AFInity: Psycho
By Kim Hollis
October 29, 2009

I've got a good feeling about this place.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#14: Psycho

Here's an odd fact: until I watched it for the purposes of this column, I had never been able to watch Psycho the whole way through without falling asleep before the final fade to black. It's not that I didn't like the movie. I always found it be a suspenseful tale, with a couple of bravura performances. The direction and cinematography are groundbreaking and cutting edge, and their impact and influence continue to be felt today - almost a half century after theatrical release.

And yet, I've always felt there was something vaguely dissatisfying about the film. It's nothing I'd ever been able to put my finger on. I'm a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock in general. Two or three of his films are among my very favorites, in fact. But obviously, there's a reason I've never been able to stay awake long enough to watch the entire movie in one sitting. With Internet word-of-mouth becoming a real phenomenon and factor in movie expectations, I think I've finally started to come around to realizing the reasons that Psycho, for me, is the least of Hitchcock's work, even if it is his most famous film.

But before I get to the things I find troublesome, let's take a look at the many strong qualities that make Psycho a success. After all, many people call it the scariest movie ever, and the AFI has lauded it by including it on a number of their lists (100 Years...100 Movies - both the original and 10th anniversary edition, 100 Years... 100 Thrills - it's #1 on this list, 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains - Norman Bates is #2, 100 Years of Film Scores, and 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes). This very site includes it at #9 on a list of our Favorite Horror Movies that we did back in 2002.

So what's so scary and thrilling about Psycho? For starters, the atmosphere of the film puts the viewer on edge from almost the very beginning of the film. As we come to know Marion Crane, we don't like her, precisely. By robbing her employer of a significant amount of cash, she's established as a desperate soul willing to take extreme measures to get what she wants. When a cop car suddenly appears in her rearview mirror (and Bernard Herrmann's iconic score strikes up), the viewer can feel Marion's stress. The cop continues to stalk her up until she purchases a different car from a used lot and drives away. A shot of him standing across the street, watching her, keeps both the audience and the protagonist, if she can be called that, on edge. At this point, it almost seems as if the movie will be about their cat and mouse game - but it soon veers in a completely different direction.

Even with the swerve, that stressful feeling continues as Marion registers under an assumed name at the Bates Motel, a place so far off the beaten path that they rarely even have customers. While the motel itself looks like any 1960s roadside joint, it's the creepy house beside it that gives chills. This feeling is only heightened when Marion overhears Norman Bates being berated by his mother, and we realize that there's something just awfully, horribly creepy about their relationship.

Norman himself seems benign enough, though there are little things - a twitch of the jaw, a nervous habit of snacking on candy corn, and a hobby of taxidermy - that tell us something much darker lurks beneath that fa├žade. We're given just enough information to understand that Norman is "off" somehow, which makes us just a touch squeamish with regards to his character.

Along with that constant feeling of tension, Psycho is unique for its willingness to build up a protagonist only to have them killed. People seeing the movie for the first time in the 1960s had to have been utterly shocked when Marion - the character who has been the movie's focus from the opening minute - was stabbed to death in the shower, then callously removed and discarded in the trunk of her car. Then, as we see a private investigator named Arbogast start getting closer to a discovery of what happened to Marion, he's killed as well. These are very big twists in a movie that has one of the biggest twists of them all.

The performances in the film, particularly those of Janet Leigh as Marion and Anthony Perkins as Norman, do much to contribute to its quality. Leigh could easily be just a simple sex bomb, but she's a complex character, and it's easy to read her guilt and conflict on her face. I mentioned the little touches such as the jaw twitch that Perkins uses in playing Norman, but it's also critical that he imbue him with an "aw, shucks" mentality that makes him seem both naive and a bit simple. The thing about Norman is that he's not an evil human being. Not really. His mind has gone over to the bad place, triggered by any number of unfortunate events, but perhaps with different nurturing, he could have become a very different person.

Of course, it's all but impossible to talk about Psycho's high points without mentioning the shower scene, the music and the aforementioned "big twist". It's absolutely true that Marion's death in the shower of Room #1 at the Bates Motel is a classic piece of cinema that has been spoofed, referenced and recreated hundreds of times. If you mention "Psycho Shower Scene", there are very few people who wouldn't know exactly what you mean. It's brilliantly shot, with extreme close-ups and quick cuts between edits, giving the entire sequence an extremely violent, out-of-control feel. Combine that with Marion's terrified screams and the screeching music of the soundtrack, and you have something that set the standard for slasher films, but probably has never been matched for artistic merit.

It's not just the high-pitched screaming of the violins in the shower scene that set Herrmann's score for the film apart, though. The entire composition is a study in perfectly matching music to suit the scenes it accompanies. Relying solely on the string section of the orchestra, it's a singular bit of movie music and one of the most recognizable film scores ever created.

Finally, highest among the movie's lauded qualities is that well-known twist. It's impossible to imagine that there's a person alive who doesn't know what it is. After seeing Norman's mother, Mrs. Bates, in shadows for the entre course of the film, we have the revelation that she's dead. In fact, although it's believed that she committed suicide after killing her lover, we learn that Norman killed them both. Unable to let her go, he has dug up her corpse and kept it in the house. His own personality has split, and he speaks her opinion on her behalf. We have believed his mother to be a vicious killer, but in truth, Norman dresses in her clothing to carry out what he thinks are her wishes. Not only has he killed Marion and Arbogast, but also some other young "trollops" who have visited the hotel previously.

My inability to fully enjoy the film may have much to do with the fact that I've known this twist and always did, even before I saw the film for the first time. There's no shocking surprise, and even though I'm watching Norman for clues as to his mental state, I don't really feel like there's any specific seeds sown. Of course, that's because sometimes there's not a good explanation for insanity. It just is. While that does make the character of Norman Bates very disturbing, it also renders the story somewhat incomplete. We almost want to know more about what happened to him growing up. How did he become the monster he is?

Also, Psycho does feel rather sadly dated. It's not the fault of the film itself, really. It's more due to the fact that so many imitators were spawned and that it opened the door for much more violent fare in the years to come. Scariest movie ever? Not by a long shot. But Psycho certainly paved the way for the more frightening horror films that followed. It's the granddaddy of them all, and one of the primary reasons Hitchcock is remembered as a master of horror and suspense.

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