As 'Hitchcock' arrives, here's a look back at the mystique of 'Psycho'

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This post combines two earlier pieces that I wrote about Psycho: one published on June 16, 2010, to mark the film’s 50th anniversary, the other as an essay for EW University.

Eyes. Drains. Stuffed birds. Windshield wipers. $40,000. Marion Crane. The Bates Motel. Norman Bates. Mrs. Bates. “She isn’t quite herself today.” A toilet. A study. A stutter. A private trap. A peephole. A kitchen knife. Skree skree skree skree! “Mother, oh God — blood, Mother, blood!” A car. A swamp. The Bates house. A detective. A crane shot. A creased bed. A sister. A boyfriend. A detective. An attic. A cellar. A rocking chair. A lightbulb. A wig. Skree skree skree skree! A psychiatrist. An asylum. A fly. A smile of the damned….

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in the summer of 1960, and in the half a century since, it has become the rare movie in which every image and detail and motif is now, more or less, iconic. Every moment in the movie is a piece of mythological Americana.

In a way that I couldn’t quite say about any other film, I feel as if I’ve spent most of my movie life thinking — and writing — about Psycho. Part of the film’s mystique is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it (and it may be the ultimate movie that you can watch over and over again), it keeps coming back to provoke and tantalize and haunt you. Its power of revelation never wears thin or gets old. It’s one of the only films in Hollywood history — the others, I would say, are The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Star Wars — that is so alive, its experience so vivid and immediate and larger-than-life, that it effectively transcends time. (One of the reasons that Hitchcock, the broadly infectious, once-over-lightly new biopic about the making of Psycho, gets away, to a degree, with its filigree of factual distortions is that both Hitchcock and Psycho are now such a part of our pop folklore that to approach this chapter of film history even in a slightly exaggerated manner is to touch a certain truth.)

In the infamous shower scene, when that big, fat kitchen knife, wielded by a mysterious Victorian shrew named Mrs. Bates, came slashing down, over and over again, into the body of Marion Crane, it was also slicing through years — decades, centuries — of popular expectation that the hero or heroine of a fictional work would be shielded and protected, or would at least die (usually at the end) in a way that made some sort of moral-dramatic sense. In Psycho, murder made no sense at all; the suddenness — and viciousness — of it tore at the fabric of our certainty. What it suggested is that none of us, in the end, are ever truly protected. Hitchcock seemed to be pulling the rug, the floor, and the earth right out from under the audience. He opened an abyss, exposing moviegoers to a dark side that few, at the time, could ever have dared to imagine.

It’s a fair bet that you, like me, are too young to have seen Psycho when it first came out. And for anyone who didn’t see it then, it’s probably safe to say that none of us can ever fully know what it felt like to experience the shock — the original, jaw-dropping blood terror — of Hitchcock’s game-changing masterpiece. Psycho was adapted from a novel that was based on the case of Ed Gein, the demented murderer and graverobber from rural Wisconsin who became the first — and still most legendary — of all modern serial killers. (Twenty-four years later, he inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well; he was the sick puppy who kept on giving.) But it’s doubtful, in the early ’60s, that almost any American had even heard the term “serial killer.” We were still a long way from Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, or chianti jokes.

You could easily claim that Psycho, more than any other film, is the movie that changed movies — that it broke down, and reconfigured, popular storytelling by shifting it from a form in which lives were orderly and cohesive, bound by the symmetrical conflicts associated with classic Hollywood, to one in which lives were loose, random, unpredictable, and violent, subject to the messiness we associate with the Hollywood films of the ’70s, after the collapse of the studio system. Yet the most measurable and seismic effect that Psycho had was on the horror genre itself. Before Psycho, horror movies were “monster” movies. They were fantasies in which men battled supernatural creatures — or turned into them. The monsters could be big (Godzilla) or small (The Fly), sexy (Dracula) or ugly (Frankenstein); they could be spectral and profound (I Walked With a Zombie) or literal and rubbery (The Creature From the Black Lagoon); they could come from outer space (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or they could be the beast within (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). But they were all, one way or another, not quite of this earth. Psycho revolutionized all that. Here was a horror film in which the “monster” lived inside the head of one man — poor, schmucky, fearful Norman Bates, the mama’s boy with a black secret. In truth, there was no monster at all, no shrieking outsize “mother.” There was just Norman and his rage. Yet Hitchcock’s genius is how deftly he created the illusion of a monster. The Bates house, that looming Gothic mansion full of cryptlike rooms and stuffed birds, was, in effect, a symbol of old-fashioned 19th-century terror. It was a Hollywood funhouse with a secret trap door.

