author: annie trussler | op-ed editor
Re-visiting Hitchcock’s thrilling classic film
For what it’s worth, I would hardly consider myself a film buff by any stretch of the imagination. I am, at best, mildly cultured because my mom forced me to be. I did try to expand my cinematic horizons by taking Film 100, but I never really pursued the academic path – I remember a few choice movies from my two attempts at this class (one at Carleton, one at U of R – credits didn’t transfer), chief amongst them being classics such as Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, but most memorably, Hitchcock’s Psycho.
It has only really been in the last few years that I have fallen in love with the horror genre, generally. I spend most of my weekends cruising the unlit corners of Netflix’s horror section, and I am sorry to admit I’ve run out of any worthwhile titles to get my scare on. It is because of this boredom that I found my mind wandering listlessly back to Alfred’s 1960 classic. So, as one does, I decided to host my own private re-watch.
Now, the keener student in me immediately thought to dig out all of my class notes on the film – what is continuously evident in Hitchcock’s work is the running motif of watching, being watched, or simply voyeurism. Our opening scene of Marion Crane and her lover through a curtained window greets us. This imagery is, of course, signature and universally recognizable as Hitchcock warning us about a peeping creeper later in the plot.
I promise not to go all low quality film geek on you, I just figured that point itself was essential the rest of the film – this motif is seen throughout other Hitchcock classics, particularly in movies like Rear Window. Sorry. I promised.
Apart from the stunning shots, the first thing a first time viewer would notice is the enchanting, but classically haunting, musical score. The film’s appreciation for all sorts of stringed instruments is often more chilling than the portrayal of poorly acted gore itself. I can’t blame the unconvincing stabbing on the actors, but instead on the time period and the lack of theatrical makeup at one’s disposal at the time. Despite how incredibly tacky the legendary shower scene truly is, we forgive the obvious lack of stab wounds and physical trauma because it just so goddamn legendary.
That’s the trick with old movies, isn’t it? Objectively, the most climactic moments of this film are badly acted, awkwardly shot, and unconvincingly executed, and yet, we can all recognize Marion’s screaming face in the shower in the decades to follow. This is because iconic moments in cinema do not necessarily need to be good by any means; they simply must be iconic alone.
What, then, makes Psycho so legendarily progressive and memorable? The psychological horror was relatively new to the genre by the time Hitchcock took this project on. Any and all horror bad guys by that point were either monsters or groaning corpses, so the prospect of a slender, wiry, dark eyed strangers at a motel’s front desk was a departure from tradition. The very premise of the monster in the closet being an introverted mama’s boy is simultaneously profoundly disturbing and entirely unexpected.
Now, we are used to the creepy, twenty-something being the perpetrator in almost every crime known to man. However, back in the day when people had not learned to blame men for things, Norman Bates was revolutionary.
Spoilers: For the time the film was produced, Norman’s mental illness was handled relatively well, emphasis on relatively. While it is true that Bates’ dissociative disorder was the source of his “villainy,” and the title itself is extremely ablest, it is this brand new approach to mental illness that made the film so compelling to begin with. Terms such as “psycho” and “madhouse” are so horrifically out-dated these days, that I shudder to think that they were ever in use. Mental illness, back in the good old days, was defined by practically anything doctors could throw at a wall and have stick.
Norman is severely mentally ill. For those of us who have seen the film, and the lucky few of us who saw the Netflix original as well, we know this fact well. Following the death of his manipulative, abusive mother, Norman’s psyche is effectively split so that he can host the consciousness of his late relative. Norma Bates is a violent, vengeful, possessive woman that has been shown to care not for human safety, emotions, or wellbeing.
Norma Bates is a bad person. Norma Bates is, irrefutably, one of the worst human beings to ever grace the silver screen. But, damn, what a well-written character (Bates Motel definitely gave her some breathing room… considering she’s dead most of the movie). I don’t think Alfred Hitchcock set out to make an incredibly socially conscious piece of cinema, but I think he accomplished a few things he didn’t mean to.
I think he reinvented the horror genre. I think the notion of tension, suspense, and stringed instruments were not remotely as appreciated until Hitchcock took a shot at it.
I think he revitalized the horror antagonist. Norma and Norman Bates are unlike any villains Hollywood had ever seen or likely will ever see.
I think bringing mental illness into public gaze was, while extremely detrimental in a number of ways, at least a means of getting the conversation going when no conversation existed.
My friends came over before I could finish the movie again, and I insisted they all shut up so I could enjoy Norma’s legendary solo debut at the end of the film. Anthony Perkins, in absolute silence, guided through a grotesque journey through the mind of a serial killer. A fly lands on “her” hand, and she is unflinching, unyielding, unmoving. For a final shot, Hitchcock’s steady camera work and slow zoom presents us a masterpiece: a glimpse into the parasitic relationship between an abusive mother and her impressionable son.
Psycho reminds me why I should binge horror instead of starting that paper.