A woman steps into the shower. A dark figure approaches from behind. The shower curtain is pulled back, and the woman screams as she is stabbed repeatedly to the sound of shrieking violins. The killer flees as the woman falls to the floor, her freshly spilt blood still circling down the drain. No other scene is more recognizable in all of Horror. The film, of course, is PSYCHO. The director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock broke terrifying new ground that shook the very foundations of the genre with the now infamous thriller.
A desperate secretary steals $40,000 in cash from her employer with the hopes of marrying her penniless boyfriend. As she grows weary on the run from Phoenix, she stops at a remote inn far off the highway, the Bates Motel, where she stays for the night. The innkeeper is a shy young man who lives under the watchful eye of his invalid mother. After sharing a quick bite to eat with him, she retreats for the night, and is killed by a mysterious figure while taking a shower. Now, the woman's boyfriend, sister, and a keen private detective have set out to find the missing girl and the cash.
PSYCHO marks a radical shift in the focus of Horror, one where monsters are no longer relevant, because the real monster is right here at home... It is US! Prior to 1960, terror lived on the outside, in some creature that threatened to destroy humanity. Vampires, werewolves, and giant radioactive bugs had once ruled our nightmares, but at the end of the movie, our heroes prevailed, and we were safe. With PSYCHO, the terror now comes from within. Norman Bates could be any one of us; a friend, a neighbor, even a fragment of our own fractured psyche! Like the serial killer Ed Gein, upon whom Robert Bloch's original novel was based, this new breed of psychotic madmen became indistinguishable from the whole of mankind. This is the most frightening aspect of the film, and what has allowed it to remain just as powerful and poignant today as in the day of its release.
Sigmund Freud would have a field day with the psychosexual content that overrides every element in the plot. From the Oedipal relationship between Norman and his mother to the significance of the knife in the Horror film, PSYCHO begs the analytic discussion that ties sex and death together intrinsically. Romance only gives way to irony, as Hitchcock never allows his characters the satisfaction of fulfilling their dreams or lustful desires. He succeeds at not only breaking the mold in Horror, but in providing a progressive look into female sexuality as well. In the opening scene, we find two unwed lovers, Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin), just following a hotel room tryst. Marion is shown topless in her brassiere, enticing audience just as she will later in the film as she prepares to take a shower. In no mixed terms, this liberated sexual freedom ends at the tip of a knife.
The only thing sharper than Norman's knife is the precision with which Hitchcock edits each shot. He has not been called the Master of Horror without good reason, and PSYCHO demonstrates much of the director's finest work. Many other talents contributed to the film's success, however. Credit first goes out to screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who turns out a brilliant script based on Hitchcock's suggestions over the novel. This is where the major changes occur in the narrative structure and character, expanding Marion's role in the opening act that leads up to the surprise moment where we must shift our investment of emotion from our supposed heroine to the sympathetic Norman Bates. One cannot speak of genius without mentioning the great Bernard Hermann, who provides one of the single greatest film scores the genre has ever known. The frantic energy of Hermann's kinetic score is just as important in driving the terror and suspense in PSYCHO.
The names Anthony Perkins and Norman Bates have become synonymous over the years thanks to Perkins' outstanding performance as the disturbed killer. We are never given any reason to suspect Norman; he is timid, friendly, and by all accounts, 'normal.' Perkins draws us in to the character, and portrays Norman as the film's ultimate victim. In this way, he is the most sympathetic of all, and even the unexpected twist in the end leads to pity over celebration. Janet Leigh is phenomenal as well, teeming with fear and paranoia as she makes her fateful journey across state lines. Half way in, we meet Martin Balsam, who charms audiences as the clever minded Detective Arbogast, while Vera Miles and John Gavin take over as our second-string heroes in another pair of excellent performances.
Alfred Hitchcock not only broke the long-running tradition of externalized horror, but in the process, launched a brand-new era of psycho killer movies that would later evolve into the Slasher film of the 1970's and 80's. In PSYCHO, we see one of the master's finest works, a piece of cinematic history that has served to define the Horror genre for generations.
Movies like PSYCHO:
PEEPING TOM, SISTERS, HOMICIDAL, PARANOIAC.