Day 1: Psycho (1960)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Martin Balsam, John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Anthony Perkins
Runtime: 109 minutes
Up until 1960, horror films had not been too diverse or subtle; and after the initial explosion in the 30s, the genre largely stagnated. In the 50s, a revival started, but it was mostly infected by science fiction elements, and one-dimensional, unsympathetic antagonists (aliens, irradiated insects, etc). The threat was almost always of an external type, a clear outsider to “normal society.” Psycho brought horror to the apparent insider—and located its source in one of America’s most sacred institutions: family.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW
Much of the film’s unnerving power is due to Hitchcock’s manipulation of the viewer through suspense, Bernard Hermann’s superb music, but most of all, I believe, to Anthony Perkins’ nuanced and creepy portrayal of Norman Bates.
Bates is one of the most intriguing villains in horror. Although we of course find his voyeuristic, psychosexual
pathology disturbing, he initially seems so normal—a nice, shy, even somewhat emasculated mommy’s boy.
That Norman seems more bumbling than aggressive undercuts the portrayals of villains up to that time. Also, we now had to deal with the fact that horror had moved from “out there” to “in here,” from the creations of mad scientists in castles or beyond the stars, to the home, to an obsessive attachment between a boy and his mother.
The murders also undercut the viewer’s visual experience. The famous shower scene destroys our visual preconceptions, with the various cuts that happen in such a short period of time, and the shrieking violins paired with each cut (of film and of knife); the very murder itself is “deconstructed” on the screen, leaving us disoriented and bewildered.
Likewise, the killing of Arbogast is oddly portrayed. We are led to believe that this hardboiled, no-nonsense detective will finally solve the case. As we see him investigating the creepy Bates house, we expect him to perhaps confront Mother Bates and save the day. Then we see him stabbed in the head, tumble backward down the stairs in an almost surreal sequence, which seems more impressionistic than realistic, to finally be repeatedly stabbed to death at the bottom.
Psycho‘s influence in modern horror can not be underestimated. Bates would come to be the model of various killers to come—from Halloween’s Michael Myers to the psychotic suburbanite in The Stepfather. Now that the veil separating the goodness of “us” from the horror of “them!” had been irrevocably rent, no one was safe. Even though Bates is captured, he is not killed off like most villains; and though contained behind the walls of a mental institution, Mother is still there—and we get the sense that she’s not going away. The final image of the car being dragged from the swamp reminds us of the haunting aftermath of Norman’s psychosis.