Psycho turns 55 this year. More than half a century later, it still holds up as one of the most effective horror movies I have seen. It’s legacy has been remembered well through the years, and it contains some of the most iconic scenes ever on film. Everyone is familiar with shower scene by now, but what is even more impressive, is that for someone seeing it for the first time, they have a reaction that mirrors those of an audience in 1960.
It does not scare you like I’m sure it did people in the ’60s. I don’t watch Psycho and have to cover my eyes. There are so many great scenes that I can’t help but keep my eyes on the screen. The horror of it comes from what Alfred Hitchcock suggests and sets up. We never see the knife stab Janet Leigh’s skin in the shower, nor do we see large amounts of blood in any scene. There are no grotesque images to scare you, just brilliantly crafted scenes that suggest violence. There are close to a hundred cuts in the shower scene that last only a few seconds.
There is also a sense of fear in the audience because of the story Hitchcock has created. Marion Crane is a regular person who commits a crime, but you never see her as a criminal. She garners sympathy from us because we understand, to an extent, her motives. We are scared for her when she is being interrogated by the officer and when she has to get a motel room for the night. These are all common scenarios we can put ourselves in. They are fears that we think about, but don’t think will actually happen to us. Hitchcock thinks otherwise.
The score by Bernard Herman contributes an incredible amount to the film as well. 33% according to Hitchcock. Once again, everyone knows the sharp strings, but the whole score done completely on string instruments works so well. It instills fear and provides a thrilling, mysterious tone throughout. I just listened to the soundtrack itself, and it works just as well as a piece of music.
Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins is a terrific and captivating character. He is a likeable guy at first because he seems like he’s just a good son. When not being questioned or interrogated, he is almost charming and perfectly normal. But once you look at where he lives and what he does, any curious person asks about his life and the relationship with his mother. Now he becomes defensive and very suspicious. As the movies plays, his mysterious character is broken down until you realize, spoiler: He is completely insane. He has a split personality, one side is himself and the other is his dead mother. I don’t know how well the psychology is planned out here, but it makes a great character.
This is explained in one of the final scenes that has always bothered me because it feels just like expositional dialogue. The psychologist basically alleviates all intrigue and tells us everything about him. Granted, I needed that explanation the first time I saw it, but it doesn’t seem to fit within the rest of the movie. It does redeem itself with a great shot of Norman in a white walled room, his mother narrating in his head, and a scheming smile to close out the film.
This film was purposely made on a small budget. Hitchcock had already been an established name when making this, but it was financed independently. This is an example of how to make a great horror genre film on a small budget. What bothers me about horror movies today is that they are made cheap, with bad actors and writers that rely on jump scares to make the audience jump. Then inexplicably, they make up their money because they used such a small budget. Psycho should be used as an inspiration and model to filmmakers who want to make a good film in the horror genre.
Hitchcock says he was playing the audience like a violin. As a former violin player, I disagree, but recognize how effective he was at getting a reaction from his audience. He knew when everyone would scream and how they would feel. 55 year later, Psycho still does that well. It is one out of two, of my favorite horror films along with The Shining. Despite the scene with the psychiatrist, I am always fully invested in the beauty, intrigue, and fear of this movie.