Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: June 16, 1960
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
CINEMATOGRAPHY: John L. Russell
WRITER: Joseph Stefano
MUSIC: Bernard Herrmann
Here is a genuine classic. This is arguably the granddaddy of all modern-day horror films. The movie was so influential that it is hard to imagine other horror films such as “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” without it. This is Hitchcock doing what he does best: suspense.
The filmmaker was already widely known as the Master of Suspense before this film came along. In fact, the movie’s story was originally considered for an episode of Hitchcock’s famous show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. What comes as no surprise really is the fact that Hitchcock has given the world what is considered the first psychoanalytical thriller.
It tells the story of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, mother to future scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis) and her attempt to steal $40,000 from her boss. She gets a new car and finds her way to the Bates Motel, operated by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). There, they talk about subjects such as institutionalization and Bates’ mother. They talk about what it is like being trapped and running away.
Soon, Marion returns to her room. Not long after she decides that she will return to Phoenix with the money, she decides to take a shower. Perhaps, the most famous shower ever put to the screen. This is when, only half-way through the film, Hitchcock decides to kill his heroine. From there, the story turns around and becomes a murder mystery about Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and Marion’s boyfriend (John Gavin) trying to find her.
One of the things that makes this film work the best is Anthony Perkins in the iconic role of Norman. Perkins could have played Norman as a complete psychotic. Instead, Perkins made the character as sympathetic as possible. He understood that this film is not about a normal killer. This is a man who is completely out of touch with reality due to the effect that his mother had on him. Perkins did a great job at keeping the audience guessing while also understanding that the crimes committed were unforgivable.
The analytical point of view that the film takes was also an original concept at the time. Before “Psycho”, horror films in Hollywood had a clear cut bad guy and protagonist. It’s not hard to imagine Hitchcock smiling as he ripped apart what was common in his day.
Another element that makes this story stand out is the fact that the audience gets to know the victim. Marion is a character that is set up as the main protagonist. She has a life and problems all her own. The audience wants to see her succeed until she is tragically cut down half-way through the story.
A good modern example of this is 1996’s “Scream”. This film would channel “Psycho” by casting a well-known Drew Barrymore as the killer’s first victim. It takes the preconceived notions of the audience and throws them out the window. Now, no one is safe from the killer. Wes Craven is one of countless filmmakers that owes Hitchcock his thanks.
Not only is the film great on its own terms, as mentioned above, it has spawned several films that have tried to imitate it. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” features a character named Sam Loomis, the same name shared by Marion’s boyfriend in this film. Another thing that has been imitated countless times is a moody score that not only identifies the film but sets the tone. Also, how many shower scenes has an audience member seen in the average horror movie these days?
There have been many horror films with great classics like “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream”. The film itself has spawned several sequels starring Perkins as Norman and a 1998 remake with Vince Vaughn taking over as the proprietor of the Bates Motel. While some of these films have found great success, they all need to bow down to the one true original that is “Psycho”.