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1st Sep 08
Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood! The Hitchcock classic where a young woman on the run, ends up at a motel where there’s ‘mother’ issues that would put Oedipus in the shade!
On first viewing Psycho I was aged eighteen, listening to Stock, Aitken & Waterman on the radio whether I wanted to or not and I had just begun active employment for a bank. I was grown up. Or, at least thought I was. In one respect I was. I had become numb to the glut of gory horror that had clogged cinema screens and rental shelves for much of the Eighties. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, just that I had seen too much of it. It was time to dust off the considered Grandfather of modern horror.
Still being a teenager though I had that built-in defensive that ruled that the day’s music and film output was great and anything that my parent’s favoured was too old school to be cool. I found Psycho at the time, dry, dull and very, very slow.
At the time I found I favoured the 1983 sequel, the thoughtfully titled Psycho II. I found it a wonderful sequel that kept the story fresh with some wonderful twists and of course it had conceded slightly to the cinema of the time and it was a little gory in places. I especially liked the part where Vera Miles ended up with a knife in her gob.
Psycho III directed by Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins started ok, with the plight of a suicidal nun, but soon aped the stalk and slash movies I had seen too many of at the time. I couldn’t even be bothered with Psycho IV - The Beginning and from what I understood at the time, wisely so. It was time to watch the original again and reassess my opinion.
It is alleged that Mr. Hitchcock bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name anonymously for around $9,000. Bloch’s novel was inspired by the true story of Ed Gein, a serial killer who was also the inspiration for Deranged (1974), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Once Hitchcock had secured the rights, he went about buying up as many copies of the book as he could so that the ending would remain a secret. Even when it came to filming, Hitchcock had the cast and crew swear not to leak the plot to anyone, not revealing the ending until it was to be shot.
As with all adaptations, changes were made to the source material. Norman changed from being a short, fat older man into the ‘boy next door’ type. The opening of the story altered from being about a fight between Norman and Mother to concentrating on Marion Crane with Norman not seen until a good while into the film.
So keen was Hitchcock that people were in the cinema before the film commenced rather than wandering in late, the portly one had Universal provide a recording that was to be played in the foyer of the theatre. The idea of everyone being in their seats for the film’s start was unheard of back then as members of the audience could, and did, wander in at any point during a movie. The recording played in the foyer would advise ‘Ten minutes to Psycho time’, and so on till the movie started. The reason for this was that Janet Leigh was being advertised as the star and given that she gets killed off before halfway into the movie it would no doubt confuse those walking in so late.
Although movies were being made in colour at the time Hitchcock chose to film the movie in black and white. His intention was to make the events feel more real by filming in a format viewers would associate with being ‘real’ such as the black and white newsreels. By filming in black and white also allowed him to get round the blood shown – a similar trick Tarantino used to get his 2003 movie Kill Bill: Volume One pass the censors. Interestingly a number of viewers still maintain that they saw ‘red’ blood go down the shower drain despite the fact there is no colour in the movie.
One thing the MPAA did have a problem with was Norman Bates being referred to as a transvestite during the psychological profile given as explanation to the characters and in turn the audience considering its use as a vulgarity. They calmed down once scriptwriter Joseph Stefano proved to them that it is an actual psychological term. Another area that troubled the censors was whether Janet Leigh’s nipple could be glimpsed during the infamous shower scene and they sent back the film for re-editing. Once it was established that no nipple was visible, Hitchcock made no changes and sent the film back to them.
The shower scene went on to become arguably the most famous movie scene ever and is forever dissected and analysed by film students worldwide. Lasting just forty five seconds of screen time the scene took seven days to shoot using seventy different camera angles. It also, most shockingly, removed from the story the character the audiences had assumed to be the lead, leaving them all in a state of shock. Folklore has it that movie audiences were reluctant to step into a shower for sometime after – a similar thing happened after Jaws (1975) in respect of people going into the ocean. It was almost as big a reveal for them to discover that it wasn’t ‘Mother’ that was homicidal, but rather her boy-next-door son dressed up as her doing the killing and ‘becoming’ her.
Despite being written off by the majority of critics at the time Psycho was nominated for four Oscars and from a budget of $806,000 the movie went onto gross $50million worldwide, $32million of which was in the States and went on to become one of the most influential films ever made. It brought the horror genre bloodied and screaming into new realms. No longer was the genre exclusively the domain of monsters such as vampires, werewolves and other assorted fantasy tinged forms of creepiness, the monster could be the person sat next to you.
Psycho was more sexual and violent than any movie made by Hollywood; the impression made by the movie has lasted and it remains influential even now. How many times have you seen a shower scene in a genre movie and groaned at the apparent reference? Perhaps the nearest relative Psycho has is with John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween which again fuses the sexual with death. Indeed Carpenter recognised this by not just casting Jamie Lee Curtis (Janet Leigh’s daughter by Tony Curtis) as his lead but also had Donald Pleasance’s character named Sam Loomis, the same name of the character played by John Gavin in Psycho.
Opening with Bernard Hermann’s now famous score across a title sequence courtesy of another Hitchcock regular Saul Bass, events kick off on Friday December 11th, 2.43pm – the only occurrence where the date and time are referred to as such in the movie. We meet Marion Crane (Leigh) enjoying a naughty little get together with Sam Loomis, the stocky but wooden John Gavin. They want to be together but circumstances dictate otherwise primarily financial. When a customer at her place of work talks about buying off unhappiness, Crane takes him at his word, stealing the forty thousand dollars he was waving under her nose and feigning a headache disappears off for a drive out of the city.
On her journey Marion courts the suspicion of a traffic cop, after he finds her taking a roadside nap. Wired and paranoid to the hilt Marion sells the car on to further cut any trace to her. She is in such a hurry that it raises the salesman’s curiosity to ask why. She takes to the road again. As it starts to rain she ends up at the Bates Motel. There are twelve cabins with twelve vacancies, the motel so far off the main road now that Norman Bates, who helps his sick mother with the running of the place, offers Marion to join him to eat supper together. With his Mother unwilling to let her eat at the house Norman and Marion eat in the back office, the walls crammed with stuffed dead birds – a nice nod to another stuffed dead ‘bird’ back at the main house.
In chatting with Norman about escaping to private islands, Marion’s mind is made up about what to do next. She decides to return to Phoenix to face her fate, her private trap. It is then she retires for the evening and decides to have a shower before bed. It’s interesting to think that audiences would have assumed the motivation for Marion’s murder was financial, however in cleaning up the apartment after the murder Norman doesn’t even notice that the newspaper seems a bit bulkier than it should. Whoever killed Marion did so for a more unexpected and less motivated reason. Also, if it wasn’t for a private detective being hired to find Marion and the stolen money, would anyone have been as interested to locate her?
With most of the shocks now commonly known, the movie is robbed of the power it had to horrify first time round. However as a film, it is still near damn perfect and as iconic as the genre goes and no matter how often you see THAT shower scene it never fails to have an impact.