Horror Month Day 3: Psycho

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October is my favorite month out of the year for a few reasons.  First off, the weather starts to change and the temperatures reach that Rev. Ron level of perfectness where I’m able to go outside in just a hoodie (absolutely nothing else…nothing) and cool enough during the night where you don’t need to worry about sweating the night away (I hate you, Summer).  Secondly, the leaves change color and if you don’t think that’s pretty, then I don’t want to know you.  Thirdly, Halloween, Halloween, Halloween!!! Halloween (drink every time I say “Halloween”) is my favorite holiday.  Not only is it my anniversary with my girlfriend but it’s a holiday all about dressing up as scary (or sexy, if you’re into that) stuff and heading out to haunted houses or threatening candy out of people with those immortal three words, “Trick or Treat.”  Finally, October not only means the best holiday of the year but it also means scary movies!

Horror films have been a staple in my life since I was 10 years old—that’s right, I said 10 years old!  My father was a big movie buff (and then handed down that obsession to me) and he opened me up to all sorts of genres.  When other kids were watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and drinking Ecto-Cooler, I was…well, I was doing those things too but I was also getting to see such classics as John Carpenter’s Halloween, The Exorcist (which, one time, I got to see in the theaters and was the only person in the freakin’ theater—now that’s scary), The Omen, The Texas Chainsaw MassacreA Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Entity, and George Romero’s Living Dead series (which would impact me and my entire life and be the starting point of my obsession with the undead and why I now religiously read and watch The Walking Dead, will rent even the crummiest of zombie films, push down old people in order to participate in zombie 5k’s and zombie laser tag events, and even had a hand in meeting my girlfriend).

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“There are scary things up there.”

Maybe it’s all those years of watching horror films but in this day and age of “found footage” and “based on actual events” horror movies, I am no longer capable of being terrified by scary movies.  Did I burn out my organ that creates fear from years of watching horror flicks?  Are scary movies just that poorly made now?  Do the things that scare this generation of film-goers just not resonate in my aging body?  All of the above?  I dunno but while I can only find a few shining examples of quality horror in today’s world of cinema, I do hold a mighty candle for the horror films of old from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Those decades just seemed to know what they were doing and were breaking ground on something truly terrifying.  With all the horror films that I hold dear and are still capable of giving me difficulties when sleep is concerned, one film has stayed with me in a way that no other has.  Which film is that?  Is it Night of the Living DeadThe Amityville Horror? Night of the Lepus? Grease?  Actually, the answer might surprise you…unless you read the title of this article, then it definitely won’t surprise you.

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was borderline obsessed—no, actually, not borderline at all.  He was full-on, power set to maximum obsessed with adapting a 1959 novel named Psycho.  The novel was inspired by famed Wisconsin serial killer and movie monster muse Ed Gein.  After getting the novel from his assistant and after the studio passed on adapting it, Hitchcock bought the rights himself and set to make the film even though the studio set up every road block possible to stop him (mostly through denying him the budget he needed).  However, Hitchcock eventually won and was able to unleash a film that many call the greatest movie he’s ever made.  On June 16, 1960 in New York City, Hitchcock presented a film that would later become a film that a young Rev. Ron would become smitten with and Psycho was unleashed onto an audience that wasn’t prepared for what they would see.

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I realize that in a world of torture porn and gore-fests that horror movies are, having the seemingly tame Psycho be your favorite work of thrills, spills (mostly of urine in your pants), and scares seems a tad strange.  While I’m all for big bad guys who chase the big boobied girl with no bra on through a field, the Jackson Pollack-like blood splatter of the Saw franchise are guilty pleasures of mine, and the demon-laced supernatural terror of something like The Exorcist is capable of bringing chills up my spine, making me jump out of my skin, and completely destroy any desire to every want to try pea soup, none of them have ever had such a hold on me or caused me to become completely obsessed with the property.  Not like Psycho did.

