Throughout the years, single-word titled horror movies have garnered massive success. “Halloween,” “Scream,” “Saw,” “Jaws” and “Carrie” scared millions, but they all came before Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
Ignore the sequels and Gus Van Sant remake to focus on the 1960 classic that started a new horror sub-genre and is still a part of pop culture. The film follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has she steals $40,000 and goes on the run so she can marry her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin). On her drive to California, mother nature steps in and a heavy rainstorm forces her to stop at the Bates Motel and meet the shy owner.
In a time ruled by mutated monsters, body snatchers, waxed skeletons, and aliens, master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock stripped it all down with everyman Norman Bates. As he’s introduced, audiences see a shy, normal guy that may have a few mommy issues.
As the film moves along, Norman’s character is slowly peeled away, revealing more creepiness with each scene. The suspense in the story builds, keeping viewers glued to the screen and introducing scares a little at time, first starting with Norman’s peeping eye as he glances at Marion in her hotel room through a painting.
Marion’s violent death forty minutes into the film is common knowledge now, but it still provides a huge shock and twist on the narrative. Hitchcock turns a small shower into a multi-angle sensory overload as focus shifts from Marion to the water and eventually the opaque curtain that a shadowy figure appears behind.
The iconic music blasts as the knife stabs through the air and without showing a single slice, the blood tinted water circling around the drain reveals enough. With CG, special effects and gory make-up such a part of the horror genre, Hitchock proved that scares could be provided without the visuals to go with it. He played with the mind of viewers and the tight editing filled in the blanks.
The shocking death keeps the plot and story moving for the rest of the film. Marion’s sister Lila and Sam start the search for her and Norman becomes the central character of the story. They all arrive just after Marion’s car sluggishly sinks in a lake behind the hotel.
Rich black and white cinematography showcase the desolate hotel and even if it was just for budget reasons, comparisons to Gus Van Sant’s color “Psycho” remake show that even today the move would film better in black and white.
With Detective Arbogast on the case more details come out about Norman, his mother and her supposed death years earlier. This all culminates in a furious climax inside the Bates’ mansion as the Detective and Lila hunt for Norman’s mother.
Before “Saw” gave viewers an elaborate twist ending with every film, Norman Bates, clothed in a wig and his mother’s dress, frantically runs into the basement as Lila discovers his mother’s mummified remains.
It takes a minute to process the situation as Sam saves Lila and Norman is arrested. In an age where schizophrenics are featured on “C.S.I” and “48 Hours Mystery” on a weekly basis, the extended scenes of plot exposition are unnecessary. Instead the film should have just cut to the shot of Norman in the insane asylum with his internal thoughts and mother voice-overs still alive inside. Modern horror fans may dislike the lack of gore or slow pacing after Marion’s death, but the characterization and scares are up there with some of today’s horror icons like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees.
In 50 more years, forgettable horror movies will fade away, but “Psycho” will always remain the blue print for brilliant film making, plot twists, and leading the viewer along for a suspenseful thrill ride. Along with other Hitchcock classics like “North by Northwest,” “The Birds,” and “Spellbound,” “Psycho” showcases how Hitchcock reinvented the genre and was ahead of his time.