The Mother of All Horror Films

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Near the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a psychiatrist pops in to explain serial killer Norman Bates to his captors--and to us, the audience: "I got the whole story--but not from Norman. I got it--from his mother." It's a scene that always elicits unintended laughs from contemporary audiences: they laugh at Norman's need to explain himself through the voice of his mother, they laugh at the dumbfounded looks on the faces of the local hicks--but mostly they laugh at a film that thinks it must explain a serial killer. I laughed, too, when I saw it again recently. But even as I laughed, it occurred to me that this wasn't just one unintentionally funny moment in this--can it really be?--50-year-old film. It was the only one.

Psycho not only doesn't seem dated, it feels almost completely contemporary, a sort of Dorian Gray of a movie--we get older, but it doesn't. This is true of Hitchcock films generally: take the hats off the men, give the women new hairdos, and a lot of his pictures could open next week. Hitchcock's genre gave him an edge, of course: most humor has the shelf life of milk, but terror never goes out of style. When it comes to what makes us jump, we're still frightened by the same things that scared cavemen. As a result, Hitchcock's films require less explaining, less context, than most old great movies. Which isn't to say they're simple. Gus Van Sant remade Psycho in 1998 with an exact shot-by-shot re-creation and still came up short. More pointedly, Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche fell far short of Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The circumstances of the plot held up fine.

Everything holds up fine in Psycho. That's the mystery. After a half century of far more graphic slasher movies, a genre pretty much kicked off by Psycho itself, why does this dark little film continue to captivate and unsettle us? What makes it so infinitely watchable? After all, the most memorable character is a serial killer, albeit a serial killer as boy next door, and the most likable character gets hacked to death a third of the way into the movie. The dialogue, with a couple of notable exceptions, is perfunctory, and so is a lot of the photography. Other than the cinematic dazzle of the shower scene and Bernard Herrmann's terrific soundtrack, why do I sit there time and again, straight through to the final image of -Marion Crane's car being winched out of the swamp behind the Bates Motel? How sick am I? How sick are we all?

Given Psycho's undeniable influence on popular film, it's tempting to theorize that it had the same pervasive effect on public opinion, that singlehandedly it made us more willing to watch violence, cruelty, and other hitherto unspeakable things, such as flushing toilets. (Psycho was the first film to show a toilet being flushed.) But there is something too simple about that formulation. In his new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, David Thomson points out that in November 1959, the same month in which filming on Psycho began, Truman Capote came across an article in The New York Times describing the murder of a Kansas family that would become In Cold Blood. The sordid story of Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired the novel on which Hitchcock based his movie, was only two years in the past. So maybe Hitchcock was just keeping up with the times. Give him this much: no other filmmakers of his stature saw what he did then, or if they did, they didn't put it onscreen.

Hitchcock said he made Psycho after noting the healthy box office for a string of violent B movies made in the '50s by William Castle (House on Haunted Hill) and Roger Corman (A Bucket of Blood), and wondering what could be done if a more adept director made such a film. He was also said to have been piqued at the success of the 1955 black-and-white French shocker Les Diaboliques, which some critics claimed out-Hitchcocked the master. Determined to prove that he did not need glamorous stars and locations, Hitchcock shot Psycho for about $800,000. …