Friday, November 4, 2011

My Review of Psycho

Psycho (1960)

I absolutely love this movie, and what better way to pay homage to horror than to review a movie that I love which could very well be called the birth of modern horror? I think a more appropriate genre title for Psycho would be a psychological thriller, but there are some definite horror elements in it. Psycho was also an extremely influential film in that it introduced several new elements to film that would be copied dozens of times, such as the twist ending (every film that has a twist ending nowadays owes it to this film) and several other revolutionary technical aspects of filmmaking that would be expected from a filmmaking great like Alfred Hitchcock (who I definitely need to explore more). Psycho is most remembered for its shower scene but it has so much more than that. It is well-acted, well-made, well-filmed, and a generally awesome movie that I love more the second time around. Fair warning, the big twist is going to be revealed but I'm fairly certain you all know what it is, so I'm only posting this just to be sure.

After the credits, we see Marion (Janet Leigh) with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). Sam and Marion want to get married but cannot afford it, as Sam's money is tied up in paying off his father's debts and paying alimony to his ex-wife. Marion then goes to her secretarial job and is given $40,000 to bank for her boss. Thinking on Sam's remarks, she does not bank this money and instead skips town with it in tow. What then follows is the first extremely suspenseful moment in the movie and one of the best scenes ever put on film. Marion falls asleep in her car and she is awoken by a cop, who proceeds to chase her until she trades out her car for a new one. After she loses her tail, Marion continues to drive but is stopped by the rain, and pulls into the Bates Motel.

The Bates Motel is an isolated place, and it's rarely visited by guests. It is also towered over by a large mansion-like house. Marion meets the motel's quiet owner and caretaker, a nice young man by the name of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman invites her for dinner in the parlor and it is here where we see the first sign that there is something wrong with Norman. He tells Marion about his mother, who he seems to have an abnormal attachment to, and when she suggests he put her "someplace" (meaning an institution) he, albeit calmly, loses his temper. These sudden mood swings are a part of what makes Norman such a great character, but I'll talk about that later, we have more plot to discuss. Norman also has a thing for stuffing birds, and we see him arguing with his mother about bringing Marion to the house, but for now, he seems like a sweet, albeit eccentric fellow who has mommy issues. That will change.

What follows is the movie's most famous scene, the shower scene, which I consider to be in two parts. Pretty much everyone knows what goes down in the first part, Marion is murdered in the shower by "mother", but in the second part, Norman (acting as the dutiful son) cleans up the mess. The first part is brilliantly staged as so many people have said before, but I find the aftermath more powerful. Not a word of dialogue is spoken, but we see what is going through Norman's mind as he cleans up his mother's mess. We see him performing the role of the dutiful son and see him genuinely terrified by what had been done. It really speaks to the quality of Anthony Perkins' performance and how he can convey so much with just his facial expressions. I suppose I should talk about the shower scene though. I understand Hitchcock's approach to the scene, as there is a certain sense of paranoia involved in setting the scene in a shower. When one is in the shower, it automatically suggests vulnerability. You are alone, naked, and sealed off only by a curtain. I never found it scary, but I understand how it traumatized so many people (including Janet Leigh, who never took another shower for the rest of her life). Needless to say, the scene is iconic, but the second half of it should be recognized as classic as well and a tribute to the wonderful performance of Anthony Perkins.

The second half of the film takes a completely different turn, as it is mostly about Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam investigating Marion's disappearance. They do this with the help of private investigator Aborghast, who goes to the Bates motel and talks to Norman, who it appears is on to him. Aborghast leaves the motel, but feels dissatisfied, so he comes back to talk to Norman's mother. He is never seen again, and Lila and Sam go to the motel to investigate. Lila goes to talk to Mrs Bates and finds her in the fruit cellar. However....Lila instead finds a corpse with no eyes in a dress and a cheap wig. Her scream alerts Bates, who then shows up in the same dress and cheap wig, and is wrestled to the ground by Sam.

