Psycho (1960)

Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece. It’s credited as being the movie which established the framework for the modern slasher film, and created an insane amount of tropes both in and out of the genre. This is one of those movies that you’ve basically seen by osmosis at this point. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and just rent the bloody thing. Also watch the original theatrical trailer which was unironically cut to be 6 minutes and 30 seconds long. Zany. Skip past the break to read our spoiler filled review, not that you’d be concerned about that… pop culture spoiled this one for you long ago.

 
 

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Mark: Psycho. Guess they finally made a movie about my wife, eh boys? Just kidding, mostly. This one’s a classic. Glad I finally got around to watching it.

Jake:There is so much wrong with everything you just said, but I’m going to call out the most troubling bit. “Finally got around to watching it”? How? Why?

Mark: Look, between The Simpsons, Psych, daytime showings on TCM, and generally just being conscious I’d basically seen this one before. I mean just look at this list of connections to other pieces of media. Through the magic of excel I counted all of them… there are over 1200 cited references to the movie on that list. That’s roughly 20 independent references a year. Impressive. I will admit, though, that I had seen very little of the first half hour or so of the movie.

Jake: Which is surprising considering the massive cajones Hitchcock swung at the viewer in the first half of the film (more on that later). The beginning act of this flick is quintessential Hitchcock. Amazingly framed shots and exemplary pacing. Seeing as how he had just come off North By Northwest before this one, he was no stranger to making the highest quality movie imaginable. Psycho was really a love letter to the B movie, but done really well, and in  very unique way.

Mark: Yeah, they put a pretty different spin on the movie. It seems like they try and set up Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) as being the titular psycho. She basically runs around acting like a delusional paranoid maniac until she lands at the Bates Motel. It’s hard to get my mind right on how this would feel without knowing what’s coming, but I want to say that it was supposed to be surprising when it turned out that she wasn't the killer.

Jake: It’s an interesting point. On the whole, Psycho’s M.O. is to get you off-balance as the viewer. You could say this thing falls squarely the fuck into the psychological subgenre, though the name clearly wouldn’t imply that… And it’s an effective example. Marion’s paranoia, which essentially stems from her being a gold-digging bitch and absconding with a shit-load of money, is the sole focus of the first thirty-ish minutes of the movie. As she’s on the run, she becomes increasingly unable to morally cope with her wrongdoing, and just makes things worse for herself by doing shit like trading out her car for a new one to try to cover her trail. She’s a loose cannon. So by the time she rolls into a quaint little motel and is checked in by the charming Norman Bates, I could see how the first time viewer would anticipate that he’s going to get it… But BAM… Twisted.

Mark: Right, so let’s talk about the shower scene. This is unequivocally the most iconic scene in horror. Period. There are contenders that are in the conversation, but they’re in the conversation the same way that Tom & Jerry are your go-to cartoon animal friends. Sure, there’s others in the mix, your Itchys and Scratchys, your Goofy Gophers, etc. But they’re just not as iconic and largely based off the original anyway. This is a scene that has been imitated on some level by almost every human being on the planet, regardless of whether or not they’ve seen the movie. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I would still bet that at least 20% of the current American population has imitated it in some regard.

Jake: It’s true. And for good reason. Imagine how shocking this shit was when it first came out, man. Not only was the sequence sure to bamboozle viewers by showing a toilet flush for the first time in American cinematic history, but the 70 or so cuts in the scene where Marion is stabbed repeatedly in the shower had to have been the craziest shit anyone had ever seen to that point. Particularly because it was hidden so well before the movie was released. Add to that the amazing attention to detail that went into the scene from an effects standpoint, and it was a recipe for pure, frenetic success. I mean shit, Hitchcock made a 6 ft in diameter showerhead so he could capture a shot from below the water stream. Detail. He had it. Also chocolate syrup. Which is the perfect substitution for real blood when you don’t have to worry about technicolor fucking things up.

Mark: The other thing that absolutely must be mentioned about this scene is the score. The famous RE RE RE violin scratching sound that happens as Mary is attacked. Hitchcock said, and I’m inclined to agree, that the score is responsible for 33% of the effect of the film as a whole. Interestingly, this also brings up one of my only gripes about this movie. I’m incredibly sensitive to obnoxious high pitched noises and watching this scene with my surround sound system nearly killed me. I don’t know if this is a product of sound mixing at the time or some version of remastering, but holy moley this scene loud. If you have your volume adjusted to normal levels to hear the dialogue, then prepare to have your eardrums ruptured.

