From the number seven film on the list, Frankenstein, we move forward nearly 30 years to another monster created by an overbearing master bent on control. However, Norman Bates’ psychotic genesis didn’t require lightning rods or stolen body parts, just a domineering mother.
“We all go a little mad sometimes… haven’t you?”
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.” With this quote, we were launched into the completely twisted world of Norman Bates and the haunting Bates Motel. Released in 1960, Psycho is an easy choice for inclusion on any top 10 horror movie list.
Unfortunately, as modern viewers we find ourselves in a similar predicament as we do with Frankenstein. We know everything about the film before the opening credits roll. Psycho is such a powerful, historic piece of filmmaking that it has become part of our everyday lives. Every rundown flop house on the interstate can easily be referred to as the Bates Motel for a laugh, and who hasn’t picked up a butcher knife while cooking, turned to someone (or to the empty room if you’re more of a loner), made pretend stabbing motions and mimicked that unforgettable sound of violin strings coming to life…“EEE, EEE, EEE.”
Psycho is part of us. It’s part of society. And unfortunately that fact exponentially weakens our viewing experience. However, even with this tremendous handicap, Psycho is outstanding more than 50 years after its debut. As I did with Frankenstein, I’ll again ask you to imagine you are in the theater during its initial release. It’s 1960 and you are attending a screening of a mysterious Alfred Hitchcock film entitled Psycho. (The film is adapted from the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch (who incidentally lived 35 miles from Ed Gein whom police arrested in 1957. Hmmm…coincidence?)). However, during the release, no one knows anything about the film because director Alfred Hitchcock had as many copies of the novel Psycho bought off the racks as possible to keep the film’s content a secret. Now that is being thorough!
Moviegoers were urged to arrive at the theater on time… in fact they were required to. Cinemas were required to deny late entries to Psycho, and although the movie houses initially balked, fearing lost ticket sales, the explosion of popularity for the film quickly convinced them otherwise.
The movie rolls…enter the beautiful Janet Leigh…in a bra…in bed with a man who isn’t her husband! WTF?! Blasphemy! Next thing you know they’ll show a toilet flushing in this film! And yes, they do. The opening scene of Psycho with Leigh and John Gavin as her lover, Sam Loomis (ring a bell Halloween fans?), was considered taboo with an unmarried couple in bed together. And believe it or not, the first shocking thing to take place in Room 1 of the Bates Motel was not the murderous shower scene, but the shot of the toilet flushing away the papers on which Marion Crane took notes, trying to figure out how to pay back the full $40,000 she pilfered. Toilets had not yet made it into mainstream cinema and were also taboo.
As wonderful as Leigh is as the conflicted Marion Crane, the focus of the film is, of course, Anthony Perkins as the iconic Norman Bates. The magnificence he displays playing the role cannot be overstated. He comes across as incredibly innocent (and in essence, he is) and must have thrown audiences far off the scent of what was truly going on at the Bates Motel. He is boyishly charming, but shows just the slightest hint of being off-balance during his meal with Marion, and as his reality begins to crumble while investigators close in on him, his performance responds in kind. It culminates in the chilling final scene of Psycho where Norma has completely taken over Norman’s body and speaks to the audience about how she will prove her innocence.
Psycho was followed by two sequels, a prequel, a shot-for-shot remake starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, a television movie spinoff and an upcoming prequel series. But of course, nothing could recreate the suspense and shock manufactured by the masterful manipulation of the audience in the classic original film. Not even close.
The one-word title, Psycho, has become part of our modern vernacular. It’s a word with little power anymore as it has been overused ad nauseam over the past few decades. And that’s a good microcosm of the film itself…although stripped of much of its shock value over the past 50 years, Psycho is still one of the most powerful and impressive horror films… ever.
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