Happy Birthday, Psycho

The movie that had a greater effect on the bathroom habits of its audience than any other has just turned fifty.

I’m of course talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

This movie is a generational chiller.  My mother saw it in the theater when my father was off doing his national guard service, and had to go home to her mother because she couldn’t stand sleeping alone. I saw it on TV, and tried to take my shower without closing the curtain for weeks.  My husband can do a killer impersonation of Anthony Perkins smile in the very last scene (see graphic, left).  I have forbidden him to use this particular talent when I’m in the room.

It’s actually kind of amazing that this movie still scares the bejeezus out of people.  It’s really tame by the standard of the modern thriller, not to proceeding at a leisurely pace.  There’s only one murder, and one mummified body (do I have to do a spoiler alert here for anybody?).  Not to mention the fact that the shower scene has been parodied a thousand times.

But it’s the simplicity of it that makes it work.  The story is very basic, and is, in fact the template for every modern horror movies.  A girl (a woman in this case), does something wrong.  As a direct result, she gets killed.  Her killer is pursued by those more morally upright, and, because this is actually suspense as opposed to horror or noir, in the end the killer’s caught.

But the simplicity of the plot is actually what makes it work.  It’s a spare, sturdy framework to hang the suspense on.  You know going in most of what’s going to happen, you’re constantly waiting for it.  And the suspense is killer.  Up the dark stair case, down into the basement, the casual questioning of Norman Bates by the no-nonsense detective.  He’s smart, Bates isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, but there’s a crazy with a knife out there who doesn’t have to be smart, they just have to be behind the detective.  Or at the top of the stairs.  Or at the bottom of the stairs.  Frankly, I’m surprised more people didn’t move into ranch houses after this film.  The stairs are at least as scary as the shower.

But the other thing that keeps it working is Norman Bates himself.  As portrayed by Anthony Perkins and directed by Hitchcock, Bates is a victim.  He was driven crazy.  He’s not a superman like Hannibal Lechter, or a monster like Freddy Kruger.  He could have been any kid on the block who got stuck in a lousey situation.  He could have been you.  He could have been me.  This is a human being, not a supervillain, carrying out a crime on a human scale using tools and reasoning that any of us might resort to.

Now, that’s scary.




Happy Birthday, Psycho — 5 Comments

  1. Ain’t it just? That final moment in the film, when Bates is sloooowly raising his head and bringing that smile into view…

    It’s the exclamation point on the whole long scream of a film.

  2. And the subliminal that Hitchcock added to that shot is the icing on the cake.

  3. Single-frame through Norman’s smile just before the hard cut to the tow-chain and the car trunk and you’ll see a very faint superimposition of Mother’s “head shot” from the rocker over Norman’s face. Don’t know about the DVD, but on the Laserdisc it’s clearly visible if you look for it and highly effective.