Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ – 60 Years Later and Shower Curtain Sales Have Still Not Recovered

I did not become aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” until its first sequel, “Psycho II,” was released back in 1983, 23 years after the original. Of course, I didn’t watch this sequel at the time as I was just a kid, but I do remember its movie trailers and the title cracking up on the big screen as it played before the feature presentation of “Return of the Jedi.” This image really freaked me out, and it was just as well I didn’t see the classic film which inspired it until many years later. When I rented and watched it on VHS with my older brother, we did not  see what the big deal was as we had long since been spoiled by the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies with all the blood and gore a hormonal teenager could ever want or endure.

Well, it turns out watching it once was not nearly enough. Whether or not you think “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s best movie ever, it is often the one he is remembered best for making. After 60 years, it remains a great study of how a director can maintain suspense throughout the entire running time of a movie, and of a master playing the audience all the way up to the last frame. This becomes even more apparent when you watch it for a second and third time. Hitchcock puts you into the mindset of Marion Crane as she drives out of town after embezzling some money, and then he completely changes the dynamic of the story once Norman Bates arrives.

With “Psycho” now at its 60th Anniversary, we have another chance to go behind the scenes to see how this horror classic was made. It also represents another opportunity for Universal Pictures to release a new digital edition of the movie so they can fleece a few more dollars from our wallets. There has already been a Blu-ray release which made it look exquisite, and there has got to be a 4K Ultra HD version at some point. Anyway, looking back at the history of this classic proved to be one of the most interesting research projects I have taken on in years as there is much to be said about what went on behind the scenes.

“Psycho” originated as a novel written by Robert Bloch which itself was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man whose horrific exploits would inspire many horror movies to come. Hitchcock acquired the film rights through his agent for $9,000, and he chose to film it after two projects he was working on for Paramount Pictures, “Flamingo Feather” and “No Bail for The Judge,” fell through. But Paramount did not want to help Hitchcock out on this one either as they were quoted as saying they found Bloch’s novel “too repulsive” and “impossible for films.” The executives refused to finance the production, and they even went as far as telling Hitchcock their soundstages were unavailable because they were being used for other projects. Of course, this proved to be a bold-faced lie as their production schedule was already in a slump at the time.

Undaunted, Hitchcock was still determined to bring “Psycho” to the silver screen, and he even offered to defer his normal director’s fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60% ownership of the movie’s negative. Still, executives would not grant him the financing he desired, so he continued to go through several different cost-cutting measures before getting a budget of no more than $1 million to make the movie his own way. Hitchcock had planned to make the film fast and cheap anyway, and he employed the crew members of his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” who were already skilled at doing the same. He also succeeded in casting proven stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins at a quarter of their usual salaries.

Bringing down the budget also meant shooting the film in black and white, but this was fine with Hitchcock as he wanted to film it that way as to make the shower scene come across as less gory, and he was also a big fan of “Les Diabolique” which was also shot in black and white.

Like “Psycho,” “Les Diabolique” was remade many years later. Unlike the originals, both were filmed in color. Even more unlike the originals, they received mercilessly scathing reviews upon their separate releases.

In filming “Psycho,” Hitchcock started off by making it as objective an experience as possible, and we feel what Marion goes through as the voices in her head fill her with guilt and doubt over what she has done. To help emphasize this effect, Hitchcock shot much of the movie with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. By doing this, the camera was said to mimic normal human vision. As a result, you are not just watching the movie, you are experiencing it. This even goes on after Marion has gone and the story turns its focus to Norman Bates. When he pushes her car into a nearby swamp, you share in his anxiety when it does not completely sink. That’s the thing; like Norman, you want the car to sink, and it makes one feel like a voyeur just as Hitchcock intended.

