Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Psycho (1960)

"We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"

For a long time, having seen little of the rest of his filmography, Psycho was, to me, the typical Alfred Hitchcock picture. Now, viewing it after three of his other, less directly horror-related movies, it has a unique personality. The relatable male lead is replaced with a psychotic villain (Anthony Perkins), and the usual love interest (Janet Leigh) here is a renegade thief who (spoiler, if you've spent the last 50+ years living under a rock) ultimately serves as sheep for the slaughter, at a point that stands barely halfway through the movie.

It's hard to view a movie so innovative and inspirational as Psycho was with fresh eyes. Its beats are hard-coded into popular culture, and what I can imagine must have been terribly shocking in its time, has become trail-worn horror cliché. Not that it doesn't still feel original in Hitchcock's hands - when a thing is done for the first time, it tends to have an authenticity that is lacking long after it's become rote.

I don't know if Psycho was the singular precursor to the slasher trend that exploded out of the '70s and '80s, but I have no doubt that it was a preeminent landmark in the evolution of horror cinema from the days of antiquity to more modern times. It even seems to preempt the exploitation genre with its unflinching depiction of murder from the almost sympathetic perspective of the killer - not as an anonymous, masked figure, but a flawed human being.

And that, I think, is the real innovation behind Psycho. It's not a movie about poor, unlucky innocents who fall afoul of a deranged killer. It's about the deranged killer, and that one poor, unlucky innocent who unexpectedly leads to the killer's downfall. And Anthony Perkins does a fantastic job of inhabiting Norman Bates, the attractive yet awkward, creepy but charismatic taxidermist who runs the family motel, and has serious mommy issues.

But even so, the MacGuffin that gets us to Bates Motel is not a single-minded plot vehicle with one-dimensional characters - as in so many dime-a-dozen slashers to come - but is as intriguingly fleshed out as any situation or set of characters in any one of Hitchcock's films, with genuine mystery and suspense. A lot of slashers have been made over the years by some very forgettable talents; in essence, Psycho is an example of what a slasher can be if it's done by a serious and talented filmmaker.

It's unfortunate, then, that it is no less aged than any of Hitchcock's other films. Its secrets have been uncovered a long time ago, and its shocks pale in comparison to what we've grown accustomed to in the decades since its initial release. However, I can admit that I have a newfound appreciation for it, both as a standalone movie (which is still very watchable), and also as a critical landmark in the history of horror cinema. Plus, it has, by far, the most satisfying ending in a Hitchcock film that I've seen yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment