Tonight at 10:00 pm on Movie Geeks United, “Halloween Week,” — Horror 101 — kicks off with a discussion and retrospective of one of the horror genre’s most celebrated and distinguished game-changers, director Alfred Hitchcock’s oft-imitated Psycho (1960).
Over my writing career, I’ve frequently discussed the way in which a horror film might cross the hurdle from being merely good (an effective and entertaining roller coaster ride) to being great (and an undisputed classic). Something very specific must occur regarding the film’s structure itself; in the very way the movie presents its narrative or message.
Subject matter alone can’t make that leap for a film; rather the achievement of greatness rests in the film’s style of presentation; in the film’s application of established film grammar in unexpected, new or experimental ways.
Since the goal of a horror movie is to transgress and discomfort, what this algebraic equation usually comes down to, ultimately, is some trail-blazing shattering of pre-existing expectations; the intentional blowing-up of movie traditions and even accepted Hollywood decorum so that audience actually feels unsafe in the auditorium. It is therefore entirely susceptible to directorial manipulation.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Psycho is indeed a perfect and relatively early example of this nerve-jangling approach (one also evidenced in the other horror films Movie Geeks United is discussing this week: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre  and The Blair Witch Project ).
Rightly, you might ask how Alfred Hitchcock managed to defy the studio system he toiled in, and shatter existing movie decorum and tradition so thoroughly. In broad strokes, the answer arises in the mode of Psycho’s production and the director’s relative freedom from interference.
When Universal expressed unhappiness with the unsavory elements of the film’s narrative (adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel), Hitchcock essentially went around the studio. He basically financed the film himself, and took a 25% pay cut or thereabouts to get the film made. Furthermore, Hitchcock kept the film’s budget low by shooting in black-and-white, when all the rage at the time was to create films in color.
Most significantly, perhaps, Hitchcock brought in the technical crew from his popular TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Make no mistake, this act represents an early vote of confidence for TV as an art form from no-less-than a cinematic legend. But this TV crew was accustomed to working fast, working effectively, and working cheap. And those were the qualities that helped Psycho get made, and made in the style and fashion Hitchcock desired.
So, Psycho evaded some hierarchical scrutiny just by the manner in which Hitchcock approached the project. That approach opened the doorway to a horror film that, on retrospect, shatters expectations and breaks cleanly with established Hollywood history.
How? Well, these breaks are numerous, and important, and I hope to enumerate some of them here.
First, Hitchcock unsettles the audience by fracturing the role of the good guy, the protagonist.
The audience’s focal point of identification in most Hollywood thrillers is one hero; a man or woman who follows a path of increased learning and ascending knowledge as the three acts progress satisfyingly to a conclusion.
The arc of “learning” on the part of the audience — and presented through the experiences of the lead character — is usually a straight line traveling up and up, until, by the movie’s denouement, we have reached the apex, the plateau. We have learned everything we need to know to understand the film’s narrative and message.
If the movie is a mystery, we follow the clues one-by-one to resolve that mystery. If it’s a Western, the hero braces a challenge, faces that challenge and defeats that challenge. Again, the trajectory is like an arrow on ascent, a straight trajectory pointing towards full audience comprehension (and, hopefully, approval.)
In Psycho, the role of the protagonist is unconventionally splintered into three or four characters: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Arbogast (Martin Balsam), Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Learning still occurs and the audience attains that final plateau of knowledge through a psychologist’s detailed and clinical “explanation” of Norman Bates’ psychosis. But importantly, the process of learning is fractured by the three acts. Each protagonist dominates center stage — very roughly — in one particular act (Marion in the first; Arbogast in the second; Lila and Sam in the third).
Since Psycho revolves around schizophrenia — about a splintering of a single mind into more than one individual — the film’s structure actually reflects this state of existence not only in its villain — Norman/Mother — but in the variety and differentiation of its protagonists. Thus form reflects content. Hitchcock splinters our point of identification as much as he splinters Norman’s mind.
Why so radically re-shape the thriller’s protagonist in this fashion?
In simple terms, Hitchcock punishes the audience —and ruthlessly unsettles it — for emotionally investing in the characters.
