by Thomas Conlan
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The human psyche is as fragile as it is fascinating. The complexities of head and heart during a period of madness can be as fearful as the scariest of horror films. Like many of us, Alfred Hitchcock understood this and believed that the only way to get rid of his fears was to make movies about them. 1960’s Psycho was his attempt to part ways with fear and introduce us to a unique cinematic portrayal of madness like none before.
Psycho begins with our main character, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), fleeing Phoenix after having stolen $40,000 from her employer. Needing to take shelter from a heavy rainstorm, Crane pulls into the Bates Motel to rest for the evening. Here we’re introduced to the proprietor and film’s antagonist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman is a charming man with more than a few mother-issues, as his attraction towards Marion sparks jealous anger from his mother, Norma Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman finds himself the center of an investigation into the disappearance of his beautiful motel guest, where a shocking revelation is unveiled: murder runs in the Bates family.
Purposely shot in black and white, Hitchcock intended to minimize the amount of gore shown to audiences while effectively staying under the budget granted by Paramount. To create the effects needed for blood, chocolate syrup was used instead of the Hollywood standard at the time and proved to appear more realistic on film. Hitchcock’s innovative directing created the illusion of graphic violence by matching quick cuts in the editing room with Bernard Hermann’s classically sharp score, “The Murder,” while simultaneously being one of the first directors to effectively create a false protagonist for the film.
Hitchcock revolutionized how film could be experienced through the use of strict late admission policies, and ideas that would push the boundaries placed by the Motion Picture Production Code. Boundaries which included an unmarried couple sharing a bed, a crossdressing main character, and—arguably the film’s most iconic scene—the very first toilet flush in American cinema.
Not only is Hitchcock’s Psycho an interesting feat of horror directing, but a complete joy in terms of imagery—both visual and symbolic—such as the director’s use of stuffed birds to symbolize the eventual fate of our original protagonist, Marion Crane. Themes of duality are present throughout the film with the clever use of camera angles and cinematography, as seen through mirrors, lighting, and costume design.
One of the earliest influences of the modern day slasher film, Psycho was not only a cinematic masterpiece, but gave birth to one of today’s most celebrated genres in horror. A breed of film for the murderous, the maniacal, and the raving things of the screen. A genre that explores the idea that we all go a little mad sometimes.