Jake: I don’t know if there’s any science to back up the second half of that rant, man. You’ve been known to detect those outlet plugin insect repellent frequencies from the other end of a phone call, so you have absolutely no ground to stand on in making that sort of sweeping generalization. The movie wasn’t made for spiders… That aside, you’re right about the first part. Everyone knows this score. Everyone. Remember when I mentioned Hitchcock’s balls? Yep. We’re back to that. He’s now killed off his lead actress in one of the most shocking scenes ever committed to film (at that time), and we aren’t even at the halfway point of the movie.

Mark: In order to protect his mother, Norman ditches the body and the car in the swamp (or tar pit?) behind the motel. This is actually one of my favorite pieces of world building in the movie, because in the scene the car sinks about 80% of the way down and stops. Still plainly visible in the swamp, you see Norman react with one of those “you gotta be fucking kidding me” faces. Anticlimactically the car resumes sinking below the surface of the swamp and Norman heaves a sigh of relief. It doesn’t really add anything to the narrative, but it’s still a hilarious little side note to the script that weirdly adds a lot.

Jake: Enter Arbogast. A private I hired by Marion’s sister and boyfriend after they discover she is missing. Arbogast. People had way cooler names in the 50’s and 60’s.

Mark: Our intrepid gumshoe lands at the Bates Motel before long, and proceeds to interrogate Norman. If you thought Anthony Perkins’ performance in the earlier scenes were good, be prepared for that rating to ratchet up a bit. Arbogast backs him into a corner a few times with questions and the way Norman reacts is a fantastic piece of acting. I feel like if this movie is made now he just get’s offended and yells about his rights or something. Instead you get a timid, sweaty, and tense response. It works perfectly.

Jake: I liked it too, but I’m less convinced it’s symptomatic of the era and more of the belief that Perkins just dominated the fuck out of his character. Bates is a guy with a sheltered and isolated background. There are scenes that help to build the world and deliver some vague backstory for him that is equally unsettling and heartbreaking. It’s totally believable that his character would act the way he does. Most importantly, it helps build suspense. I’ve heard Hitchcock is good at that.

Mark: Good ol’ Arbo returns to the motel to try and see if he can score an interview with Momma Bates. As he climbs the stairs you get a frenetic set of cuts showing Mother emerging from her room and slashing Arbogast in the chest, causing him to fall down the stairs. And by fall down the stairs I mean levitate backwards. He also has a slash on his face instead of his chest. For a movie that was very detail oriented this scene is incredibly immersion breaking.

 

Details? What details?

 

Jake: Yeah it was really weird in its execution. Nevertheless, Arbogast done got dead. That Momma Bates. Always up to her shenanigans.

Mark: The third act starts with Mary’s worried boyfriend, Sam, teaming up with her worried sister, Lila, to try and find both Arbogast and Mary. You get a short exchange between them and the county sheriff who just casually drops the “Mother Bates? She’s been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for 10 years!” line. This is literally the only time this line has ever been taken seriously.

Jake: Was it taken seriously? I feel like that was already a trope by 1960, but have absolutely no evidence to back myself up. Typically I’d just say it confidently, but because I’m typing and have already shown my hand, I’ll just say that is Jack’s wheelhouse… Don’t ask me to do things like research.

Mark: The finale of the movie centers around Sam confronting Norman as Lila searches the house for Mother. She finds her way into their creepy as fuck basement and you get the grand reveal. It’s actually a pretty incredible scene: Lila turns on the lone swinging light bulb and flips a chair around to reveal the mummified corpse of Mother. Norman appears behind her in full nightgown garb (you never go full nightgown) and tries to attack her before he’s subdued by Sam.

 
Sup. Who me? Just chillin.

Sup. Who me? Just chillin.

 

Jake: This was both an iconic and strange scene. The reveal of the corpse is still terrifying, and the reveal of Bates in drag is another Hitchcockian swing of the testes, but the part where Sam chokes Norman out is so incorrectly done it breaks the immersion a bit. I mean, couldn’t they have at least consulted Bas Rutten?

