31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #14: Psycho (1960)

Posted: October 15, 2016 in Movie Review
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14. Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Janet Leigh

What can be said of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” that hasn’t already been covered dozens of times over? Even if one hasn’t seen it by now (and, if you haven’t, shame on you), most already know the legend. One of THE landmark horror films, it remains a more effective tale of shock and suspense than anything being pumped out over five decades later. A constant source of inspiration, each of the most iconic moments from “Psycho” has been re-imagined by director after director (and that doesn’t even take into account the 1998 shot-for-shot remake). To refer to it as the grandfather of the slasher genre, while accurate, is to downplay its greatness.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is trusted by her boss with the task of depositing $40,000 of a client’s down payment. Because she would really like for her affair with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) to become a marriage, she instead intends to use the money for exactly that purpose. Driving out of town, she is spotted by her boss. Marion further complicates matter for herself by falling asleep in her car by the side of the road, attracting the attention of a policeman. Her erratic responses when being questioned by the officer causes him to follow her. She makes the rash decision to trade in her car for a new one, but it doesn’t make much difference since the officer is there to see the whole thing.

No longer being followed, Marion eventually stops due to a rainstorm. Finding a motel, Marion elects to stay the night. Fortunately for her, all twelve cabins are at this time vacant. She is greeted by the motel’s caretaker, Norman Bates (Anothony Perkins), who gives her the key to Room #1, as well as a toasted cheese sandwich with a glass of milk. Norman is a peculiar but interesting fellow. His hobby is taxidermy, and his job outside of the motel is in caring for his eldery, invalid mother. He seems just as nervous an individual as Marion, if not more so.

Some time later in the evening, Marion is showering in her motel bathroom. Everyone knows this scene well. Disturbing an otherwise calm and peaceful moment, an unidentified, presumably feminine assailant pulls back the shower curtain. Marion screams, but it’s too late for her, as she is stabbed repeatedly until she is dead. A comotion is heard coming from the Bates house up on the hill, seeming to confirm Norman’s mother as the killer. Norman rushes down to Room #1, and discovers the murder scene. Quickly and meticulously… as though he’s had to do this sort of thing before… Norman tidies up the room, removes Marion’s body, places her and her belongings (including the $40,000) into the trunk of her car and sinks it in the nearby swamp.

After some time has passed, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) goes looking for her missing sister, first speaking with Sam. The two of them are met by Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who is investigating the matter of the missing money. He traces Marion’s movements to the Bates Motel, where he is able to confirm her having checked in there, comparing the assumed name she used in the guest book against a known sample of her handwriting. Speaking with Norman, Arbogast hears that Marion may have had contact with Mrs. Bates and expresses a desire to question her himself. Norman balks at the idea.

Arbogast calls Lila and Sam and tells them of his intention to go talk to Mrs. Bates anyway. Big mistake. Arbogast enters the house and walks up the stairs. Just as he reaches the top, Mrs. Bates stabs him. As he falls all the down the stairs to the floor, Mrs. Bates finishes him off. When Arbogast fails to return or even call back, a determined Lila decides that she and Sam should go to the Bates Motel and look around for themselves. Posing as a married couple, Sam distracts Norman with conversation while Lila goes up to the house. Norman figures out something is up, knocking Sam unconscious and following Lila up the hill. Lila sees him, and moves to hide down in the fruit cellar. There she finds Mrs. Bates, just where Norman has hidden her. To Lila’s horror, Mrs. Bates is a mummified corpse. The “Mrs. Bates” who killed Marion and Arbogast is none other than Norman himself, who moves to attack Lila in similar fashion, before being stopped by Sam. It turns out that Norman had killed his mother and her lover ten years earlier, then preserved her corpse and kept it around as a way to deal with the guilt of what he’d done, all resulting a split personality disorder that sees Norman act and talk as his mother at times.

One of the things I love most about “Psycho” is the fact that the title can be interpreted as referring to more than just Norman Bates. While on the run from her boss and the law, we can hear Marion Crane’s thoughts as though she is nervously speaking to herself while driving down the road. Janet Leigh does a terrific job of displaying Marion’s frayed emotional state during these scenes. Anthony Perkins himself is just fantastic as Norman Bates. An iconic character for the ages.

Another character which is crucial to “Psycho” is the classic score by Bernard Hermann. In particular, the shower scene (originally intended to play without music) would not be what it is without Bernard Hermann. Often imitated yet never duplicated, Hermann’s work has inspired almost as many as Hitchcock’s has. If you sit down to watch the original “Friday the 13th” and find the music by Harry Manfredini a tad familiar, it’s no secret that it was based on Hermann’s “Psycho” soundtrack.

I guarantee that “Psycho” will qualify as my highest recommendation of the entire month. Even as I disagree with the attitude, I get why some might give “Psycho” a pass on the basis of it being ‘too old.’ But if you’re a film historian or otherwise want to beef up your credibility as a horror fan, you cannot make this mistake. You’d be missing out, and this incredibly-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable tale of murder and madness is simply too extraordinary for you to pass up.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Well written review! You’ve assigned to the movie the exalted status that it richly deserves.

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