Then, of course, you have the famous shower scene, and after all these years it remains one of the most talked about and heavily dissected moments in cinema history. I am sure you all know the details regarding it: it was shot over six days from 77 different camera angles, and the scene features around 50 cuts in the three minutes which it lasts. Not much is shown as you never see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh, and there is no gore other than the blood (chocolate syrup was used) going down the drain along with the water. Indeed, it is what you do not see which makes the scene feel so violent. Like Spielberg later did with “Jaws,” Hitchcock dared the audience to use their imagination in regards to what they thought they saw here. This is one of many reasons why this scene has stood the test of time, and it was also the first time a director killed off his leading lady in the middle of a movie. Back in 1960, audience members could not help but wonder where things could possibly go from there, and shower curtain sales have never been the same since.

I also cannot go on without mentioning the infamous score composed by the great Bernard Herrmann, and it remains one of the scariest pieces of music ever applied to a motion picture. Throughout his career, Hermann proved brilliant in composing film scores which really captured the psychology of the characters. This proves to be as true about “Psycho’s” score as it was with Hermann’s work on “Cape Fear” and “Taxi Driver.” It was a surprise to learn how this score almost didn’t come about as Herrmann balked at Hitchcock’s request to take the job on a reduced salary. Somehow though, Herrmann agreed to the terms and ended up writing music for a string orchestra as opposed to a full symphony which would have included brass and woodwind instruments. This is now clearly seen as a masterstroke on his part as the screeching of violins captures the sheer terror which overtakes Marion and the audience during the infamous shower scene.

Although “Psycho” is now recognized today as a classic, it actually received mixed reviews upon its release. Some admired the buildup of tension, but others questioned the psychological elements as being less effective. It even made one critic, C. A. Lejeune, so offended to where she walked out of the movie before it was even over, and she soon after resigned from her position as film critic for The Observer. Looks like Norman’s mother did not just claim victims onscreen!

When you look at the history of cinema, it is important to keep in mind how movies we see these days as classic were not necessarily treated this way upon their original release. It is over the passing of time where movies get re-evaluated or seen in a different light, and none can ever truly be perfect (although some do come very close to it). “Psycho” was a game changer as it came about during the Motion Picture Production Code which was heavy in its censorship of violence and sex in American films. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock flirted with showing nudity as well as gore, and this later opened up doors for filmmakers to exploit these elements with far more detail. Without “Psycho,” there may never have been a “Halloween” which by itself inadvertently sparked a whole wave of slasher movies. And without “Halloween,” there certainly would not have been a “Friday the 13th” as Jason Voorhees, like Norman Bates, also had serious mommy issues.

The cultural impact of “Psycho” lasts on to this very day. There are only so many movies which could have a sequel made to it several decades later. “Psycho III” followed a few years later, and a prequel came about because some just thought it would be a good idea to show how Norman Bates got to be the shy psycho we know him to be. There was even a failed television pilot called “Bates Motel” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, an asylum inmate who befriends Norman and later inherits the motel and the house where mother lived (Anthony Perkins wanted nothing to do with that one). It also inspired a shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant which seemed almost every bit as odd as Norman himself. The only purpose of it seemed to be proof of how remakes will never be able to recapture what made the original so good. But if they make money, the studios will clearly not mind the critical bashing even if it proves to be justified.

Television would later take another shot at the “Psycho” franchise with another version of “Bates Motel,” and this one starred Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother. This version ended up lasting five seasons and proved to be very compelling as our fascination with the dark side of human nature is always stronger than we ever bother to realize. While some may have said enough already with “Psycho,” this show proved there was more life to it than we cared to initially realized.

Even today, you cannot hear screeching violins and not think of “Psycho.” Filmmakers reference it today like Wes Craven did in “Scream,” and there are dozens of movies out there which have done the same. That shower scene has been spoofed lord only knows how many times, my favorite being on “The Simpsons” where Maggie ended up attacking Homer with a mallet after watching one Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Another great one came about during one of Billy Crystal’s Oscar montages where he was in the shower and ends up getting accosted by Kevin Spacey who plays his “American Beauty” character of Lester Burnham. Turns out it was not the same shower Marion got stabbed in, but instead the one where Lester often experienced the highlight of his day.

