Thursday, October 2, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Psycho

Anthony Perkins, as Norman Bates, explains his hobbies in Psycho.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations for great horror films and thrillers as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 2: Psycho (1960)

Let it not be said that Alfred Hitchcock lacked a sense of humor. In Psycho, he takes one of the most popular actresses of her time, turns her into a petty criminal on the run from the law, and shows her what true villainy is in a run-in with one of the all-time great horror movie characters.

That actress was Janet Leigh, cast as the thieving Marion Crane, who stops in for a fortuitous stay at the Bates Motel. Here, she meets Norman, who runs this inn with his best friend – his domineering mother. The creep factor ratchets up very high very quickly as Norman explains with great care his love of taxidermy and the bond he shares with the Bates matriarch.

It is hard to overstate just how unprepared audiences were for this film. They expected a thriller, but the level of fear Psycho inspired was on a whole other level. Despite being the master of suspense, this may have been Hitchcock’s only true horror film, unless we are counting The Birds, and it is Hitchcock who elevates the proceedings beyond mere voyeurism.

Try as one might, it would be hard to assign any deeper meaning to Psycho. Written by Joseph Stefano and based on the book by Robert Bloch, most of the nuance is contained there in the title, but that just makes the magic trick pulled off by Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins, who plays Norman, all the more impressive.

Depending on your perspective, Norman may be a villain, but he is also deeply sympathetic. We may not condone his actions, but Perkins make us feel what Norman feels and makes us understand why he does what he does. The role followed Perkins for the rest of his career, and he was typecast as the creep from there on out. But, he never did it better than here – in fact, few have ever done it better.

After years of making popular blockbusters with big-name stars, the distinctive style of Psycho was borne of Hitchcock’s desire to get down to brass tacks and make a no-frills chiller. He reined in his more showy tendencies, embraced the grit, and produced a down and dirty classic. For a director famous for flash, Psycho is as matter of fact as they come, and as such, it is a masterpiece.

Tomorrow, one of Hitchcock’s favorite horror films as broken minds and broken hearts collide in a classic French thriller.

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