There is an expository speech at the end, given by the psychologist, which explains exactly what is wrong with Norman. He explains that Norman had murdered his mother and her lover out of a sense of jealousy, and overtaken by guilt, he allowed "mother" to take over part of his brain and convinced himself that she was alive by dressing and acting like her. Why he killed Marion and two other women was because "mother" came out whenever Norman was attracted to a woman, and her jealousy ended up getting them killed. The last major scene I would like to discuss is the last we see of Norman, sitting in the jail cell, "mother" having completely taken over his personality. The ending of that scene is extremely disturbing, as there is an image of Norman's face superimposed on his mother's skull. I don't mind the slasher smile, but the skull just pushed the scare over the top.

The first performance I would like to talk about is Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the role that he would be known for until the tragic end of his life. His Bates is amazingly complex, and his character always keeps the audience guessing. We never know whether Bates is an innocent pawn or an evil plotter, a poor soul under the thumb of his wicked mother or a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. My best guess is a combination of several of these things. I have a feeling that if Norman Bates had a different mother, he would live to be a normal guy and lead a normal life. However, he lived basically his entire life (at least after his father's death) under the thumb of his abusive mother, and thus, he went crazy. That's what makes Norman have some semblance of sympathy and what makes me feel kind of sorry for him. It's also what makes the final scene kind of sad as well as scary. Perkins gets so much done with the performance not only with his words, but with his face and his body language. Every nervous tic and every stuttered word is played pitch-perfect and this is, in my opinion, the grand Oscar snub.

Janet Leigh, however, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and while it certainly wasn't awful, it was nowhere near as good as Perkins. She properly conveys all of the emotions necessary of a woman on the run, nothing more, nothing less. I find it funny that Janet Leigh was something of a 'scream queen' in this movie, and she gave birth to an even more famous scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis (who was two when this movie came out). John Gavin is a good Sam, embodying the role of the noble hero, and doing it very well. We only really see him in the second half (he appears at the beginning of the movie and isn't seen again until after the shower scene), but when we do see him, we like him and want to see him win. Psycho is one of those movies where there is no real clear-cut hero or villain (except Mrs Bates, who is definitely a villain), but if there is the closest thing to a traditional hero in this movie, he would be it. The last performance I would like to talk about is Vera Miles as Marion's sister, and many things that can be said about Leigh's performance can also be said about Miles'. Another weird coincidence that I picked up the second time watching this is that Anthony Perkins and John Gavin look very similar, almost like they could be blood relatives, as do Janet Leigh and Vera Miles. Kind of funny seeing as the connection between Perkins and Leigh is important in the first half, and the connection between Gavin and Miles is important in the second half, a parallel of sorts.

The film also introduced a whole bunch of new filmmaking concepts that have been copied numerous times (as well as introducing a concept later used in Scream by having a big star being killed off in the first half of the movie). The black-and-white cinematography is amazing and each scene is staged to perfection (some important ones being discussed in this review). The last thing I would like to talk about before wrapping this up is the score. I love the score of Psycho, and throughout history, it has become one of the most iconic movie scores of all time. Even people who haven't seen the movie know the violin-based score and the tune (especially the tune from the shower scene) is pretty much instantly recognizable upon hearing. All in all, this is an extremely revolutionary movie and one of the best movies of all time (placing around #4 on my all-time favourites list). It is extremely well-acted, extremely well-filmed, and extremely well-written, and just awesome in general. I loved it the first time, but I love it even more now and I hope to watch it again several times (and hopefully to own it someday). This is the very definition of must-see, anyone who hasn't seen it needs to see it immediately and anyone who has needs to see it again.



  1. Great work Rachel, one of my favorites.

  2. This has never been a fave Hitchcock movie of mine, in fact, I prefer North by Northwest, Rear Window, Strangers of a Train, Veritgo but the brillence and importance of this movie can't be underestimated. Killing off your main character half way through the film? Hitchock had balls. Nice review. I've followed ya, mind returning the favour?

  3. brilliant work, Rachel. I have never seen this film before (I know, i know), but its on telly tomorrow, so prepare to see a review of Psycho go up sometime next week. I'm following you, care to return the favour?

  4. @ Matt, thanks for reading, and @ James, Myerla, I will follow you both.

  5. I also gave it full marks. Such a phenomenal film. suspenseful, scary and extremely clever. Terrific review with excellent points! You now have a new follower :) could you follow mine?