Psycho (1960)
aka: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho
A film directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Genre: Horror / Thriller / Drama

Film Review

Psycho photo
Alfred Hitchcock's most famous film, and certainly one of his biggest successes, Psycho is the film that redefined the horror genre in the early 1960s. It brought popularity and a measure of respectability to a genre that had previously languished in B movie purgatory, inviting a spate of imitations that led to the gory horror films of the 1980s and the recent trend in blood-encrusted slasher movies. With its masterful mix of suspense and surprise, Psycho is a film whose complexity and touches of cinematic brilliance make it one of Hitchcock's best and most entertaining films.

The film was adapted from a novel by Robert Bloch, which was based on the real-life exploits of a Wisconsin serial killer named Ed Gein. The story instantly appealed to Hitchcock because he had reached a point in his career where he needed a major box office hit (to balance out the failure of his recent film Vertigo) and he saw that this had the potential to deliver just that. The story also appealed to his sense of the macabre and Psycho is unquestionably one of his darkest films, albeit with a black comedic underbelly.

The decision to make the film in black and white rather than colour was primarily for commercial, not artistic, reasons. Having failed to persuade Paramount to finance the film, Hitchcock was compelled to make it through his own company, Shamley Productions, on an extraordinarily tight budget of around $800,000. Despite such cost constraints, the director managed to attract two big name actors to play the leads, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, each of whom gives a very laudable performance. The film made Perkins an international star, although he would forever be associated with the role of Norman Bates.

The longevity of Psycho is most probably down to its terrific set-piece shock scenes, which have rarely if ever been bettered in any horror film. The most famous of these is of course the shower sequence in which Janet Leigh is carved up nicely by what we think is Norman Bates' mum. The three minute long sequence took seven days to shoot and includes around seventy shots, mostly close ups. Although we never actually see the knife make contact with the flesh, the way the montage is constructed, in a manic frenzy of quick cuts, the impression is unavoidably one of a beautiful young woman being hacked to pieces by a madman. Bernard Herrmann's now legendary score accentuates the sense of visceral horror, the screeching violins sounding like a cry from Hell,  making the spectator react to every slash as if it were he, not Janet Leigh, standing in the shower. As shocking as the shower scene is today, it was ten times more so when the film was first released because at that time it was inconceivable that the lead actress would be killed off within the first half of the film.

Whilst famous for shocking audiences, Psycho does have a lighter side to it, although this isn't readily apparent. Hitchcock doesn't quite set out to parody the B movie horror genre, but he comes close to doing so. The characters in the film are frankly ludicrous and the plot really doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. What Hitchcock does with the material that makes up the clunky narrative is far more interesting than the narrative itself. The killer, who in the original novel is a very unsympathetic villain, is made the most sympathetic character in the film - to the extent that the audience is driven to side with him against the so-called "good guys" (who have about as much charm as a bucket of creosote). The murders are brutal and shocking but they are realised in a very stylised way, evoking something of the tradition of the Grand Guignol, but executed with great restraint (and without the now obligatory olympic size swimming pool quantity of theatrical blood). When it is first seen, the film certainly shocks, but on subsequent viewings it makes a subtly different impression and Hitckcock's very dark black humour becomes evident.

On its initial release, Psycho received very mixed reviews from the critics, but it was an instant box office hit and many reviewers later reappraised their opinions.   The film was nominated for four Oscars - in the categories of Best Director, Best B&W Cinematography, Best Actress (Janet Leight) and Best B&W Art Design - although it won none. It inspired two direct sequels (made in the 1980s) and a television prequel (all featuring Anthony Perkins happily reprising the role of Normal Bates). In 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a shot-by-shot colour remake of the film, which has been described as possibly the most pointless exercise in film history.

Comparing Psycho with the subsequent films that it inspired, it is surprising how restrained and how much more effective the former film is. Rather than show explicit scenes of mayhem and bodily mutilation, which is the current tend in horror, it shows just enough to stimulate the spectator's imagination, allowing the mind to conceive images far more horrific, far more real than could ever be portrayed on a cinema screen. Today's generation of cinematic fear merchants have a great deal to learn from the dark jewel that is Psycho.
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Film Credits

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam
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