First, Hitchcock makes us fall in love with adorable Marion Crane through her ongoing interior monologue during a road trip. This soliloquy of sorts regards the theft of 40,000 dollars and what the acquisition of the money and the perpetrating of a crime could mean for her life personally, professionally and legally. Marion berates herself and mocks herself in these passages, like we all do when we talk to ourselves.
The device of the interior monologue — in conjunction with the preponderance of gorgeous close-ups during these moments in the car — actually accentuates the feeling of connection to the character and her plight.
And of course, that’s intentional. Hitchcock wants us heavily invested in Marion’s imagination, her potential, her crime; the very things that make her human and therefore sympathetic. In other words, the director sucks us in with a likable character and her crisis.
And then, Hitchcock rips Marion — the movie’s ostensible lead character — away from the audience in the notorious shower scene. We watch helplessly as all our expectations and hopes for Marion (namely that she will return the money, seek a life with Sam, and escape her personal purgatory or trap) run down the tub drain with her spilled blood.
Suddenly, everything the audience has taken for granted as “important” in Psycho (namely Marion’s dilemma regarding stolen cash and her future with Sam) is now rendered unimportant. The audience is rudderless. Vulnerable.
The only thing left to cling to is that stolen cash, and the hope that another human being — sweet, harmless Norman — will find it and use it to escape from his trap, from his Mother.
The movie goes on, and the audience still feels lost without Marion. Thus it soon seizes on laconic, world-weary Arbogast as the focal point of identification. Yeah, he’s the guy who’s going to get Norman’s Mother, and set things right, for the memory of Marion. He’s got the chops. He’s got the background. No one’s going to pull the wool over his eyes.
And then Hitchcock violates narrative rules again. He pulls the exact same trick a second time. He kills Arbogast before our eyes (in another visually dazzling murder scene, set this time upon a staircase) and for a second time, the audience loses the focal point of identification.
Finally, identification transfers to Sam and Lila, but by this point — on a first viewing of Psycho, anyway — you’re thinking “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” and entirely reluctant to embrace this couple, not out of loyalty to the dead; but out of the fear that, for a third time, Evil will triumph.
Is there another reason it is difficult to warm to Lila and Sam? Absolutely. They begin to seriously question and threaten Norman Bates, and at this point in the proceedings, the audience is still invested in him and his escape from the Motel and from his twisted Mom. They don’t want to see him railroaded for what they believe his mother did.
It should be noted that the unconventional presentation of the protagonists (and antagonist, actually) in Psycho are all part of Hitchcock’s masterful manipulation, his gleeful way of mis-directing our attention and subverting our expectations. But he doesn’t just subvert by way of story points, either; he does it by actual structure; by exploding movie conventions.
The “Janet Leigh” trick as I sometimes call it, isn’t the only trail-blazing, convention-shattering aspect of Psycho. It’s harder to appreciate this second factor given the direction of our culture since Psycho, but Hitchcock further shattered Hollywood decorum by revealing to the audience shocking imagery it had not often, if ever, seen before. Things like an afternoon, pre-marital assignation in a cheap hotel room between Sam and Marion.
Or, of course, like the famous shower sequence.
In interpreting horror films, I often return to the plain truth that those things which scare us the most are the the very things that we see in our everyday experience. Universal ideas. Getting lost in the woods, like Hansel and Gretel (or the kids in The Blair Witch Project). Getting eaten by an animal (in the case of Jaws). Or, involving Psycho, the simple and common act of showering.
When we bathe, we are truly at our most vulnerable (with the exception, perhaps, of slumber…a key fear exploited by generations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). We are naked, without clothing. Only a thin drape — a shower curtain — protects us from an unseen larger world. The space in a shower stall is also limited and therefore mobility is hampered. You can’t exactly run anywhere. The standard shower stall is not that different in dimensions from an upright coffin, if you think about it.
So — arriving in 1960 — Psycho broke a critical rule/taboo in film history. It showed a vulnerable person virtually nude in the bathroom (heck, how often had we even seen toilets in films before Psycho?) and then depicted that character brutally murdered in nothing less than a frenzy.
