What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 4: ‘Psycho’

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While Alfred Hitchcock made some pretty good thrillers like Rear Window and Marnie (and the labyrinthine Vertigo, which on repeated viewings still eludes me–this is not a bad thing), he is best known for Psycho.  It’s a shame, in a way, that many elements from this film are often parodied–the Ree!  Ree!  Ree! from Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score; Norman’s mother, to name a few–because this film is an effective piece of horror/thriller cinema.  Narratively, it messes with the viewer in ways that few movies have.  And psychologically, you’ll never want to stay in a motel off a main highway ever again.

What’s it about? Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) love for Sam Loomis (John Gavin) temporarily blinds her when she steals $40,000 cash from one of her employer’s clients.  Marion and Sam meet up in hotels for midday lovin’ sessions–she’s in Phoenix, he’s in California–but that’s not enough; Marion wants to marry Sam, but Sam–strapped for cash due to his low-paying  job and an ex-wife whose alimony payments are nearly breaking him–feels they should wait.

Marion leaves town, with the $40k, en route to Sam.  The strange thing is that we see her second-guess herself every step of the way.  The fear of getting caught–and possibly, the fear of getting away with it–tear at her from the beginning.

To avoid the cops, she travels on the old highway.  The weather gets bad, so she stops at the Bates Motel.  Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) runs the motel while his invalid mother stays trapped inside the house nearby.

Norman and Marion have dinner together.  It is then that Marion realizes three things: 1) she needs to own up to her mistake and return the money; 2) Norman’s got some serious mommy issues; and 3) He’s not the kind of guy that you want to have dinner with.  Alone.  She’ll turn around and head back to Phoenix in the morning.  But tonight she’ll unwind with a nice, hot shower.

What’s good about it? Where to begin?  Psycho is more than just a slasher film, it’s a movie that gets under your skin.  The performances are all solid, particularly Perkins, whose Norman is off-putting right from the beginning, even though you don’t know why.  (Who the hell does taxidermy as a hobby?…Oh, wait.  I think I answered my own question.)  And what Hitchcock does about 45 minutes into the film is shocking and unforgettable.  And Herrmann’s score is wonderfully, richly, dark and foreboding.

The film is also impressive because it was made for only $800,000 (the equivalent to $5 million in today’s dollars) and became a huge box office success (adjusted for inflation, it grossed about $200 million.)  Proof that effective storytelling can be done without a massive budget, if done well.  (Hithcock shot on black and white even though he’d been shooting his movies in color for about five years.)

What’s bad about it? Nada.

Perfect for: Anyone who really wants a good freaking out this Halloween.

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One Response to “What’s your favorite scary movie? Part 4: ‘Psycho’”

  1. Evan Derrick Says:

    Yikbo, thanks for dropping by the site to comment.

    Yup, Psycho is a certifiable masterpiece. You could spend days simply breaking down the shower scene and attempting to understand how Hitchcock made it so darn effective. That one scene is, quite possibly, the most brilliant moment of his career (although you can certainly argue that Rear Window or Vertigo or The Birds were better films overall). Reminds me I need to give this puppy another spin sometime.

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