Thursday, June 16, 2011

It's Psycho Day!! No. Really.

Arguably Hitchcock's most famous film (and even though I wouldn't consider it his best, it certainly ranks right up there!), "Psycho" was released to theaters on June 16, 1960.

Controversial, creepy, downright scary... but perhaps the best thing about Hitchcock's "Psycho" is that, according to all conventional wisdom, it shouldn't have worked.

Honestly, if you can read this blog, and are not yet at least familiar enough with Psycho to have a basic understanding what what happens, I don't even know why I feel a responsibility to warn you: you don't deserve it.  But, I think Hitchcock would want me to.

The plot was disjointed and disorienting.  The majority of the first act (if not the whole thing) consisted of providing motivation to get the first victim where she needed to be in order to move the plot forward.  End of Act 1: we meet the main character, Norman Bates.  Of course we don't know Bates is the main character, in part because so little of the film is seen through his own perspective, and in part because it isn't until Act 2 that the person we think is the main character is murdered.  After the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh), the mystery portion of the movie commences.  We meet the heroine of the piece (Vera Miles) at some point into the second act as well.  As I said -- and ask any film scholar in the vaunted halls of academia, and he'll tell you the same: Psycho just shouldn't have worked.

But in fact, it was these elements and more that helped to make it memorable.  The reason it reaches into the psyche and captures the imagination, and throttles your subconscious while you sleep is exactly because it fails to work within the framework of your expectations.  Chances are, had the story been written by a modern horror auteur like Wes Craven or John Carpenter (not to denigrate their work by any means), Leigh would have been at the Bates Motel in five minutes; dead in ten.  Miles would have approached the motel and house with an entire entourage of thrill-seeking teens, who would have been picked off one by one until our heroine entered the final act to face Bates alone. 

Instead, We are allowed to get to know Leigh's "Marion."  We get to understand why she does what she does.  We see her struggle with fear and conscience.  In fact, if not for Bates, it may have been a halfway decent crime drama.  And then, after her own decision point, Marion's life is simply snuffed out, mid-story. 

Unsettling, isn't it?
I was going to talk about the effectiveness of Hitchcock's camera.  About the neat little tricks he added to the film to add to the feeling of vague dread, such as under-cranking the camera to make the clouds behind the Bates house move just a little faster, and intensify the unsettling image created in the mind's eye.  About the eerie superimposition of Bates' mother over the killer's face to symbolize her control, even in death, of his twisted mind.  And for sure, it all adds to the atmosphere: plot devices notwithstanding, it's just a darned creepy film.

 But when you strip it all down, I think it's really the plot that gets us: the story of the fall of the beautiful Marion.  The truly frightening thing about Psycho, I think, is that it shows us, in stark relief, that no matter what we have going on, what choices we make, where we are or aren't going in the stories of our own lives... it can all come to a sudden end: bled out of the world, and circling down a drain of memory, in the blink of an eye and the flash of a butcher's blade.

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