Tuesday 14 February 2012

Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

A masterpiece of horror film-making, Alfred Hitchcock invents the spooky slasher genre and packages it with lust, larceny, and the mother of all personality disorders. Psycho is disturbing, terrifying and unforgettable.

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is having a steamy affair with married man Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Desperate for money, she steals $40,000 in cash from her Phoenix-based employer and heads for the highway towards California. After an unwelcome encounter with a highway patrol officer, Marion takes the back roads and finally stops for the night at the isolated Bates Motel. She is the only guest at the 12 room facility, while owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) lives with his reclusive mother in the large mansion overlooking the motel.

Over dinner, Norman takes an unhealthy interest in Marion, while she notices that Norman's shrill mother seems to still have an unusually stringent hold on him. After dinner, Marion is attacked and brutally knifed to death while taking a shower. A private investigator (Martin Balsam), Marion's sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Loomis are soon snooping around the Bates Motel and the adjoining mansion, trying to uncover what happened to Marion.

Hitchcock starts Psycho with illicit love, progresses to theft, marches into multiple murders, and ends with an examination of the damage that severe psychosis can cause. As the film progresses, the unfolding criminal acts gain in intensity and damage, until Hitchcock finally takes us into the murderous mind, busy constructing its own reality and capable of unimaginable horror.

The shower murder is rightfully one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of the movies. With rapid editing heightened by Bernard Herrman's shrieking music score, the knife is never shown to make contact with Marion, and only the killer's stabbing arm is ever revealed. By showing less yet willing the eye to imagine more, Hitchcock creates terror more with what is imagined than what is actually seen.

The Bates family mansion, brooding on the hill above the motel, is a classic setting for resident evil. The dark and mysterious house, with Norman's mother holding court in the upstairs window, oozes unadulterated malice, and Hitchcock maximizes its impact by keeping most of the action in its shadow. Few scenes in Psycho take place inside the house: most of the dastardly deeds, from murders schemed and committed to bodies dumped in the swamp, take place under the mansion's approving gaze.

Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh create roles that became forever intertwined with their names. Perkins is simply chilling as Norman Bates, a character pretending hard to be normal but clearly afflicted with an odd behavioural disorder that just cannot be properly pinpointed.

Leigh is superb in portraying a conflicted Marion, easily seducing a married man but unable herself to resist the temptation of easy money. Marion regrets her actions when a seemingly straightforward road journey starts to unravel. She eventually makes the decision to return to Phoenix and make things right, but her criminal act has already condemned her to a grotesque destiny.

Psycho is an encounter with a deeply unhinged individual skulking in the most ominous of locales. The genius of Hitchcock lies in making Norman Bates a compelling character worth conversing with, and the Bates Motel an instantly recognizable, must-visit destination to shower in.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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