 
 

Mark: The penultimate scene was another one that broke my immersion a bit. I get that they really had to lay on the exposition for people to understand what the fuck was happening, but it’s like 5 straight minutes of a “psychologist” talking directly to the camera explaining what just happened. I mean really, I’m pretty sure this was laying it on pretty thick even 55 years ago. By today’s standards it’s hard to ignore.

Jake: And we close on a pan in of Norman, sitting in the corner. He delivers a monologue with his mind, in full mother voice. He does an unbelievable job of acting fucking nuts with just his facial expressions here. It was stellar, and really ended the film on a high note. Cut to Marion’s car getting pulled out of the swamp. Fin?

Mark: Ratings.


 

RATINGS

For 1, think of how Conan would rate Jay Leno's grace:

 
 

For 10 - Think of how George Costanza would rate the deliciousness of Bosco:

 
 

STORY:

Mark: 7 -  This is an iconic horror story. Great twists, great writing. I do knock it a bit for the opening half of the movie feeling mostly out of the way. I get why they did it - to build suspense around Marion Crane and what her character would do - but it just seems like more work than was necessary to setup the first twist. Like, what was the deal with the police officer? Aside from that and a little bit of deus ex machina built into the wrestling scenes between Sam and Norman this one is top notch.

Jake: 8 - Same reasons as Mark with a bit of a tilt for the sheer ballsiness of the depiction of the story that Hitchcock employed, and the sheer insane lengths he went to to keep the story from being spoiled. Dude bought the rights to the book and then bought as many copies of the book as possible to keep the twists under-wraps. Next level storytelling maneuver.

 

WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Mark: 7 - I’m knocking this down a bit from what I gave it on the podcast because I’m realizing that the Arbogast murder scene bothered me more than I gave it credit for. This is a movie that spends a lot of effort focusing on details and then it just goes and blows it all on that ridiculous set of shots.

Jake: 7 - This movie reeks of the era it is from, which isn’t a real indictment, but there is an inherent disconnect in my ability to immerse myself in the film due to that fact. Pretty good for what it is, but I’m not seeing it in the 60’s.

 

SCARE-FACTOR:

Mark: 6 - This one is adjusted upward from a 5 for historical reasons. Fifty some odd years ago this probably would’ve been an 8 or 9, but looking at it now it becomes a victim of how good it was at the time. There have been so many iterations of every scene in this movie that the impact of the iconic shower scene and mother reveal are diminished a bit. In a pop-culture vacuum I would give it a much better score, but in the context of watching the movie now it just seems like there’s a lot of dust on the gem. Also, there’s really only 3 scary scenes across a 2 hour movie.

Jake: 4- I’m in total agreement with Mark with the only real addition being that the score definitely fucking helped. The reason our number is in disagreement is because I must find those “historical reasons” more detrimental as a modern day viewer than that old-timey fuck.

 

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Mark: 6 - Jack, who is editing this week, gave this thing a 10 and I have absolutely no problem with that. In the end there were a few things that really threw me out of this one so I just couldn’t get that high. It’s a bit unfair, but I drop it a bit for the driving scenes that are clearly shot against a backdrop video screen. I also penalize it a lot for the sound leveling, which sucks because the score is incredible, but it’s so impossibly loud that it actually took me out of the scenes it was trying to augment. That’s exactly what you don’t want from effects.

Jake: 9 - I’m more in agreement with Jack than Mark. The incredible shit-load of work that went into the effects that were utilized in the film were incredible for the time, and a lot of it still comes through today. Hitchcock will always be one of the best at framing shots in the business.

 

OVERALL:

Mark: 8 - Ultra classic. Not my favorite horror movie, but it’s impossible to neglect its significance to the genre. Anthony Perkins’ performance makes this thing still very watchable. It’s insane that that guy never went on to any roles other than Norman Bates. Wasn’t he in 12 Angry Men?

Jake: 7.5 - Totally agreed. This is a classic’s classic. It’s among the all time most influential films in pop culture, let alone with genre fans. The movie certainly shows its age in some respects, but it’s very easy to watch.