One of the things that hooked me about Psycho and makes it a film (and property in general that I look forward to experiencing—like the Bates Motel series.  Great show!) is the fact the film has a frighteningly realistic and believable story.  Nothing about this film is over-the-top.  There isn’t a dream monster with a claw glove or a tower of a man in a hockey mask who can cover long distances of ground by just walking menacingly slow or any supernatural elements going on here.  The film is just about a man who was abused by his mother and is now a shell of a man and suffering from some major personality disorders.

Not only is the film’s villain unsettlingly believable and capable of existing and possibly living next door to you (be paranoid of your neighbors), but the story doesn’t start like a horror movie.  When the film begins, it’s all about Marion Crane (Jamie Lee Curtis’ momma, Janet Leigh) embezzling some money and going on the run.  It’s only through a sad twist of fate that she ends up stopping at the iconic Bates Motel with its horrifying house on the hill behind it.  It is there that Crane meets her end at the hands of a man with mommy issues while she’s in the shower trying to relax the night away after a hard day of ripping off her boss.  Not only is this a twist as the film goes from a caper to a horror but this is also something we rarely see anymore in the world of horror nowadays—the moral comeuppance.

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Often in horror films immoral behavior is “rewarded” with violent death.  Sex, drugs, and tearing the label off a mattresses are punished by an axe to the face, a machete to the chest, or a knife to the jugular.  This is expected and has even been parodied in Scream but the one thing they all have in common is that the victim usually has some connection to the monster.  Girls in Halloween were in the Myers house or were friends with Michael’s long lost sister, high schoolers in A Nightmare Before Elm Street were the children of the parents who killed Freddy, and Rosemary had the audacity to befriend her elderly neighbors (so, she clearly deserved the devil’s child).  Crane had no connection to Bates, she had no idea he liked to dress like his mother and kill beautiful women.  She was just a victim of circumstance and pulled off the road to catch forty-winks.  She had no idea fate was going to see her punished for the sins she committed earlier.  However, this punishment also ended up working against Norman as his actions end up getting himself and his own sins punished when Crane’s sister comes looking for her.  The seemingly randomness of their encounter was—is—so unsettling to me because it means that anyone you meet could have some deeply ingrained torment and is just looking for a reason to release you from this mortal coil because of that movie you torrented the other day.

Psycho doesn’t just scare me, it terrifies me.  No, the film doesn’t give me the easy jump scare—the only scare “found footage” knows how to do anymore.  Instead, the film implants a deep seeded psychological terror in me.  And it is all because the unnerving performance of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.  Perkins, at first, comes off as a socially awkward guy.  While he doesn’t seem like someone capable of putting a knife through your chest while wearing a wig he bought down at the local Halloween Express, he just seems like a guy who is nervous around people.  He’s quiet but not entirely threatening…but as the film progresses, Norman has a very slow transition of someone who looks like he is covering up for the insanity of his mother to someone who is his insane mother.  The progression is amazing—even to this day—and when I first saw the reveal that Norman wasn’t the victim of someone trying to cover up for his beloved life-giver but was, in fact, posing as his beloved life-giver blew my 10 year old mind.  It was a plot twist before plot twists became gratuitous and predictable.  And then there is the final moments of the film as Norman sits in the police station talking to himself in his head, in his mother’s voice, and keeps looking around the room, following a fly that his mother’s voice claims she would never harm.  Then, very slowly, he looks up and stares directly at the camera.  This isn’t Anthony Perkins looking at the camera—hell, this isn’t even Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates looking at the camera.  This is Norman Bates staring directly at you, the viewer, and it stills sends chills up my spine.

You can’t talk about Psycho and not bring up the shower scene.  That’s like talking about Batman and completely leaving the whole part about a grown man dressing up like a bat in order to fight crime.  When the film came out in the 60s, audiences were horrified at seeing the beloved Janet Leigh horribly stabbed to death on camera.  The scene would go on to become a movie myth with all sorts of rumors, tall tales, and “reported” stories about it.  Some have claimed in order to get Leigh’s realistic screams, Hitchcock ordered the crew to randomly have the water go frigid cold and everyone has heard about how Hershey’s syrup was used for the blood.  While some have turned out true (the chocolate sauce), there’s no denying the impact this scene had.