Many film critics and Hitchcock scholars have written expertly and at length about the staging and cutting of the Psycho shower scene, but the important thing to remmeber is how it plays. It is a visualization of frenzy, rage, and madness.
The helter-skelter pace of the shock editing and the very closeness of many shots give the inescapable impression of a trapped animal being murdered in a blinding, fury-filled rage. No one had ever seen anything like this before Psycho. Violence, close-up, with adroit film technique embodying psychosis and powerful anger.
A sequence featuring this graphic murder in an unconventional locale would have broken taboo alone; but remember, the person killed is a beautiful woman and the movie’s heroine; a person we have invested in emotionally. To dispatch Marion when she is vulnerable, when she has so many reasons to live, and to do it in such indecorous, nay unchivalrous, fashion, is…bracing. To say the least. It’s literally a shock to the system.
The presentation of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) represents another shattering of tradition too. Hollywood often lives by the edict that what is beautiful must also be good. And young Anthony Perkins, like Janet Leigh, is certainly beautiful. He is innocent, boyish, graceful, handsome and charming. Simultaneously, he is a brutal murderer when “possessed” by Mother Bates. The film asks us to countenance competing visions of Norman — that he can be both innocent and guilty; a good boy and a very naughty boy — at the same time.
In large part, Hitchcock was able to get away with this complexity because of the burgeoning popularity of Psychology, and Pop Psychology, in 1950s and 1960s American culture. Horror films such as The Bad Seed (1956) began to ask very pointed questions about human “monsters,” thereby exploring the eternal nature vs. nurture debate. To a very large extent, that’s the milieu as well of Psycho. Norman is a good boy, perhaps, by nature. But a very bad boy via nurture, by his mother’s behavior. Nurture is stamped over nature, in his case, and the result is psychosis.
An earlier generation of horror movie (say, in the 1930s or 1940s) may have had to hide Norman. It may have had to “code” him in terms of being both a man and a literal monster (think the Wolfman, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) But Psycho does not have to play with metaphor in that particular fashion.
This is an important turning point in horror history: a period wherein supernatural and fantasy can be subtracted from the genre formula and the human being can take his (rightful?) place as the pre-eminent “Monster” in the cinema, thus paving the way for a slew of slashers, serial killers, and 1990s Interlopers. Indeed, this is the point in horror history where many “monster” horror movie fans cut bait: preferring their monsters as more fantastical creations like vampires, Gill Men, or the Mummy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either.
In terms of breaking taboos, Psycho spreads the act of “heroic” learning across three sets of protagonists, and delves into uncomfortable imagery not commonly depicted on the silver screen of the 1950s.
Still, Hitchcock ends Psycho by restoring a sense of order. Norman is captured, diagnosed and understood. In this way, an audience might leave a showing of the film knowing that it need not be afraid in real life. The good guys still come out on top; the dangerous bad guy is punished…or at least apprehended.
In the years after Psycho, directors like Tobe Hooper (TCM) and Brian De Palma would go even further than Psycho to break established movie decorum. Hooper denied the audience (and Chainsaw’s characters) the act of learning in toto; and in Sisters, De Palma did not bother to re-establish order, instead leaving the film’s heroine a confused amnesiac.
But those bold, innovative steps in the genre, perhaps, could not have been broached had Hitchcock not re-written the rules of the game first, with Psycho.
If you ask yourself why the 1998 remake of Psycho failed, it is not because of re-casting. It is not because of color photography. It is not, even, because of Hitchcock’s absence in the director’s chair.
Rather, the failure occurred because that remake failed to re-structure its narrative and format in a pioneering fashion; in a way that would have actually honored Hitchcock and the spirit of the original film.
Had Gus Van Sant found a new, taboo-busting method of telling Psycho’s tale — one that violated the movie decorum of the 1990s and shattered all of our pre-existing conditioning about what movies can and should do — then he would have really been on to something vital. Instead, the shot-for-shot remake approach suggests only that film structure has been “locked” — hermetically-sealed — since Psycho, and that’s simply not the case. Film is growing, living, thriving thing, and horror films continue to push the envelope of acceptable Hollywood decorum. The 1998 remake should have honored this fact.