Thursday, October 16, 2008
Oh, man. I wanna be Alfred Hitchcock when I grow up.
Okay, writing a review of Psycho is an act not entirely dissimilar to reinventing the wheel. It's been decades since the movie terrified people out of their showers and a thousand commentaries have been written about the movie. Nothing I say, nothing I observe, hasn't been studied more thoroughly by wiser heads than mine. So alls I can do is tell you a story.
I met Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano when I was seventeen. I had just graduated high school and a bunch of friends and I decided to drive down to the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Pasadena, CA. There was a bunch of razzle dazzle around the various franchise horror flicks coming down the pipeline, and a bunch of odd fliers appeared about the disappearance of three amateur filmmakers in the woods outside of Burkittsville, MD, but somewhere lost in the commotion was an ill-attended appearance by the man who wrote Psycho.
I don't recall why I went to the panel or what burning question I had that compelled me to the podium, but I remember that sweet old face smiling down at me from the stage and saying "I think monsters should be beautiful."
Damn. I was very deeply affected by that. Even to this day that accidental little piece of poetry stays with me. The notion that the embodiments of our lusts and our terrors and our animal passions could hold a strange dark beauty was something I responded to. Obviously, I am not talking about the real monsters of the world, the sick and mean among us that go out and do real harm to real people. But those things we create, the stuff that affects us as deeply as a proper monster can, there is something genuinely seductive in that.
Anyway, Psycho. I assume you all know the history of the book, the case it was based on, and the ties to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's a lot of interesting background to the story but generally speaking horror movies play fast and loose with the stories they are inspired from. I would rather get into my views on the movie than go on about some nutjob from Wisconsin and the ways he decorated his house.
It drives me nuts when people call Psycho the first slasher movie. Yeah, a naked broad in a Bad Place gets done in through the gross misuse of kitchen cutlery But aside from a couple of frightening murders, it fundamentally doesn't feel like a slasher movie. Slasher movies, as I've come to understand the term, require the murderer to be a cipher. Norman is painfully, painfully human.
I like Norman Bates. Norman Bates breaks my heart. People tend to fixate on the justifiably famous shower murder, but my favorite scene in the movie is the parlor scene between Bates and the ill-fated Marion Crane. In the darkly shadowed room, trapped by his own obsessions, this lonely little weirdo shares his misery with the increasingly uneasy Marion. It's heartbreaking. Psycho came along before the serial killer archetype calcified into what we understand it to be. Norman Bates isn't a cold, calculating, misanthropic genius. He isn't even aware he's killing people. He's just deeply fucked up.
Psycho, in a weird way, is almost a ghost story. Norman's mother is, in a very real sense, haunting the Bates motel. The atmosphere of isolation and decay, the very tangible sense of claustrophobia and loneliness, and the looming, tombstone-like presence of the old house on the hill, all add a nearly supernatural air to the events that occur.
Then there's the shower scene.
There are three things that work really strongly for me. I like the fact that the violence happens so suddenly, that she's attacked with such brutal speed and viciousness in the sanctuary of the shower. I like the graceful way that Marion Crane slides down the wall, hand reaching out to us as if for help. Finally, I really like the slow pull away from the lifeless eye. It's a horrible image, and Hitchcock forces us to linger in on it in silence.
As for the rest of the movie, the discovery of the corpse in the Bates home still freaks the shit out of me. The big reveal of Mrs. Bates is still genuinely scary and Hitchcock forces us to linger on the image, this grotesque parody of life, poorly preserved and staring back at us with hollow eyes. It's a shocking image, especially considering the era this was filmed.
I don't really have a problem with the Psycho remake. I listen to cover bands, too. I even thought that Vince Vaughn did a pretty good job as Norman Bates. My big issue was the simple fact that he's physically too imposing for the role. Anthony Perkins had a more boyish look to him, which fit better with a character in arrested development. He's more unassuming, more innocent, and his final descent into madness becomes all the more chilling in his guiltless features.
I've always wondered about the final monologue, which comes as a chilling counterpoint to the false reassurance offered by the forensic psychologist. How deep was Norman into his own lunacy? How unaware was he of his mother's actions? Or was he even there at all, a hollow man from the start, his mother's skeletal smile superimposed over his features as the movie ends.
ia ia cthulhu fhtagn
Creature (who thinks Janet Leigh was quite a hottie in her day)