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Tuesday 17 June 2014

Late Psycho

Psycho (Photo credit: -Alina-)
This is a review a wrote a while back and I thought it would be appropriate to share today, one day after the 54th anniversary of the premier of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho". Yes, I am late, but couldn't resist the opportunity. 

"Psycho" must go down as one of the most important films of all time. It is memorable for many reasons, of big cinematic importance and hugely influential. Firstly, it is the most successful film Alfred Hitchcock made. Hitchcock is often justifiably regarded to be the greatest director of all time as well as the "master of suspense". "Psycho" is not only a great example of Hitchcock's artistic ability at his peak, but also a perfect demonstration of the art of suspense. It was also a great demonstration of his working relationship with his wife, the great editor, Alma Hitchcock. The use of music and voyeurism in film was never bettered by "Psycho", and many movies from art-house to the slasher horror have this film to thank. "Jaws", which also went onto becoming a massively influential film, uses a lot of what Hitchcock established by using the killer's point of view and allowing a tremendously atmospheric yet incredibly simplistic score to move the whole movie along. It took several decades before movies like "From Dusk Til Dawn" and the works of George R.R. Martin would understand the power of being ruthless with lead characters as well as showing amazing restraint with genre material. "Psycho" broke all the rules and established something brave yet artistically brilliant.    

The Review: 

It's amazing to think that the simple-minded Wisconsin-based double murderer, Ed Gein, would be responsible for inspiring so much that frightens us. But then again the same could be said about the fairly average serial killer, Ted Bundy, and the repugnant nitwits, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, but something about them and their appalling crimes inspired journalists, the general public and finally the movie and literature world to turn them into demonic legends. Gein is actually the least remarkable out of the examples given, certainly in terms of officially accepted bodycount. He isn't even a serial killer and yet the circumstances and weirdness of his crimes have inspired three of the 20th century's greatest horror movies. The first of these was Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" based on Robert Bloch's book of the same name. Bloch admits to being inspired by the idea of a murderous killer living unknown within a small close-knit community, but says that the other similarities between Gein and Bates were surprising coincidences.

The novel is an excellent thriller, but not the subject of the review. Nevertheless, there is a device used by Hitchcock that would definitely meet with the approval of novelist, Stephen King. During several interviews King has stated that he considered one of the greatest challenges a good horror author faced was the ability to carefully stitch the reality of everyday life with the traumatic events that were particular to the genre. Psycho's genius is in the way it focuses almost half the film on its first victim. Few films would take such a risk, but Hitchcock does this with pure style and by dispatching this one character halfway through serves up the true nature of horror: to install the fear of chaos. You are suddenly taken from one type of film into another.

The film begins like a straightforward psychological thriller. A young girl, Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, steals money from her employer to marry her boyfriend. She takes to the road and embarks on the long journey from Phoenix, Arizona to her boyfriend's home in California. It's seems to be the stuff of typical Hitchcock as we invest heavily in this story of the pretty crook on the run, as she evades a suspicious traffic cop, changing cars to throw him off the sent and eventually ending up at a remote motel - Bates Motel. This is where the story that the film is remembered for will start in earnest, as Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, the owner of the hotel and a young man who is trapped in a relationship with a highly demanding mother. Without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen this classic, the whole watershed episode involving Bates and Crane is Hitchcock at his finest and not just because of the iconic shower scene at its climax. What impresses me more in retrospect is the way the great director leads the viewer further astray and yet, at the time, provides nothing that does not ring true with the rest of the film's revelations.

Psycho comes from an age where directors like Hitchcock and their studios could work well to hide plot twists from their audiences. It is arguable whether such control could be held over new films in an age where trailers and other official and non-official promotional material give away the entire picture's details before premiere night, but nevertheless Psycho's legacy lives on. A respectful sequel with no connection whatsoever to Robert Bloch's own novel sequel was made 22 years later, but it was all down hill from there on with the unfortunate part III, the awful prequel, part IV and the unforgivable remake. Nevertheless, I see Psycho in any film that successfully lulls you into forgetting it genre before giving you a sudden abrupt reminder. From Dusk till Dawn springs to mind!

Likewise, Psycho is yet another example of the superb collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann. The mood of the film is brilliantly carried and expressed through Hermann's fast-paced score and the simple high pitched strings that accompanied the shower scene validated the composer's artistic decision not to have the scene done in silence - Hitchcock's original idea. I5 years later and we would see Steven Spielberg trusting John Williams with a score that is at least half responsible for making Jaws the great suspense horror picture it is considered now. Like Jaws, Psycho has extended non-talking scenes outside of the dialogue heavy ones that rely on a juxtaposition of primal fear. Neither film relies on much horrific imagery or even bloody violence, so the mood means everything. Finally the film will always be remembered not for Janet Leigh's Golden Globe winning performance, but for Anthony Perkins' evocative, sympathetic, creepy, disturbing and, above all else, convincing career-defining role. Norman Bates, the mild-mannered Motel owner whose disturbing relationship with his mother had murderous consequences.

My Review of "Hitchcock" - a biopic that focuses on the making of "Psycho".  

"Psycho" in my best horror movies list

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