I haven’t seen a horror movie in the last ten years that I was surprised by the ending. Modern horror is filled with gore and special effects, but not surprise. Imagine my shock when I rented “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s 1960 baby, and was caught by complete surprise by not just its ending, but its production value and impact despite its black and white presentation. To compare “Psycho” to modern horror attempts such as “Hostel” or “The Conjuring” is impossible. This is simply an amazing film with a lasting impact that hasn’t been seen in the horror genre for a very long time.
That “Psycho” brings us into its bizarre world from the perspective of a villain in her own right, a real estate secretary turned crook Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is a testament to its effect. On the run from her boss and the customer that gave her $40,000 to deposit in the bank, Crane switches cars for a mere $700 (certainly dating the movie in the process), and tries to leave her home town of Phoenix in the dust as fast as she can. But she’s not a pro. Falling asleep at the wheel, a police officer wakes her up on the side of the road, leading her to seek refuge in ‘Bates Motel,’ a seemingly-desolate hovel of a place where she is welcomed with open arms by the inn’s proprietor, Norman Bates, played with deft and skill by Anthony Perkins.
The greatest asset of this film is that it is not in a rush to get to where it’s going. Honestly, that’s what I liked about “Hostel,” despite its gore. It takes a good 35 minutes for the first kill to occur. Compare that to films like “The Collection,” where 50 people are killed in the first ten minutes, and you have a stark difference. Crane arrives at the motel, meets a thoroughly odd Norman, but nothing much of consequence happens despite some dialogue. But the devil is the dialogue here. Every interaction between the two, whether it be talk of checking in to the hotel, or a casual conversation over dinner, “Psycho” lets you know something unhealthy is seething underneath the surface.
“Psycho” makes its point with its camera, and it’s dialogue. Watch as Bates and Crane talk over pointed conversation in his parlor that oozes subtext and foreshadowing. Bates stuffs birds for a hobby, and Hitchcock fixates on one bird, a raven, that is nothing less than an homage to Edgar Allen Poe and would clearly influence his 1963 “The Birds.” There’s horror in them, for unknown reason. Observe also the iconic lines present in their speech. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” espouses Bates, sandwiched between “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Bates is mad, no doubt about it. But it’s the suspense of what could happen, not what does, that drives this movie’s perfection.
A host of perfect characters bolster this movie from good to great. Crane’s surreptitious paramour (Sam Loomis), serves only to shade Crane’s role even more. We learn very little about him, and perhaps even less about her. The film adds additional characters, such as Crane’s sister (Vera Miles), and a nosy inspector (Martin Balsam), who discovers Bates’ motel and attempts to piece together the happenings around Crane’s disappearance.
The best acting in the film clearly belongs to Perkins, who plays Bates with the perfect degree of calmness, anxiety, and suspicion. Talking to Crane he appears calm but unnerved, while he reaches peaks of sheer panic as his lies begin to fall apart later in the film. However, other actors are equally splendid, such as Balsam who plays the detective, or Frank Albertson who plays the rich customer Tom Cassidy. Each plays their part perfectly, with seemingly no error.
The cinematography of the film is spectacular, and works alongside its actors to tell the story. A creaking doorway that spills light into a silent hallway, or a low shot as Bates bends down to look at his hotel ledger at the detective’s behest. Not to mention the macabre lone shining window of the Bates house that looms above the motel. We see the motel in daylight only briefly, at the film’s end. Hitchcock’s greatest achievement here is not to make it look horrific, but ordinary. The real horrors lay inside.
“Psycho” is an inspirational film. From its ominous score of shrill violins to its infamous shower scene, the film revolutionized the way we look at horror. It’s ending is perfect, unexpected, and far beyond its time. It’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in ten years, and it’s half a century old. In an era where horror films are looked at as throw-a-ways, it’s refreshing. Modern practitioners should take a step or two from the masters. “Psycho” doesn’t have many heroes, and its villains are ambivalent. But it makes for an encapsulating picture just the same.
– by Mark Ziobro