Over the years, thousands of horror films have set out to scare and shock cinema audiences around the world, however, most fall flat both critically and at the box office, as they forget about story, tension and pacing in their pursuit of gore and violence. They remain pale imitations of the most influential, thrilling and atmospheric horror film of the 20th Century, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
Psycho is just as dark, chilling and full of tension today, as it was for audiences who saw the initial release in 1960. The combination of low-key lighting, a fantastic all-strings score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, intimate cinematography, and the brooding mystery which surrounds the Bates family, make Psycho thought provoking and utterly unforgettable.
The deep mystery and tension which hangs over the Bates family home has been seized upon by many writers and directors since; the family unit is central to many of our lives and so directors play with this idea of stability, reminding us that nobody can choose their family, and so we embrace our their positives and peculiarities alike.
The families depicted in other horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Shining (1980) copy the dark, mysterious and threatening family unit of the Bates household, with fantastic and brutal terror. Yet they both fall flat where Hitchcock succeeds, as he takes his time to reveal this particular family secret, using mystery as a tool to keep us hooked.
By 1960 Hitchcock was the most famous director in the world, and the ‘master of suspense’ was starting to tire of the big budget, star-fuelled movies he had been churning out, so he decided to go back to basics for Psycho, with a largely unknown cast and crew, and a low budget.
Psycho is the story of office worker Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who steals $40,000 from her manager and goes on the run with the hope of securing a better life for herself and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Crane is an uncomfortable and very human heroine, bumbling through encounters with the law and a used car dealer, creating suspicion around her flight from the city.
Crane’s flight comes to an abrupt end at the eerie Bates Motel, as a thunderstorm (loaded with pathetic fallacy), forces her to break off her journey. Here we are presented with the imposing, now classic, Gothic old house on the hill, next to the motel, which can still be seen on the back lot in Universal’s studio.
The Bates Motel also introduces us to the dorky, child-like proprietor, Norman Bates (heartthrob of the era Anthony Perkins). Tall and stick thin, Bates is dressed in black, reminding the viewer of villains such as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922), despite his warm and generous nature towards our heroine.
Hitchcock is then quick to intensify the mystery of the motel further, with the introduction of the shadowy Mrs Bates who we see through chiaroscuro lighting in the upstairs window. The suspense surrounding the introduction of the family causes the viewer to forget all about the initial plot of the film and the stolen $40,000, as we are paralysed with apprehension about the faceless old woman in the window.
Crane’s end comes in one of the most infamous and visually terrifying scenes in cinema, endlessly copied and parodied... "the shower scene". if you haven't seen the "mother of all horror movies" before, then it's not my job to spoil ot for you, but unsurprisingly, Janet Leigh later claimed in an interview that she only took baths at home after filming Psycho.
Although half a century has passed since Psycho thrilled and terrified audiences in the cinema in 1960, it has lost none of its magnetism and fright. Psycho is an experience built for the cinema, and is naturally best seen in a darkened room with a huge screen and pumping sound, as Norman Bates stands before us the size of a giant and Bernard Hermann’s score screeches through the speakers, sending a cold chill over the audience.
Click here to book tickets for Psycho at FACT. Read more of Laurance Carr's reviews here.