Saturday, October 27, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 26: Psycho

When I was a child I thought as a child, I acted as a child, I spoke as a child, as the biblical quote tells us. This I think is probably true of most people who go through a childhood, with the exception of those weird kids who seem to be born with the mentality of a forty-year old. You may have noticed that I left out the second part of the verse, the bit about putting away childish things, as quite frankly I think the subject of some people’s ability to grow up is a debate best left for another day (and I’m not keen on drawing too much attention to myself on that one). Looking back at when I was a nipper I often think about extremes of emotion; times when I was particularly happy or particularly sad, or especially in the case of writing about horror as I sometimes do, times when I was afraid.

There were few films or TV programs that I remember frightening me significantly when I was much younger but that doesn’t mean that there were none at all. One particular episode of one particular TV program sticks in my head as giving me a fright when I was a little tot, and that was a disturbing episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This show, presented by the famously odd, rotund director of hit movies like The Birds, North by Northwest, and of course Psycho, featured a new story each week that had a nasty twist at the end. Today, nearly thirty years later, I have a vivid memory of the closing scenes of this one particular episode and how it freaked me out. I didn’t scream or cry or anything gay like that, but I did run out to the kitchen to my mother for a little reassurance, and I think maybe a biscuit.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents was developed based on Hitchcock’s reputation as a successful director of unusual and macabre films. A few years ago I got an opportunity to watch Rear Window and found that I really enjoyed it and, for the first time since that fateful episode of his TV show, I was able to appreciate the true mastery of his art that Hitchcock possessed. However, despite my newfound enjoyment of a Hitchcock film, and despite the numerous Oscars won and nominated for, and despite his cool, creepy voice and mannerisms, and despite the cinematic and cultural boundaries he redefined, to me Alfred Hitchcock always has been, and always will be, nothing only a fat fuck!*

 Alfred Hitchcock: Oscar Winning Director and Corpulent Son of a Bitch

Modern audiences may think they know controversy in the picture house, but there’s very little out today that divided cinema-goers the way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) did. Starting off on a lazy December Friday afternoon in Arizona, we meet Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who’s just enjoyed a lunchtime rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Loomis is a bit down on his luck as he’s going through the financial struggles that come with being on the losing side of a divorce settlement. Marion isn’t completely happy with their sordid arrangement and craves the respectability associated with being a married woman (times being radically different in 1960).

Returning to work at a local estate agent, Marion is forced to endure the double-whammy of her annoying fellow secretary who bangs on about how great it is to be married, as well as the unwanted advances of a cowboy-hat-wearing provincial who’s just bought a house off her boss. After boasting about how he’s rich enough to buy happiness he hands over forty grand in cash to cover the price of the house he’s buying for his daughter. Marion’s boss doesn’t like keeping cash in the office so she’s despatched to the bank to lodge the loot before skipping off home early as she’s been complaining of a headache.

Marion decides to avoid the bank and instead pocket the dough in order to kick-start a new life with Sam. Fleeing town in her car she makes haste for California stopping along the way to pick up a new set of wheels as she’s inadvertently managed to attract the attention of an overly diligent policeman. As she heads west the weather takes a turn for the worse so Marion stops for the night in an out of the way motel off the road off the main road (so, in the middle of nowhere), where she is the only guest that night.

The motel is run by an introverted but charming young man called Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives nearby in a large house with his invalid mother, who despite being confined to her room is still able to exert a terrifying amount of control over Norman’s life. Over a dinner of sandwiches Norman tells Marion of how the death of his father followed by the death of the man who would have been his step-father years later affected his mother and how he’s trapped by circumstances and duty. This story touches Marion and she decides to go home with the money and try to make good. However, before she can do that, she is brutally murdered in what’s probably the most famous death scene in movie history.

A week after the murder, Marion’s sister Lila turns up at Sam’s place looking for her and for the missing money. At this point, as well as everyone back home being worried sick,  the police haven’t been brought into things so it’s still possible that Marion could escape a charge of theft if she just returns the cash.  Lila has been followed to Sam’s place by a private detective who’s also looking for Marion, but is really looking for the money. The private dick puts in some serious leg work, visiting all the nearby hotels and motels, until he finally ends up at the Bate’s place...

Norman Bates is imagining you naked

is a whole film, it is more than just one scene but you'd never think it whenever you talk to someone about the film or see any references to it on TV. It might be because that scene is such a powerful piece of cinema, or it might be because the rest of the film is actually quite strange, or (and I think this is most likely) it might be because most people have never fucking seen Psycho.

The chances that most people haven't seen Psycho is a shame because it's good; really, really good. The story that's told is one the surface a simple morality tale about how if you go about stealing money it will eventually lead to your brutal murder in an out of the way motel, but the slow burner way in which it unfolds and they way the tension is built up is pure genius. Making young Norman Bates as unassuming and charming as Perkins played him was the master stroke of the whole thing as he simply embodies the notion of the serial killer being just like everyone else.

The acting in general is great, particularly Anthony Perkins as Norman, though there are one or two shaky moments, ironically when he’s trying to act nervous and shaky. If he only had to play quiet he’d have been perfect all the way through the film. Janet Leigh gets all the glory but it was Anthony Perkins who really carried the film along with John Gavin as Loomis.

Hitchcock really stirred things up in 1960 with Psycho, adding in levels of sex and violence that are tame by today's standards but unseen in a film of this standard in America at that time. In so doing, he managed to set in motion events that lead to massive increases in tolerance for certain subjects in art forms, like films, while simultaneously reducing the levels of censorship Hollywood had put up with until then. The really clever part was making Psycho such a good film.

Two Thumbs Firmly Up for Psycho. 

*I know people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I’ll be the first to admit that, but that sack of shit scared the piss out of me with that goddamn TV program of his and I’m not quick to forgive the prick over it.

Psychotic Links for the discerning Motel visitor:

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