Sunday, July 25, 2010

June 16, 2010: Anatomy of a Psycho: 50 Years of Hitch’s Masterpiece

“First customer of the day is always trouble…”

Psycho was a first in many ways, and has been causing tremendous trouble for fifty years. If there is a single film that ultimately legitimized the horror film, it is Psycho, even if there were well-crafted, artful, serious horror films before it. But such films—Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People for example—did not make the impact Alfred Hitchcock’s low-key slasher did. Along with Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Psycho essentially mapped out the way horror would develop throughout the ‘60s, but Dracula glared over its shoulder as Psycho fixed its glassy eyes on the future. Even with its new-fangled fascination with blood and sex, Dracula was still a remake, an adaptation of a 63-year old novel, and a period piece reliant on decrepit Gothic castles and supernatural hokum. These are all elements that made the film wonderful, but they do seem more in step with the cinema of 30-years prior than the contemporary world. Regardless, Dracula held massive appeal for a generation of youngsters who’d discovered Tod Browning’s original on late night TV and spent their days thumbing through Famous Monsters of Filmland and constructing their Aurora Monster model kits. Fisher’s Dracula (more so than his somewhat less memorable Frankenstein from 1957) was successful enough to lead British Hammer Films to fashion a string of similar— though increasingly bloody and sex-fixated—hit Monster movies. It inspired American producer/director Roger Corman to make like-mindedly retro Gothic horrors by plundering the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It inspired American TV producer/Dan Curtis to adapt Stoker to the small screen for his smash series “Dark Shadows”.

Yes, old-fashioned Monster stories, creaky castles, and rubber bats had not gone out of style during the sophisticated ‘60s, but another breed of horror was born as well. In sharp contrast to the traditionalist Hammer and Corman pictures, Psycho was based on a new work (Robert Bloch’s novel was published a mere year before the film’s release). The movie and its progenies were contemporary in setting, Gothic castles being replaced by Gothic motor lodges, Gothic apartment buildings, and Gothic suburban neighborhoods. Supernatural monsters were passed over in favor of seemingly ordinary, innocuous human beings harboring monstrous inner selves. The fang is replaced by the kitchen knife. For every bloodsucker that popped up in response to Fisher’s Dracula, there was a gritty, realistic, psychological horror that never would have been born if not for Psycho. Hitchcock’s film established a
new catalog of horror cinema tropes that had a seismic effect on many such films that followed it through the ‘60s and far beyond. In it’s own way, Psycho is as massively responsible for establishing a new set of horror fundamentals as Tod Browning’s Dracula had been nearly 40 years earlier. These include:

(Beware of spoilers…)

The Slice and Dice: Psycho is regularly credited as the first slasher film. This is somewhat arguable, as George Archainbaud’s Thirteen Women established some of the basic tropes of the slasher picture way back in 1932. In that film, a woman who has been subjected to bigotry for being part Japanese (Myrna Loy, who often played roles of this sort) takes revenge against her tormentors by employing a swami to mesmerize them into killing each other and themselves. Here we have the standard “young women are successively bumped off by a vengeful killer” structure that would become integral to the slasher pictures of the distant future, even if the killer is not personally wielding the knife yet. That being said, few remember Thirteen Women today and its influence is highly negligible. The same cannot be said of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), a cult favorite about a handsome young photographer who uses a blade secreted in a leg of his camera tripod to murder them as he snaps their final headshots. Peeping Tom was condemned by critics upon its release for its violence, its shocking depiction of child abuse, and its perceived misogyny. The backlash nearly destroyed Powell’s career in the UK, where he’d been lauded earlier for films such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Consequently, Peeping tom did not develop its cult audience or receive an overdue reevaluation until the ‘70s. Psycho repeated several of the themes already seen in Peeping Tom, which was released three months earlier, but unlike its British counterpart, Psycho was no career-killing bomb. While the film did take some time to solidify its reputation among critics (The New York Times and the UK Observer were among the initial uncomplimentary) it was an instant smash with audiences around the world, earning significantly more at the box office than any other Hitchcock film. It was ultimately nominated for four Academy Awards, and Janet Leigh won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Whether or not Psycho was the first slasher film, there is no doubt that it was the first to make a major impact. Let us not forget that John Carpenter’s Halloween, the film that launched the “golden age” of slasher movies, pays direct and loving homage to Psycho, using the name of one of Hitchcock’s heroes, Loomis, for one of its own.

The Fake-Out:: Psycho’s proto-slasher status may be slightly questionable, but there is no denying that it is the first horror movie to employ a fake-out structure: it establishes a red-herring that engrosses the audience in actions independent of the main horror plot, then shocks and shatters them by introducing the killer suddenly. The viewer spends the first half hour of Psycho caught up in the thievery of Marion Crane to such a degree that the viewer probably forgets she or he is even watching a film called Psycho. Then Hitch unleashes the title creep abruptly during one of cinema’s most famous scenes. Director John Llewellyn Moxey trots out this very same gimmick in his excellent exploration of witchery, The City of the Dead (aka: Horror Hotel) (1960), released soon enough after Psycho that he could claim ignorance of Hitchcock’s film. Francis Ford Coppola, however, could not. In fact, Roger Corman explicitly asked the young filmmaker to deliver a copy of Psycho, which he did with the terrific Dementia 13, in which he gives Luana Anders the Janet Leigh treatment. With Dressed to Kill, Brian DePalma not only mimicked the structure of Psycho (as well as many other elements of the picture, as we shall see), but he picked up on the gimmick of introducing us to a well-known actress (Angie Dickenson) and then playing against audience expectations by having her murdered early in the film. Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) does this too, dispatching Drew Barrymore in its opening moments.

