AFInity: Psycho

By Kim Hollis

October 29, 2009

I've got a good feeling about this place.

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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.

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