Leigh never looked at taking showers the same way again, and it would be ages before she ever took one. Perkins would forever be typecast in roles similar to Norman Bates, but he said he would still have done “Psycho” even if he knew this would be the case. Many filmmakers (Brian DePalma especially) have tried to use the tricks Hitchcock employed in this and his other films to varying degrees of success. Still, there is no topping what Hitchcock did with this classic 1960 movie, and it remains the one so many other suspense and horror movies are judged by. Hitchcock’s powers of manipulation remain very hard to duplicate after all these years, and this illustrates what he meant when he was quoted as saying, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”

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All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘The Shining’

I guess you could say this particular trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” was an early example of a teaser trailer. These days we get teaser trailers for all the big Hollywood releases, and they are designed to whet our appetite not just for the next big blockbuster, but also for the next trailer which will give us even more information of what is in store for us. These days, we even have teaser trailers for teaser trailers, something which I hope will be stopped soon because they are ever so annoying. We get teased enough as kids, so doing this at the movies does not help.

What I love about this trailer for “The Shining” is how simple it is in its design, and yet it still feels deeply unsettling. All we see at first is part of a hotel lobby with two elevators and chairs. The camera never moves an inch as the movie’s credits move upwards indicating the title, the actors starring in it (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), the names of the screenwriters, how it is based on “Stephen King’s Best-Selling Masterpiece of Modern Horror,” and the one credit us movie buffs are always happy to see, “Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” Seeing this had me wondering what one could expect with this adaptation of King’s work, and the music composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind certainly sends a shiver down my spine.

Watching this trailer reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as Kubrick, like Hitchcock, managed to find a sinister quality in everyday things and the ordinary. There’s nothing particular special about this hotel lobby here as it looks like any other we have ever been through. This makes it all the more horrifying when those gallons of blood start pouring out of the elevators and into the lobby,

Once again, the camera never moves or pans away, and seeing the blood wash over it is incredibly frightening as you feel trapped and unable to escape. Our instincts tell us to run away, but Kubrick is not about to let his audience off the hook. As the blood drips off the camera to reveal the damage left in its wake, it is clear how the “Dr. Strangeglove” director is more than prepared to take us on a most unsettling ride.

Opinions about Kubrick’s “The Shining” have varied over the years, and King himself has said numerous times how much he despised it. Whatever you may think of the film, this trailer for it is a brilliant piece of work. It’s a shame we don’t see more trailers like this one these days. Of course, if you know of any, please feel free to share them with me.

 

‘Friday the 13th’ May Be No ‘Halloween,’ But it is Better Than the Average Slasher Movie

Friday the 13th movie poster

Look, no one is going to mistake any “Friday the 13th” movie for cinema at its best. It started out as a rip off of “Halloween” with a little bit of “Psycho” thrown in for good measure, and it soon became a never-ending franchise which, to this day, still won’t die. We had two of the sequels with the word “final” in them, and each turned out to be a flat out lie. Just when it looks like this franchise has breathed its final breath, it is resurrected once again. Perhaps the world is overpopulated with too many horny teenagers who need to be dealt with in a messy way. In the end, these films touch on our deepest fears and exploit them for all they are worth. We know they’re not good for us, but we can’t help ourselves and want to see what nasty crimes will be perpetrated next.

The “Friday the 13th” movies are essentially the equivalent of a fast food meal, the kind which has an obscene amount of cholesterol in them. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep coming back for more. It’s not just tapping into our deepest desires, but into our willingness to be bad and rebel against what our parents don’t like. Film critics never stopped attacking these movies and continually bashed them to pieces, and yet they made so much damn money on such low budgets. It represented horror being taken to the next level for the children of the 80’s. Our parents hated the movies, and that made us all the more curious about seeing them. Jason Voorhees eventually became as familiar to us as Santa Claus. I remember when “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (LOL) came out when I was in the second grade, and none us had ever looked more forward to a movie none of us would be able to see (nor had we any business to). Yes, these slasher flicks bring back a lot of nostalgia for me.