Luana Anders meets her watery doom in Dementia 13

The Gender-Bender: Like its revolutionary structure, Psycho’s pioneering use of audience-baffling gender-bending has gone on to become a significant feature of several horror and thriller pictures. This trope plays on the audience’s preconceived notions regarding gender. In Psycho, Norman Bates dons a wig and his mother’s old bathrobe to impersonate the dead woman. As the domineering mother, Norman kills Marion Crane because she stirs him sexually, feelings of which mother surely would not approve, but this revelation is saved for the film’s climactic scene. Until then, we reasonably assume that Mrs. Bates is, indeed, the murderer. Variations on this twist inform such Psycho-pretenders as William Castle’s Homicidal, Dressed to Kill, and Robert Hiltzik’s suitably campy Sleepaway Campy, as well as Anne Perry’s 1979 novel The Cater Street Hangman. Juliet Marion Hulme (Perry’s real name)proved she was well capable of committing the assumedly “masculine” act of cold-blooded murder six years prior to Psycho when she and her girlfriend Pauline Parker bludgeoned Parker’s mother in the headline-making murder that inspired Peter Jackson’s superb 1992 film, Heavenly Creatures.

Sex = Death: Sex plays several roles in Psycho, one being a basic equation that would go on to be as overused in horror films as the requisite knife-wielding maniac: women who have sex die. The opening scene of Psycho finds Marion in bed with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). They’ve just enjoyed a passionate pre-marital tryst in a sleazy hotel. Sexy Marion will later elicit similarly carnal feelings from Norman Bates, who will murder her for doing so. Marion’s sister, the chaste, asexual Lila (Vera Miles, ironically, Hitchock’s first choice to play the über-desirable Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo) survives the picture. One of the most misogynist of slasher clichés, the survival of the virginal female/death of the sexually-active female reappears often: Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. The hoariness of the cliché is played for laughs in Scream.

Sam and Marion sex it up.

Contemporary Gothic: “Oh, we have 12 vacancies. 12 cabins, 12 vacancies.” As Psycho deals with sex and sexuality in a more direct and modern manner than the horrors that preceded it, it is only fitting that its setting should be updated likewise. Psycho is hardly the first horror film to move outside the gates of ancient castles and dilapidated graveyards. In the ‘40s, producer Val Lewton contemporized the horror setting in urban thrillers, such as Cat People, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In Psycho, Hitchcock fused the contemporary locations of Lewton’s pictures with imagery drawn from Universal’s Gothic horrors of the ‘30s. Norman Bates’s house looms from its dreary hilltop like Castle Dracula. The interior is a disorienting system of ornate rooms not unlike the one in which Renfield bunked in Browning’s Dracula, a twisting staircase similar to the one on which Lugosi’s Dracula first appears, and a dingy cellar that secrets a mummified corpse worthy of Karloff. Bates Motel is similarly forbidding, particularly Norman’s office, with its deeply-shadowed walls lined with taxidermied birds of prey. Shooting mundane interiors as if they are Gothic haunted mansions enters the cinematic lexicon. Roman Polanski would transform city apartments into expressionistic houses of horror in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant. DePalma would do the same to a suburban high school in Carrie. In 1979, Ridley Scott took the concept of displaced Gothic decor to its ultimate extreme by rocketing it into the future with the Goth-spaceship in Alien.

Where It's At: Steven Spielberg famously said that with Jaws, he wanted to do for the beach what Psycho did for showers. Psycho did not invent the import of associating a memorable murder (or series of murders) with a specific location, but it has become shorthand for doing so. As famous as the Spielberg remark, Janet Leigh often said that she never took another shower after the first time she saw herself murdered in the film. Many other viewers have said the same. Compare that to how often someone says, “I never sat beside a lake again after the Monster drowned little Maria in Frankenstein.” As memorable as that scene is, it did not etch a correlation between location and murder into the cultural consciousness. Psycho did. Spielberg’s comment can now be applied to any number of movies; its opening phrase easily swaps out for “Rosemary’s Baby does for apartment buildings…”, “Friday the 13th does for summer camps…”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street does for bathtubs…”, “Evil Dead does for cabins…”, “The Blair Witch Project does for the woods…”, and so on.

Psycho introduced and/or solidified so much more into the cinematic tool box: the ordinary/sympathetic killer, the trick of forcing the audience to identify with the killer, the power of familial horrors, the brief shattering of the fourth wall (Norman’s final chilling stare into the camera)… too much for me to tackle in this brief article. Hitch didn’t just pull off these feats before anyone else; in most cases, he did them better.

Psycho was released fifty years ago today…
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