For the longest time I found myself dismissing Psycho because all you ever heard from the mainstream critics was how amazing it was, how it was the greatest scary movie ever made, and that nothing out there today could compare. Now, being a fan of mainstream horror of the past 35 years, and a general contrarian who really didn't want to listen to anything critics had to say, this attitude made me reject the merits of Psycho on general principle. Still, having watched it a long time ago and remembered liking it, I wound up giving it another shot. And you know what? I loved it. Not enough to have it top any of my lists, because that’s a pretty tough list to crack, but enough to admit that dismissing it outright was incredibly stupid.
On its own, Psycho is a very simple story. Woman steals money. Woman runs away with money. Woman hides out in cheap motel. Woman is murdered at cheap motel. Woman’s family tries to figure out just what the hell happened to her. Aside from a few cosmetic details, the story and script are timeless, and translates as well today as it did in 1960.
Three things make this film truly special: the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, and, lacking a better word, the film’s guts. Alfred Hitchcock has always been a master of suspense, directing the eye and messing with our expectations until we are on the edge of our seats, just waiting to fall off. Never has that been done better than in Psycho, where he just stretches out unbearable situations as long as humanly possible, telegraphing that something terrible is about to happen but not giving us a release until he’s damn ready. On the flipside of this, we have the understated performance of Anthony Perkins as the owner of the Bates Motel, Norman Bates. He plays the part with a boyish innocence that hides a very distinct, manipulative malevolence. You feel sorry for him, taking this constant abuse from the hands of his “mother”, and yet he always carries a certain mischievousness that makes you wonder throughout if he’s truly as innocent as he seems.
And finally… the guts. Psycho is one of the earliest modern films to rely on a twist ending, and though I’m not cruel enough to reveal it here (to the dozen or so out there who don’t already know it), the fact that it relied so heavily on ideas of sexual identity, incest and even necrophilia, in 19-frickin-60… it’s really amazing this film ever got made, let alone became the classic it has.
(ADDITIONAL NOTES: Psycho has had a really long, weird legacy for a film that works brilliantly as a standalone. It has spawned three sequels, a terrible remake that is best ignored, and a modern TV show, Bates Motel. Though it's obviously impossible to capture the magic of the classic, I will say that Psycho 2 is a surprisingly awesome psychological thriller, featuring Norman Bates having been released from prison after 20 years, with Anthony Perkins in as fine a form as ever in the role. Bates Motel is not a particularly good TV show, but there's something so campy and cheesy about it that Fi and I just can't stop watching.)
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-- Matt Carter
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