Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the penultimate must-sees in horror. It kickstarted so many tropes, and has inspired so many filmmakers. Bernard Hermann’s score is classic. The performances of Janet Leigh as Marion Crane and Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates are notated as horror royalty. Today, June 16th, 2020 is the 60th anniversary of Psycho. And just last week, I sat down and watched Psycho for the very first time.
How could I possibly go my entire life, watching horror film after horror film, and bypass Psycho? I have, legit, sat and watched some of the worst (okay, sometimes so bad that they’re so good) films over Psycho but the film’s notoriety is so legendary that I felt like I had already seen it. Two of the most regarded scenes in the film were already imprinted in my head. You probably already know which scenes: Marion’s shower death, and the reveal of Norma Bates‘ body. Who hasn’t screeched the score while doing safe and non-threatening things with a knife? I know I’ve screeched “EE EE EE” while hammering a nail. The film’s history is spoken about in many documentaries about horror films, in books, in articles, and for a while most of what I knew about Psycho, I learned from watching Scream (1996).
“How could I possibly go my entire life, watching horror film after horror film, and bypass Psycho?”
The funny thing is, I own Psycho on blu-ray. It’s sat on my shelf for at least 3 years. I continuously told myself that I would get to it. I even had it sitting on top of my blu-ray player for the longest time, but still, I didn’t watch it. Then, like a lineup of dominos falling over, things began to happen. A friend texted me to note that there was “a glaring omission” from my Mother’s Day horror list. I was rearranging my movies – as one does – and Psycho came at the end of the space for a shelf so I set it aside, and then the chance to write about the film’s monumental anniversary arose. So, finally, it was time. I had to book a room at the Bates Motel.
Thinking that I had seen the movie without actually seeing the movie was the worst take that I could have ever had. A ton of the assumptions that I had were 100% opposite of what was experienced while watching the film. The biggest misconception was the performances of the cast with three of the talents surprising the heck out of me. Janet Leigh (Marion Crane) deserves every bit of praise that she receives. The moments that we get with Marion as she devises her money stealing plan, enacting that plan, and eventually realizing what she’s doing is wrong all had me deeply involved with her character. What strikes the most is that for the majority of these moments, it’s just Janet Leigh acting via facial expressions, sans dialogue. As her anxiety rose, so did mine. When she had a change of mind about what she was doing, I felt that. By the time the shower scene came about, I’d forgotten that her horrible fate was soon to come, and that made it harder to watch.
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While Janet Leigh deserves all of her praise, some additional applause should be directed towards Vera Miles’ performance as Lila Crane. If you’re one of those who believes Psycho falls in line with the slasher subgenre then Lila is technically the final girl of the film. I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t even aware of Lila’s character. Knowing that Marion would eventually meet her demise, I knew not to attempt to connect with her (which, as I mentioned, I ended up doing). Not knowing if Lila would fall victim to Norman gave the character more agency and my investment in Lila was high as I sat on pins and needles. Vera Miles made that investment so much more necessary.
And then we come to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. Allow me this moment to be sort of cliché, and ask, why was Perkins not nominated for an Oscar? The innocence and tenderness that he exuded towards his guests clashed with the vile and evil motives that he held, or well, that Norma held. It kind of stinks that I couldn’t be a viewer who got to think that it was Norma doing the killing and that Norman wasn’t just a conduit for his mother. The reveal that he was the actual murderer would have been so sweet to experience without the knowledge that I held.
“Seeing the shower scene without context, compared to seeing it with context, are two totally different experiences.”
The biggest shock was the brutality of Norman’s murders. Being that it was 1960, the gore is, of course, minimal with only splashes of blood being seen. There are only two murders shown, and the fact that I still had my “holy shit” face on says something of the impact of Hitchcock’s directing. Seeing the shower scene without context, compared to seeing it with context, are two totally different experiences. What makes it a hard watch is that it comes right after Marion’s realization that she must return the money, and try to make right what has she has done. It’s as if the water from the shower is washing away the anxiety and guilt that she had. A smile grows over her face as those feelings disappear down the drain.
Not even a minute of freedom from the guilt and anxiety pass and the score begins to scream as Norman pulls back the shower curtain. The score’s screams are following by Marion’s screams and as the knife hits her, the sounds of her skin ripping apart take the scene into a new dimension. To mirror the dismay and horror that I felt while watching it, the cinephile in me was screaming in delight.
One thing I did not expect to happen was a highly effective jump scare. There’s something about old school horror flicks that makes me expect only atmospheric horror. A jump scare was not on my agenda whilst watching Psycho. This moment occurred when Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) has made his way back to the Bates Motel, and enters the home of Norman. Tension is present, but we’ve been made to believe that Arbogast will definitely have to search more of the house before something comes to a head. As Arbogast (I love that name btw) is arriving at the top of the stairs, Norman as Norma enters from the opposite side of the wide frame with a sting of the score. The one second that it takes for Norman to reach Arbogast wasn’t enough time to relieve myself of the jump scare. Instead, the brisk pace that Norman uses gives that one second an extra oomph of “oh, no no no!” The scene is very reminiscent of the jump scare from Exorcist III (1990) that takes place with the nurse. Both are effective and spooky as shit.
“There are only two murders shown, and the fact that I still had my “holy shit” face on says something of the impact of Hitchcock’s directing.”
There is so much more that I could continue to express about Psycho: the queer subtext, the psychoanalytical and Freudian connections, the controversies behind-the-scenes, and the list goes on. It’s been sixty years, and Psycho is still a film that people are dissecting and deciphering. I just happened to be one of those who took forever to get to Fairvale, California, and spend a terrifying night at the Bates Motel.