Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Original Slasher Flick Turns 50

"We all go a little mad sometimes."

Norman Bates
Psycho (1960)

It was 50 years ago today that Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" premiered on America's big screens.

It contained what is, arguably, the most famous scene in movie history — the shower scene in which Janet Leigh is stabbed repeatedly by a shadowy, seemingly female figure.

And untold millions were reluctant to take showers after they saw it — like those who saw "Jaws" for the first time 15 years later and thereafter refused to go to the beach.

The slasher flick was born.

And, in the half–century that has followed, it has seemed that no horror movie, whether it had any redeeming qualities or not, was worthy of the designation if it didn't include at least one scene in which someone, usually a young female, was violently — and, usually, fatally — assaulted while in the most vulnerable position possible — either naked and, frequently, in the shower or while sleeping in some scanty, revealing outfit.

Few movies have that kind of societal influence, and fewer still have had the capability of wielding that kind of influence for so long. But Hitchcock seemed to make a career out of that kind of thing. "Psycho" may have been the most flagrant example, but I'm sure even something as unthreatening as the appearance of a sparrow or a wren made some people nervous after they saw "The Birds." Even a modest aversion to heights became exaggerated in many minds after seeing "Vertigo." No doubt the possibility of mistaken identity took root in many active imaginations after watching "North by Northwest" or "To Catch a Thief."

(One can only imagine what Hitch in his prime might have done with home computers and the internet and identity theft. But modern suspense–movie audiences seem to require more explicit nudity than their forebears, and I suspect Hitchcock might have been a little uncomfortable. He came from a different generation. He cast beautiful people in his movies, but only once, to my knowledge, was any nudity [briefly and from behind] visible in one of his films.

(Maybe that was the influence of the times. Maybe he would have felt freer to use nudity in his films if he had been born 30 or 40 years later. Certainly those directors who openly sought to emulate him didn't hesitate to use nudity in their films, even if it was an anonymous double.

(I have heard, actually, that the infamous shower scene in "Psycho" did not show Leigh naked. She wore a flesh–colored bodysuit, and some parts of the scene were accomplished using either a body double or some sort of mannequin. In truth, when you watch that scene, it is often hard to say who — or even what — you are seeing.)

And, well, I guess the less said about admittedly guilty pleasures, like the voyeurism in "Rear Window," the better.

But "Psycho" was different.

Hitchcock created many brilliant suspense films, most of which were unique but, until "Psycho," a few things were generally true of all the films he made:
  • When someone was killed, there was usually some sort of clear external motivation — be it financial gain or freedom from a disagreeable spouse or whatever.

    What distinguished "Psycho" from those earlier efforts was the fact that there was no clear motive for the disappearance (that turned out to be murder) of Janet Leigh, once the obvious suspects were cleared. Those who got too close to the truth became targets as well, which was a well–established Hitchcockian theme, but the tangential killings were not a means to obtain the money Leigh's character had stolen.

    And who could possibly imagine that that nice Tony Perkins had been assuming his dead mother's persona, dressing in her clothes, wearing a wig?

  • The violence in previous films was seldom seen. If any of it was seen, it was brief and it was not graphic — kind of like in "Casablanca," when Peter Lorre tried to escape from his pursuers and was shot for his efforts. Audiences saw the gun fired and they saw Lorre in profile. They never saw the wound or blood pouring from it or anything like that.

  • By 1960, color in movies was not the novelty it had been 20 years earlier, when color sequences were interwoven with black–and–white sequences in "The Wizard of Oz," nor was it the costly production option it was when it was used in the making of "Gone With the Wind."

    Hitchcock had used color in several of his previous movies so it's not like he was a holdout when he made "Psycho."

    But I don't think he ever used black and white again — except in his TV programs.

  • Hitchcock's movies often had psychological themes, but no other Hitchcock movie was as overtly psychological as "Psycho."

    In fact, until Leigh's character was murdered in the shower, just about everyone in the film had betrayed his/her own particular obsession — be it love or money or whatever. The most peculiar obsession, though — that of Perkins' character — was treated as a closely guarded secret, as I'm sure it would be in real life, and thus it was a shock when it was revealed at the end.
Well, horror/suspense movies have become more intense in the last 50 years, even the ones that have really sought to live up to Hitch's standards and weren't just seeking to make a lot of money from cheap exploitation.

"Psycho" has held up well, and it can still deliver chills.

Happy birthday to a classic.

Just don't think about it while you're in the shower.