This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, PSYCHO, one of the all-time classics of horror and suspense, and the film that can arguably be considered the granddaddy of the “slasher” genre. Can you believe it? Fifty years! When I told my mom about that, she couldn’t believe it had been so long since she’d seen it during its original run, and she once again regaled me with the tale of how after seeing that movie, she refused to shower in the house unless another person was around.
To me, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when PSYCHO wasn’t around. I’m forty-five years old and during my lifetime PSYCHO has gone on to become a part of world cinema’s DNA and has been a point of reference and jokes more times than I can possibly count, such was its impact. Yet somehow there are still people out there who have managed to reach adulthood without having seen it, and one of those people is my toothsome girlfriend, "She Who Cannot Be Named." Having devoted much of her growing-up years to being a diligent student (unlike me, who loathed virtually every moment of my organized schooling), She Who Cannot Be Named has missed innumerable classic (and not-so-classic) films that you or I would take it as a given that the average person would have experienced, so you can imagine how I’m champing at the bit to fill her head with a literal cornucopia of cinema from all genres and decades. With that goal in mind, when I heard that Manhattan’s Film Forum was running a screening of PSYCHO in honor of its golden anniversary, I fairly leapt at the chance to finally see it projected and haul She Who Cannot Be Named along.
Once I’d procured tickets, I made sure to advise She Who Cannot Be Named about not letting anyone spoil any of the film’s particulars for her, and things were going well in that department until one of her grad school courses ran footage from the sequence where Norman sinks Marian Crane’s car into the marsh behind the Bates Motel. When She Who Cannot Be Named told me that she’d seen that bit, I was a little annoyed but not as much as I could have been because when taken out of context that scene reveals nothing. Also, when the segment was about to be discussed in class, one of her classmates was kind enough to stand up and announce to the class that out of kindness to those who had never seen PSYCHO, they should keep mum on the details of the story. That was very gentlemanly of him, but I soon reached a state of apoplexy when She Who Cannot Be Named told me that right after that guy’s consideration of the few PSYCHO newbies in the class, some galloping asshat stated flat-out that Norman was the killer. When She Who Cannot Be Named told me that during our pre-screening dinner, I nearly hit the roof.
Undaunted, we made our way to the Film Forum and met up with my pal Suzi. As the girls hit the ladies’ room, I stood up and asked the audience if there was anyone in attendance that had not yet seen the film, and when a few hands shot ceilingward, I asked the audience not to give anything away. They all nodded in knowing agreement, and when the girls got back I settled in and absorbed PSYCHO on the (relatively) big screen for the first time. (I have seen the film many, many times since the late 1970’s and know it inside and out, but I was genuinely excited to see it projected and with an eager audience.)
If you’ve read this far despite the spoiler warning, then it’s safe to assume that you’ve already seen the movie, so I won’t bother to recount the plot. Instead, I’ll just make some observations.
- PSYCHO hit the screen barely three years after the real-life horrors discovered at the Wisconsin home of one Ed Gein, so that brain-meltingly awful event was still fresh in the shocked and disbelieving minds of the American public, thus lending the film an extra visceral mule kick to the guts.
For those not in the know (and making a very long, complex and downright fucking horrible story short), Ed Gein was the textbook example of the town "quiet soul" that everyone knew and thought was a little odd but harmless, only to have it revealed that he was not only bullmoose crazy, but also capable of acts of such outright stomach-churning blackness that even hardened homicide detectives found his acts literally nauseating. Among other elements lifted from the Gein case for author Robert Bloch's source novel of PSYCHO can be found a grown man's very serious mother issues, questionable hobbies and handicrafts, and a marked gender-confusion, so the moviegoing audience no doubt remembered those details as they watched Hitchcock's creepy low-budget flick unspool across the nation.
- The sheer genius of letting us get to know and care about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) only to kill her off about a third of the way through the narrative is still staggering and must have been a real kick in the head to the 1960 audience.
- Though he's creepy from the moment when we meet him, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is so awkward and childlike, we find it easy to believe he's not the killer.
- My favorite scary moment in the film is when Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is murdered on the stairway while snooping at the Bates house.
- The legacy of PSYCHO is vast and the funny thing is that its sequels are actually pretty good, unlike the majority of proper slasher flick sequels. Especially of interest are PSYCHO II (1983), which chronicles what happens when Norman is released after having spent twenty-two years in a mental institution, and PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, in which Norman relates his disturbing origin story. Both are well worth checking out.
- In recent years a number of classic films containing creepy and visceral material have been given ratings for their current releases on DVD, and PSYCHO has been slapped with an "R." The same rating has been applied to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and considering the admittedly arbitrary criteria by which the MPAA determines what does or does not deserve a "restricted" label, I find it baffling that both films now bear that distinction. There's more "adult" material in ROSEMARY'S BABY, but nothing that would not garner a PG-13 were it to come out today, and other than the two murders, neither of which is gory, there is no content in PSYCHO that deserves any rating harder than a PG. And I'm willing to bet that the ratings on the DVDs serve no purpose anyway, because both are acknowledged classics and have both been run on non-cable television for ages in versions that were damned near uncut, so I very much doubt that any garden variety ten-year-old would be denied their purchase.