A Study of Psycho
Directed by the master of suspense, and possibly the best director the world has ever known, Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Psycho’ (1960) is the mother of all horror movies. It is a landmark in the history of the horror genre, the film that changed everything and, also the film that put many of the horror movie rules into place. It’s a unanimous claim among scholars that this film is a highly influential work.
I have stated many times that I don’t count ‘Psycho’ as a slasher film, but it isa horror film all the same, even if it does rely on heavy thriller elements. ‘Psycho’, as a horror film, is the first step into contemporary horror – the horror films we all know and love. Without ‘Psycho’ there would be no ‘Halloween’ (dir. John Carpenter, 1978), Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) or ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (dir. Wes Craven, 1984.)
The film took audiences to places that had never been explored before. Not only did the plot include very innovative elements, but Hitchcock with this film (which he chose to film in black and white) even changed the way in which movies had to be experienced by the public:
“Not only did publicity urge spectators not to tell their friends the ending; but exhibitors were pressured to admit no spectators once the film had started. This went right against the 50-year-old practice of ‘continuous performance’, to which the whole industry was geared. Working hours being what they were, spectators could, and very frequently did, drop in whenever convenient, maybe halfway through the film they wanted to see… Hitchcock’s advertisements were admirably tactful. ‘Please don’t tell the ending; it’s the only one we have’. And: ‘We won’t allow you to cheat yourself…’”
‘Psycho’ was a new way of understanding the horror genre. From the very introduction of the female victim, the Final girl, or the ominous presence of the ‘Mother’ figure and the dressing up in a costume to commit the murders. These factors were all followed by other horror masters and, I don’t know of one single director who isn’t influenced by Hitchcock’s techniques and ideas.
‘Psycho’ was clearly different by its ending alone. In every film before it which drew on horror, the equilibrium of the world being safe was brought back to safety at the end. Films like ‘Dracula’, ‘The Wolf-man’ and ‘Frankenstein’ may have had sequels, but at the end of each movie – the normality from the start of the film was returned to normal. The monster was killed and all was well with the world. It is in this that ‘Psycho’ strays into independence, because even though Norman Bates is captured at the end of the movie, the real culprit is still loose in his head and nothing can be done about it; the viewer can see mother in his eyes and they can hear her voice coming across the screen as she stares out from Norman’s eyes – still in control and free from punishment.
With the very last scene, Marion Crane’s now iconic car should have been pulled completely out of the swamp to restore the social order, but it is shown half pulled out, emphasizing again the fact that the world has not returned to normality.
Films such as ‘Night of the living Dead’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ went even further than ‘Psycho’ – letting the audience now that normality or equilibrium had not returned to these worlds.
‘Halloween’ for example, by showing Michael Myers disappearance – that he is not dead and by showing every room he could be in, but is not. Many other films would, and still do, continue this trend, but it’s only fair to acknowledge that everything started with Norman still possessed by his mother, and by Marion’s car resisting to be retrieved from the swamp.
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