Before we were introduced to the lives of the Crane sisters, Sam Loomis and Norman Bates, Horror typically meant something else. Even going back into literature, the Horror standard involved manipulations of science or full-blown ghost stories. What Psycho did was strip away any of the myth-like realities that could or could not have been possible and brought it to the front door of the world, with very shocking results. The scenario that things are not always as they seem, and that the soft-spoken next door neighbor could have some serious skeletons in their closet – or their basement – was incredibly uncommon. This is not to say that the concept of a seemingly trustworthy person being a genuine monster was untouched before Robert Bloch’s novel, which legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, took the inspiration from, but it was rare and definitely not the popular subject matter. Of course, I’m a fan of a good monster/ghost story as well, yet themes that touch on the true Horrors of humanity register a different vibration in my mind, and I view them with a completely different set of eyes.
The darkened reality of Psycho is one that I have always respected for what it is and where it comes from. Also, Norman Bates was one of the first characters in Horror to truly terrify me. It has even been said that the Bates character was so intense, that Anthony Perkins – the actor that made Bates so legendary – never completely shook him. I still find his performance absolutely haunting. On the point of never shaking this film: Psycho is largely responsible for Hitchcock, to this day, being incorrectly labeled as a Horror director. Other than The Birds, Psycho is the only other genuine Horror film Hitchcock made. His legacy is being known as the Master of Suspense, typically focusing on Murder-Mysteries with romance often playing a large role, as well. Practically overnight, with one trip to the Bates Motel, his history was changed forever!
The humans that are represented in this story all have one thing in common: pressure on their minds due to the stresses of life, and with Psycho we see the different results those pressures can have. The film begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin) in a hotel room, having a talk after a sweaty afternoon of love. Loomis is trapped in the legalese of a divorce settlement and Crane is equally as trapped by it, since she loves Loomis so much. They leave separately and we follow Crane returning to her job, where she is uncomfortably flirted with by an intoxicated client who arrogantly waves his financial freedom in her face. She is told to take his money to the bank and in a moment of weakened insanity, she decides to split town with the money, thinking that she can buy freedom for her and Loomis, starting over, far away from their unhappiness. Since you can’t drive away from your thoughts, the guilt soaks into her almost immediately and she becomes increasingly paranoid as she struggles with her imagination, while driving away from Phoenix. The night after the heist, she is navigating through a rough rain storm and decides to find a place to ride out the night, which brings her to the Bates Motel and into the life of its owner, Norman Bates. He seems polite enough, though rather shy and a little odd. When he shows her a room, everything is normal until an unusual moment where he can’t freely tell her about the bathroom, but this is brushed off as nothing too strange. Bates invites her to have dinner with him after she exclaims that she is hungry, which she reluctantly accepts, out of politeness. As the rain drifts away, she hears a loud, negative argument coming from the house that sits on a hill overlooking the motel, between Bates and his mother, which makes her feel bad that she has caused a rift between the family.
Bates insists that everything is okay and dismisses his mother’s anger by telling Marion she isn’t well. Crane tries to calm the situation while talking with Bates and suggests that perhaps his mother would be better off “someplace else”. This disturbs Bates and he goes into dialogue that makes Crane very uncomfortable, while also getting her thinking about her own reality. During a moment of connection, Crane drops her guard and accidentally exposes the lie she had initially told Bates when she arrived, which was a false name and residence. She doesn’t realize that she had done this, but Bates does. They go their separate ways and Crane retires to her room while Bates returns to his home, where we see him sit alone with his troubled thoughts at the kitchen table. Crane sits in her room and having determined she was going to return to Phoenix to make things right, she calculates how much of the stolen money she has spent so she knows what she has to return, after which, she decides to have a relaxing and cleansing shower. As she begins to feel better and tries to wash the larceny away, we see through the shower curtain as the bathroom door silently opens and a silhouette floats into the room. It gets to the curtain without being noticed by Crane and suddenly it is torn back and we are shown the figure of a woman holding a large kitchen knife. Before Crane can react with anything more than a scream, the knife comes down and begins stabbing her repeatedly. As she dies, the figure leaves quickly and we are left with the sound of running water and a long shot of Crane’s dead eyes. The camera takes us to the Bates house where, from the exterior, we hear Norman reacting to his mother’s presence, covered in blood.
He runs to the room, discovers Crane’s body and after a few moments of terror and shock, he quickly grows cold and calculative, then gathers her body and belongings, puts them in the trunk of her car and takes it all to a nearby swamp, where he lets it all be swallowed by the blackened water. We are then brought back to the life of Sam Loomis, who is unaware of what has happened to his lover. He is confronted by Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), who initially believes he was in on the theft and after Loomis convinces her to the contrary they begin to wonder what has happened to Marion. Moments after, we meet P.I. Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who is also hunting Marion for the return of the money and the three of them discuss the situation. The mystery leads to the doorstep of the Bates’ and as the story moves forward, we learn there is more to this reality than meets the eye.
In the chance you haven’t seen this film I won’t spoil anymore of it for you. Since there is always someone new to Horror, I trust that Psycho will be on the list of pieces to check out. It certainly should be!
I understand that today’s Horror audience is so desensitized that something like Psycho probably doesn’t carry the weight that it should. To my mind, however, forgetting about that potential reality is impossible. What sets Psycho apart from so many films that may be as grim in their subject matter is that cinema is an art form, and Hitchcock was absolutely an artist whose vision is a legendary entry to the world of Horror-theater. This story is very dark and incredibly sad. As a piece of cinematic art, you will have a hard time finding something that was constructed as perfectly as Psycho.
The acting is amazing, the cinematography by John Russell is breathtaking, the editing of George Tomasini is a character in itself and the all-string score by one of the masters, Bernard Herrmann, is known by pretty much all of us – whether having seen the film or not. Hitchcock definitely understood how to assemble this film in a manner that would draw the viewer in and keep you prisoner, even after its completion. Its impact is still felt to this day and so many films owe their glory to the original inspirations this would have brought to the table.
If you have yet to see it, dim the lights, turn off your damn phone and just let the story flow.
I assure you that you’ll never look at a roadside Motel the same way.
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