Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In honor of its release 50 years ago today, we submit for your reading pleasure Zane Younger's essay on Alfred Hitchcock's masterwork of horror, originally published in HORROR 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies, Vol. 1 (Midnight Marquee Press, Inc., 2007)
“We all go a little mad sometimes....”
On June 16, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the United States. It was an instant sensation, eventually generating $50,000,000 worldwide. Part of the film’s initial success can be attributed to its ingenious marketing scheme, which restricted people from entering the theater once the movie had started. On the surface, this policy merely seemed as though Hitchcock wanted people to see it from start to finish. But more importantly, the scheme was designed to protect the film’s renowned plot twists. Audiences were shocked by the envelope-pushing sexuality and violence, in particular the infamous “shower scene,” in which our leading character is shockingly bumped off less than halfway through the film. After the film’s release, Alfred Hitchcock received an angry letter from the father of a girl who refused to have a bath after seeing Les Diaboliques (1955), and now refused to shower after seeing his film. Hitchcock sent a note back simply saying, “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
It was the right film at the right time, and represented a huge shift in horror films. In fact most people consider it the biggest step towards what is now known as “modern” horror, paving the way for such unrelenting films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The open sexuality in the opening scene, the gruesome murders and the idea of a transsexual serial killer were things not usually seen in cinema before Psycho. One of the reasons Alfred Hitchcock filmed Psycho in black and white was he thought it would be too gory in color. However, “Hitch” was insistent on the elements of realism throughout the film. The lingerie worn by Marion Crane in the movie was not “made to order” but bought off the rack from clothing stores. Hitchcock wanted women viewers to identify the lingerie and thus add to the mystique of realism. And, at the insistence of screenwriter Joseph Stefano, it was also the first American film ever to show a toilet flushing on screen.
One would be remiss without mentioning one of Psycho’s most effective and enduring traits: the memorable and distinctive score by Bernard Herrmann, with its now-famous screeching violins. Having been copied and parodied in countless films that followed, it is easily the most recognizable tune from any horror movie.
Psycho’s influence is seen in many films, including Dressed to Kill (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and the slasher movement spawned by Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). Eventually, in the blood-soaked environment that it had helped to create 23 years earlier, the time seemed right for a sequel. In 1983, Psycho II was released, with Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles returning in their original roles. The film, directed by Richard Franklin and scripted by Tom Holland, was received relatively well with audiences and critics, resulting in a medium-sized hit. Three years after that, with franchise horror in full swing, it seemed fitting to have a trilogy, so Psycho III (1986) was released, with Perkins in the director’s chair as well as reprising his most familiar role. However, the third time was not the charm; the movie was a critical flop and died at the box office. Two made-for-TV sequels followed, but the biggest indignity was to come in 1998 when director Gus Van Sant infamously remade Psycho shot-for-shot with Vince Vaughn standing in Norman’s (and Mother’s) shoes.
Happily, the original’s reputation remains untarnished. When I first picked up the movie from the video store, I already knew the surprise ending and the shower scene from the usual “Top Scariest Movie Moments” TV specials around Halloween time. However, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie overall and the detective/staircase sequence scared the hell out of me! I’ve watched it a few times since, and although it fails to generate the same scare factor on repeat viewings, it’s hard not to marvel at the technical brilliance of the shower scene and Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful directing. This movie, Rear Window (1954) and The Birds (1962) are among the numerous showcases for Sir Alfred’s talents.
The film became an instant classic, and remains one of my all-time favorite movies. With the success of Psycho, Hitchcock’s name became (and still remains) forever linked with the concepts of fear, suspense and murder—despite the fact that his horror output is actually rather limited, his last real genre offering being Frenzy (1972). But that’s what happens when you create a seminal film, getting everything just right. By way of proof, just think of how many verbal touchstones the film has created: “Bates Motel.” “Norman Bates.” “Psycho.” “Shower scene.” Or just imitating Herrmann’s distinctive “Eeee-eeee-eeee-eeee!” musical stings…
With Psycho, Hitch definitely got it right.