no longer been enough merely to present a villain or a monster; but also to present his psychology.
The Sex And The Violence
The realm of psychology wasn’t the movie’s only nod toward a more sophisticated realism. There was the graphic, bloody violence of the two killings. And there was the overt sexuality on display, from the unmarried lovers sharing a bed and clad only in their underwear in the opening sequence, to the shower scene, to Norman’s Oedipal fixation and cross-dressing. All of these were violations of long-standing movie-making taboos.
The movie even broke a taboo with its use of a toilet. No one had ever heard or seen a toilet flush in a Hollywood movie before. And all of it was very realistic to the plot – when Leigh’s Marion flushes scraps of paper detailing her embezzlement down the toilet, one shred remains in the bowl to be discovered later, as a clue.. And the swirling water is a visual foreshadowing of the shot a few minutes later – that of Marion’s blood ebbing into the vortex of the shower drain.
Psycho was a shift in the visual aspect of Hitchcock’s filmmaking practice after Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. However, despite the low budget, it’s clear that Hitchcock worked out every visual detail with his usual meticulousness; there’s plenty of artistry for scholars to chew on – the symbolism in the movie’s frequent shots of mirrors, eyes and birds, for instance.
The nightmarish, disturbing themes of corruptibility, confused identities, voyeurism, human vulnerabilities and victimization, the deadly effects of money, Oedipal murder, and dark past histories are realistically revealed. Its themes were revealed through repeated uses of motifs, such as birds, eyes, hands, and mirrors.
In keeping with his new low-budget aesthetic, Hitchcock employed some very old filmmaking techniques, but in striking new ways. His use of light and shadow and contorted camera angles, the extreme cuts and edits of the shower sequence and the murder of private eye Arbogast, show the vast influence his filmmaking had had over the years from external sources. Those were the years when Hitchcock was starting out as a director, but while the Germans and Russians used those techniques to create meaning – to generate feelings and ideas not explicitly present in the content of the shots.
The shower sequence remains the most famous murder in movie history, still much studied by film students and directors today, as much for what it doesn’t show as what it does. It does not show Leigh’s naked breasts, it does not show the killer’s face, and it shows knife touching flesh just once. Yet the scene’s masterful editing is so suggestive that you would have sworn about seeing multiple shots of the knife penetrating her flesh, or even the color red as the ‘blood’ swirls down the drain.
In a way, Psycho made a star out of Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired , first Psycho, later many more. The best of these movies echo Psycho in hinting at a Freudian explanation, a past trauma that poisoned the killer’s mind, but they also suggest that some kinds of depravity and violence are beyond explanation.
There have been several attempted sequels (Psycho II, Psycho III and Psycho IV – The Beginnings), several inspirations (Bates Motel) and several remake-attempts (Psycho, 1998)– however, none of them have come close to the crude-artistic nature of Psycho’s storytelling.
Psycho is definitely not the best film of all times. However, it was splendidly paced and superbly directed. However, the last scene of the movie is a disappointing one – with the explanation of Bates’ behavior and actions. Perhaps such scene was needed for 1960s audience, unaccustomed to bizarre forms of psychotic behaviour, but today it slows the film that would end perfectly just with the last shot of an imprisoned Norman Bates sitting seemingly as harmless as a puppy.
It may not have been the most perfect movie. But it did set the channels in place to inspire generations of filmmakers and audiences.