|by Amedeo Astorino
It's forty years since Norman Bates welcomed Janet Leigh to the Bates Motel, and an exhibition celebrating the works of Alfred Hitchcock is currently turning heads at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. We thought it was high time to step back into the shower and celebrate Psycho, perhaps the master director's greatest cinematic achievement.
Just when you thought it was safe to spend the night in a motel again, this year marks the fortieth birthday of everyone's favourite mama's boy, Norman Bates. Cinema has never been the same since his crazed "mother", brandishing a large butcher's knife, pulled open that shower curtain back in 1960.
Psycho was the first modern horror film. Director Alfred Hitchcock did away with the hackneyed Gothic trappings of vampires, mad scientists, and haunted castles, and introduced movie-goers to a new kind of monster: the serial killer. This wasn't some fanged fiend from Transylvania. He was an ordinary person, like you and me. In Psycho, Hitchcock explores the dark side of human nature and exposes the Jekyll and Hyde lurking in us all.
This chilling masterpiece was based on Robert Bloch's equally masterful novel. A giant of twentieth century horror fiction, Bloch was a man after Hitchcock's own heart. "The real horror is not in the shadows," Bloch explained, "...but in that little twisted world inside our own skulls."
In retrospect, the macabre goings-on in Psycho make the likes of Lon Chaney Jr., howling at the moon with fur glued to his face, seem all the more ludicrous. Bloch was inspired by real-life "psycho" Edward Gein, a mother-fixated handyman arrested in 1957 for murdering a dozen or so women. The details of the case were particularly gruesome. Gein dismembered many of his victims and often "dressed" in clothing made of human skin, hence Norman's penchant for hopping into mama's old frocks.
The pivotal change that screenwriter Joseph Stefano made in adapting Bloch's novel was to transform the balding, middle-aged Norman Bates into a shy, neurotic young man, superbly realised in the performance of Anthony Perkins. Hitchcock subverted the convention prevalent in horror films, which demanded that a homicidal maniac could only be depicted as a sweaty, repulsive, heavy-breathing, bug-eyed homunculus. In Psycho, audiences immediately responded to Perkins' looks and boyish charm and were convinced that he "wouldn't even hurt a fly".
With a budget of only eight hundred thousand dollars, Hitchcock was operating at the height of his creative powers when he made Psycho. Dubbed the "Master of Suspense" (and for good reason), he was also the Master Manipulator. No other filmmaker could dictate the emotional response of an audience with as much skill. He shocked everyone in 1960 when he unexpectedly killed off the central protagonist in Psycho less than a third of the way into the film! After all, Janet Leigh was a major Hollywood star at the time, and we all know that the star never dies. But suddenly, Leigh is dead, and what's worse, it's the way she dies...
The notorious shower scene is the most celebrated "murder" ever perpetrated on celluloid. Running for approximately 45 seconds, it took one week, and seventy camera set-ups, to shoot. Nowhere else in his enormous body of work is Hitchcock's technical virtuosity better demonstrated than in this single scene. It doesn't matter how many times you watch the film, the startling savagery of the murder, punctuated by Bernard Herrmann's shrieking violins, can still make you jump out of your seat.
Unfortunately, the violence in Psycho also provided the blueprint for the subsequent "stalk and slash" films of the seventies and eighties. This was a particularly nasty sub-genre in which a legion of homicidal maniacs wearing hockey masks slaughtered promiscuous teenagers at holiday camps.
Hitchcock possessed a deliciously black sense of humour, and regarded %Psycho% as a "fan picture". When an upset parent complained that his daughter refused to shower after viewing the film, Hitchcock suggested that he have her dry cleaned!
It's doubtful, however, that even the Master of Suspense would've been amused in recent years, when the moronic powers that be in Hollywood decided to remake his classic film. The end result was an abomination that should be thrown into the deepest pits of hell, along with the filmmakers responsible for allowing it to see the light of day.
Forty years on, the original Psycho is a watershed of modern cinema and remains the most terrifying film ever made. As far as I can tell, a boy's best friend is still his mother.
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originally posted: 02/08/00 20:24:16