Once inside the house, Hitchcock, drawing his camera back and up, up, up high, teased the audience with a great Freudian metaphor. Though he never, right up until the end, let us get close enough to see Mrs. Bates, what we did see was Norman carrying her around — which, of course, is exactly what the real monsters of our time do. They carry their demons around, making them real, becoming slaves to them instead of mastering them. They become souls in demon drag.

By making the audacious claim that the darkest monsters — brutal, homicidal, and unknowable — live directly inside us, Alfred Hitchcock, in the grandest stunt of movie history, did more than kill off his heroine. He made a show of killing God; he expressed the horror of a world that had seen enough real horror (the trench slaughter of World War I, the Holocaust, the dropping of the A-bomb) not to need any more monsters. And that’s why the horror films of today are forever in his debt, and in his shadow. Every time you see a slasher movie with Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, or whatever new name they come up with for some masked lunatic with a big blade, you’re watching a remake of Psycho, an attempt to recapture its fear and insanity. But, of course, that can never happen again. Because now we know what’s coming. The movies, it turned out, could only kill God once.

In its maliciously playful and macabre way, Psycho is really the ultimate movie party, which is one of the reasons that you want to keep going back to it. Here are a few of the many thoughts I’ve had about it over the years:

By the time I saw Psycho, the movie was more than scary — it had become cool. I first saw Psycho at a college film society in 1978, and what I recall even more than the movie was the crowd: very new wave, very downtown (at least, as downtown as you could get at the University of Michigan). I went to campus film showings all the time, but you could sense that this was a hip movie to be at, and I think that was for a few reasons. The song “Psycho Killer,” which had come out on Talking Heads’ debut album the year before, had a big influence on how Psycho would now be seen. David Byrne had written the song to capitalize on his resemblance to Tony Perkins — the slightly spooked, owl-eyed, wiry-necked handsomeness — and in performing it as Talking Heads’ signature number, what Byrne did was to reconfigure the split personality of Norman Bates (his ordinary-on-the-outside, violent-on-the-inside duality) into an emblem of punk attitude. CBGB, where Talking Heads had gotten their start, was sending out signals of cachet to a certain youth segment of the entire country, and when Byrne sang “Psycho Killer,” he celebrated a kind of preppy psycho chic: It was now the fashion for hip dweebs to think of themselves as dangerous, as having hidden depths of crazy-cool aggression. (I’m sorry if that sounds lame, but this was college in 1978, folks. I’m not sure if worshipping Dave Matthews will look any less quaint in 30 years.)

There was a deeper cool connection as well. “Psycho Killer” explicitly made the statement that Psycho was rock & roll. And the thing is, it now was — in a way that no one could have conceived back in 1960, when the movie came out. The film unfolded in an atmosphere of dark and stifling ’50s conformity, when an afternoon tryst had the musky, sinful air of secret depravity, and Marion Crane, stealing that $40,000, was like Doris Day taking a walk on the wild side. In that context, Norman Bates’ knife was the primal force that cut through the repressive ’50s blandness as potently as Elvis had. Sure, Norman was a maniac serial killer dressed in his mother’s Victorian rags, but when he slashed that knife, he brought down a world of civilized propriety that needed to be brought down.

NEXT PAGE: Hitchcock goes “indie,” dirty metaphors, and why Psycho is a movie you can watch again and again 

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