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Halloween Picks: “Psycho”

We admit to a penchant for the macabre, perhaps cemented in our psyche when we saw the original “Night of the Living Dead” in our formative years (or at least a good 15 minutes of it until we got so freaked out we changed the channel).

You can image, then, why the Halloween season is our among our favorite times of the year. It draws up those oddly pleasant memories of fright, deception and fictional encounters with the undead. Every  year we look for a Halloween event to attend, and usually we’re disappointed with our choices. Haunted houses? Usually too gory and disturbing. Theme parks? Too crowded. Trick or treating? Too tame.

This year, a local cinema is presenting classic horror movies as if they were new. The movie slated for October 31st is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Now, we’ve adored Hitchcock for most of our lives, growing up on old “Hitchcock Presents” episodes and of course movies ranging from “North by Northwest,” “Shadow of a Doubt” and our favorite, “Suspicion.” Hitch was a master storyteller, and one of the few creative geniuses whose work you can actually enjoy as real entertainment.

For all of his cinematic mastery and achievements, he is probably best remembered now for “Psycho,” a movie overshadowed by its signature shower scene. Its core character is not the charming ne’er-do-well of “Shadow of a Doubt,” not the the sympathetic figure of circumstance as in “Strangers on a Train,” and not the victim of mistaken identity (“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest.”) No, Norman Bates is a mentally unstable and unsettling main character the audience can’t embrace or identify with. “Psycho” was a big departure for Hitchcock, and its core story was so unconventional that he wound up having to finance the production out of his own pocket.

When the movie was made in 1960, America was in the process of shedding the 1950s and moving into the Jet Age. Cars were stripped of their chrome and their outlandish fins, young JFK replaced the elder Eisenhower and women moved away from shirtdresses and daytime gloves. But as much as the country was moving forward, it held on to some strictly conservative social attitudes; it was most definitely not prepared for the story of Norman Bates and his mother.

For one thing, the movie’s opening shot depicts a social taboo. Marion Crane (actress Janet Leigh), an unmarried woman, is in a hotel room at midday with her lover. This is of zero consequence today, but the frankness of their affair was unheard of in Hollywood movies then. And not only is Marion an unchaste woman, she’s a thief who embezzles from her employer and goes on the run. This was not how audiences expected to see the lovely Janet Leigh.

For his part, Norman Bates (actor Anthony Perkins in the role that defined his career) is troubled by Marion for different reasons. He has no idea about her theft, and doesn’t know she is on the run. He is attracted to her, bothered by his attraction, and haranged by his mother for it. The actions that follow, including the famous shower scene, caused widespread shock and disbelief among audiences. Movies just didn’t work this way.

The movie, so radical in 1960, might seem tame in comparison to the gorefests horror movies have become. But that only underscores it brilliance, because it continues to unnerve and horrify in a slow creep. Norman Bates is not a superhuman, one-dimensional killing entity who instantly terrorizes and destroys. Instead, he’s a lonely, awkward, small-town nobody with a mental illness and no way to cope with it. His reaction to Marion creates a tragic domino effect that leads to a final scene that is unforgettable in its own right.

It’s a perfect movie for a dark, cold Halloween night.

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