June 17, 2010

"Psycho" Released 50 Years Ago Today

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one of my favorite movies.   My father introduced it to me in my early teens when I started getting into horror movies.  There's a lot of really creative and interesting stuff in the often dismissed and disrespected genre of horror movies.   A lot of very talented filmmakers cut their teeth in the genre.  James Cameron, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson spilled a lot of blood on their sets before becoming the A-listers they are now.   But those weren't the horror movies that I liked.  I was into the lowest common denominator of scary movies: the slasher flick.  My father did an excellent job of humoring me, when I would talk excitedly about something like Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning - a cinematic turd if their ever was one - but in the end he loved movies too much to leave me blissfully ignorant. The straw that broke the camel's back moment, where I presume my father felt he had needed to screen Psycho to give me an education about horror films came when I put a Psycho III poster on my wall.   He sneered at it and made some sarcastic comment about how utterly unnecessary a third Psycho movie was and how great the original was before the studio pissed all over it's legacy with shitty knock-off sequels.   (Come to think of it, that sounds pretty much like what I do here on this blog.)   I casually told him I hadn't seen the original and complained that it was black and white so you wouldn't even be able to see the blood.  He was disgusted and within days we had rented Psycho.   I remember settling down to watch it with him and being annoyed off the top cause it was all about Marion Crane and the money she has stolen but there was no horror and no Norman Bates so I wasn't impressed.    Then came the parlour scene where Norman Bates has made a sandwich for Marion Crane and she eats it while making small talk with Norman in his back office; surrounded by his taxidermy projects, which watch over them ominously.   The script, performances and direction in that scene are all so perfect, I was simply in awe.  That scene blew my mind.  It's still probably my favorite scene in any movie; and yes, I'm nerdy enough to keep track of things like "favorite scene all time" so this isn't and off the top of my head declaration.   It's a wonderful scene and Anthony Perkins performance, in particular, is masterful.  The rest of the way, I loved the movie.   Since then, I've watched the movie many, many times and I've read everything I could get my hands on about the production of the film.   This is one of those movies that really turned me on to movies in the first place, which makes it particularly sentimental to me.

Before Psycho came along, horror films were very gothic and not based in the reality that the audience lived in.  Sure horrible things happened in the movies, but you were safe unless you happened to live near a dark, gothic castle.  But with Psycho, Hitchcock introduced a new villain, a mentally unstable person with a butcher knife.   A young woman in a shower; naked and vulnerable; being brutally butchered.   That was real.  That was something the audience could personally identify with.  Hitchcock brought the horror out of Transylvania or the Mummy's tomb and he brought to their doorsteps.   The villain wasn't a werewolf or a vampire or something fantastical, it was a person.   It was all real.   This, of course, totally changed horror movies.     Hollywood, of course, looked at Psycho and gleaned "killer wtih knife" from the movie and, typically, overlooked everything else.  Because, let's face it, it's much easier to copy "killer with a knife" then all of the other interesting stuff going on in the film that would actually require a good script, solid direction and excellent performances.   As a result, Psycho would quickly mutate into the slasher genre and today, fifty years after it's release, it's impossible to look at the sub-genre it spawned an see much of a link in any way to the movie that started it all.

The trickle down effect in modern horror cinema is undeniable.  If you really look at it; Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked madman of the Friday the 13th series is really just another mama's boy like Norman Bates.  The third film in that series featured a "shower" scene and even had a poster featuring a silhouette of Jason with his machete puncturing a shower curtain. The Halloween franchise, which continues to churn out shitty entries today a couple of decades after the original was the creation of writer/director John Carpenter who named one of the lead characters in the series, Dr. Sam Loomis after Janet Leigh's fiance in Psycho, also named Sam Loomis.  His homage to Psycho went a step further when he cast Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the lead role. (Years later, with seventh Halloween film Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, Janet Leigh cameos in the movie playing a character named "Norma" who drives the same car her character had in Psycho which also had the exact same license plate number.  During her scene the score subtlety changes to the music from Psycho as well.)  Wes Craven's Scream was another film with Hitchcock's fingerprints all over it.  First of all, the villain has the surnmame Loomis, which it seems is now the most popular surname in horror, but it also lifts one of Psycho's most shocking story devices.  The movie opens with Drew Barrymore, the most well known actress in the cast and the person who's face graces the poster, alone in an isolated house receiving a phone call from a mysterious and sinister stranger.  Before the opening credits roll, she's dead, leaving the audience disoriented, shocked and fully aware that in this movie, anything can happen.  Barrymore had originally been cast as the lead and lobbied Craven to change her part to the character who dies pre-credits cause it would rock the audiences expectations.  Much like Hitchcock before her, she was right.

Happy Anniversary, Psycho.  You're the grandaddy of them all.

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