The original “Friday the 13th” seems much better in retrospect. This is especially the case when you compare them to the sequels, let alone all the endless knockoffs, which came after it. What surprised me is how some of the murders which occur in this movie actually happen off screen. We have no idea they have occurred until we see the carnage put on display right in front of our eyes. It’s pretty vicious what is perpetrated in this film, and this was back when an arrow through an eye actually felt shocking. For the most part, “Friday the 13th” and a couple of sequels felt very real. You have to give the filmmakers credit because none of the slasher movies made today can’t even touch that feeling of reality. We all know we’re watching a movie when it comes to the sequels, but the original was experienced more than watched.

I’m sure we all know by now what Drew Barrymore should have known at the beginning of “Scream;” Jason was not the killer in this one. Instead, it was his mother, played in an over the top performance by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Voorhees is basically what Norman Bates’ mother would have looked like, had Norman not have killed her off. Those moments where she is clearly schizophrenic and acting as if her son is actually telling her to kill people are both chilling and hilarious at the same time. This is far from a convincing performance, but Palmer is so much fun to watch in her deranged state to where it really doesn’t matter.

The cast of actors were basically hired not so much for their acting talent, but because they resemble, as director Sean S. Cunningham put it, those kids who came out of a Pepsi commercial. In many ways, this casting choice helped give “Friday the 13th” a stronger feeling of reality as they are people we recognize from our own lives. They are not models who have enhanced themselves with endless plastic surgeries (those would appear in the sequels). The ladies look very sweet and fetching, and the men look down to earth and not like those guys who spent way too much time at the gym.

“Friday the 13th” also was the movie which started the cliché of how if you have premarital sex with your boyfriend of girlfriend, you would die. The last person left standing was always a virgin, or the one too shy to ask a boy for a date. As a result, many people think there is some highly conservative Christian value system in place in these movies which one must follow in order to survive an experience with a masked maniac. Some will say Carpenter originated this with the original “Halloween,” but he made it clear in the DVD commentary he was not trying to spread religious dogma. Carpenter said the characters got killed because they weren’t paying attention, but ever since the first “Friday the 13th,” it’s been open season on kids who don’t practice safe sex.

There is also the crazy old man Ralph (Walt Gorney) who warns everybody of how they “are all doomed.” Of course, it’s always some crazy guy no one ever listens to. God forbid it’s some normal person people take the time to listen to. But if everyone were to believe this guy, then there would be no movie.

Of all the actors in this film, let alone the entire series, Kevin Bacon is the one who came out of it with the most successful career. “Friday the 13th” may not show off his best talents, but he does have one of the coolest death sequences in horror movie history. Bacon also gets to have one of the sweetest love making scenes any horror movie could ever hope to have. His character and his girlfriend actually do make love. It’s not one of those humping and pumping moments you can find in so many other movies where one person is doing all the work and the other is not having enough pleasure. It makes their inevitable deaths feel kind of sad. Even if we really wanted to see these two get bumped off, we don’t look forward to it.

Sooner or later, we were bound to see this movie because people couldn’t stop describing the more graphic moments in it. I remember my brother telling me about the scene where Kevin’s girlfriend does finally get it:

“You see her looking into the shower stalls and no one’s there. But while she is looking, you can see in the background the shadow of an ax being raised up. When she turns around, you can see the ax going into her face!”

My reply to this at the time was:

“Whoa! Cool!”

Then you have the unforgettable Harry Manfredini music score which basically sounds like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score on speed. Never have woodwind instruments been as thoroughly pummeled as they are here. This is not to mention the “chi, chi, chi, ha, ha, ha” sound (it’s actually “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) which is so clearly identified with this undying franchise. When you hear it, you know Jason is not far away with a rusty machete in his grasp.

Cunningham is no John Carpenter, and he is a better producer than a director, but he does keep the suspense quota of “Friday the 13th” at a high level and generates a number of good scares. This one does not focus so much on the killings as it did on the messy aftermath. While you did see characters gutted in the most painful places imaginable, there were a couple of others you kept wondering about until you saw their bloodied corpses. The later sequels would get a little more creative with the murders.

* * * out of * * * *