All my life I’ve heard people name Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as the scariest movie they’ve ever seen. I heard the music from Janet Leigh’s murder scene played as a spoof on TV and saw clips of Leigh screaming bloody murder in the shower. I understood that this movie was an icon of horror, but couldn’t get why people thought it was so darn terrifying. I mean, it was made in 1960! They didn’t have the effects to show the kind of gore we get in films, today. And it isn’t about terrifying shadow creatures like Nosferatu- that’s so horrific, hair-raising mayhem like nothing else, in my mind. Well, anyway- I finally saw the movie. It all came clear. “Psycho” is perfectly terrifying. Here’s why…
Sometimes Hitchcock’s characters are so bad at playing their own deception that it’s distracting. We might start thinking about how idiotic it is to take out those huge binoculars or to tell a police officer that you “really need to be going, now” when they’re obviously checking you out for a crime- fair enough. We’re used to smooth realism and clever leads. The CSI viewer generation. However, the rough-edged behaviors of the characters work within a very supple plot in every case. In “Psycho”, it’s the things we find questionable that make the various bloody and terror inducing outcomes so very gut-wrenching.
For example, Marion Crane steals $40,000. Ok, the plot thickens. Next, she is found sleeping in her car on the side of the road by a cop. Fine…but then she starts making herself look very suspicious for no reason. She knows she’s being watched by the officer when she trades in her car in town. Of course this means the officer knows what she’s driving, now. Further, he sees her paperwork and finds that she paid a large sum for the car in cash. Absurd! How could anyone so careless make it through a thriller? It’s almost a relief when she doesn’t make it, because her character seems like a pretty weak link to any heroic outcome. Sad but unavoidable in terms of any useful reasoning: she’s a murder victim.
So, hint: a problem / hint: a mistake / hint: senseless behavior / consequence: plot twist in which we lose the protagonist. The only thing that makes this ok is that we had the hints that she wasn’t a very good leader… that’s the thrill of Hitchcock. The plot-work is chillingly reasonable for something so entertaining.
After a wholly usual opening with sweeping views of a cityscape and slow-moving mid-shot to close-ups (featuring the most important focus of the thriller at any point), we have this extraordinary shower scene, in which poor Marion Crane gets stabbed to death. We don’t see the murderer’s face, but it’s VERY clear who it’s supposed to be. There’s no hint -aside from the general creepiness of the isolated Bates Motel- that the Mrs. Bates isn’t the killer…I mean, we see her hair-do and everything. More on that twist in point 3. The knife, the belly, the knife, the face, knife, torso, knife, hands, knife face: fast fast fast. I don’t think many things moved faster in 1960 than the series of cuts pieced together for that scene. This might have been particularly scream inducing because people were not used to seeing the rapid motion of thar kind of violence- the pace of the editing made a huge difference, then, and now it has an effect because the rest of the film is so much slower.
3. What We Thought We Saw
We think we are seeing Mrs. Bates -whom we’ve previously only heard- because we see a grayish bun on the killer with the knife.
Of course we had no idea what the woman looked like, but we “knew” that she was there and we also saw the son, Mr. Bates, looking through a peephole into the same cabin. There could be no confusion between them. It wouldn’t make sense. Unless we know that Mrs. Bates has been dead for years. Of course, we saw the woman! So, he must’ve just been hiding her. Well, that’s very hopeful thinking, but it doesn’t make sense.
All of this hoping that Mrs. Bates is alive, and for what? Perhaps it’s so that we don’t have to suspect the lonely Mr. Bates of the gruesome killing of a woman he seemed to like. Or maybe it’s simply because we don’t want to confront the fact that our suspicions came from a wig! We thought we saw Mrs. Bates, but we really just went along with what Hitchcock wanted us to see. Ugh! But it was satisfying to be wrong, anyway.