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For a horror/thriller, Psycho is very low on the body count and even lower on the gore.  The heart of the film’s scares is the image of a broken man with a corrupted mind but this shower scene, one of the only scenes of violence in the film, was a sudden on-set heart attack in the story.  It’s out of nowhere and even though the tension is built up as you can make out a figure opening the bathroom door through the haze of the shower curtain, nothing prepared you for when the figure pulled open the shower curtain and the screeching violins composing the now iconic harping sound of death started.  What follows is fast pace thrusts of a knife, uncomfortably close close-up shots, and screams.  The first time you see it, you swear you see the knife pierce skin and you swear the scene was gorier than it was but, in reality, Hitchcock created a near flawless illusion of death that has never been achieved as well since.

The only downside about Psycho was it inspired some weak sequels that continued the story of Norman Bates.  While it’s cool that Anthony Perkins returned for the films, the stories just don’t compare to the first film.  The sequels felt the need to up the body count and, of course, add in nudity that just didn’t need to be there.  Additionally, the film was remade with Vince Vaughn as Norman in 1998 with Gus Van Sant as director.  I know remakes are as hated as Hitler on the ‘net but I’ve always been more curious about a remake than anything and in 1998, I hit the theater to see what Van Sant was going to do with my most beloved horror film.  Admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled with it but it was neat to see a shot-for-shot remake with a new cast.  And, even though I didn’t like it, I still purchased it on DVD because I clearly have a problem and an addiction…and yes, I own all the sequels, too.  I need help.

Psycho is a film that caused a huge uproar when in came out in 1960.  Young movie-goers today will never get to appreciate the controversy that came with it.  We take for granted what we see in films and TV today and don’t understand that in 1960 it was a shock to see Janet Leigh in a bra and (shocker) sharing a bed with her lover that she is (double shocker) NOT married to (What the what?!?).  Even more interesting is the fact that not only does Psycho have the honor of being my favorite horror film (Hitchcock would be proud of this fact, I’m sure…right after he asked who the hell I am.) but this movie marked the first time that a flushing toilet was seen in a movie—I know that’s laughable by the fact that we see toilets all the time in movies and TV and have even seen the stuff that people put in said toilets thanks to the Jackass guys but the lesson here is that Hitchcock was breaking some serious new ground with Psycho, even if that new ground involved actually seeing a toilet and acknowledging that per-marital sex happens.

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The story of getting Psycho off the ground, additionally, is shown excellently (and with an amazing performance from Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock) in the film Hitchcock (which I highly recommend).  Not only does it show how the film was made but it also provides perspective on how hard it was to accomplish.  Today, it seems that every horror film idea gets the green light and we are overwhelmed by weaker and weaker stories (in 2012, we had two—TWO—“found footage” films about Bigfoot) and Hitchcock shows that there was a time when the studios weren’t so ready to toss out an opportunity to scare their audiences.  It was a struggle but the film came out and it would become so beloved that in 1992, it was deemed “so awesome” (although it wasn’t described in those exact terms) that it is being preserved in the National Film Registry.

When October finally decides to leave us and Christmas invades to begin its two month celebration, we sadly must watch as our society pushes horror films into the background and pretend that they enjoy all sorts of awful Christmas specials and Christmas music that doesn’t involve the Trans Siberian Orchestra (say what you will about how awful X-mas music is but TSO rocks!).  However, Halloween hasn’t hit yet and we can still turn off the lights and get sweaty palms as we watch the teenagers throwing a party while mom and dad are gone get picked off one by one and I can still get a racing heartbeat from the chilling antics of Norman Bates.  In the end, Psycho isn’t just my favorite horror film because of the trademark sound and sights of the shower scene or just because Anthony Perkins scares the living hell and excrement out of me with just a look.  No, Psycho is my favorite horror film because it feels too real.  Hitchcock didn’t need a monster slaying someone without cause or motive, he didn’t need a demon looking to inhabit a living human body, and he didn’t need mindless gore to make you shift uneasily in your chair.  All he needed was a broken man with a warped mind and that is why, to this day, I won’t stay in Room 1 or why I always make sure the bathroom door is locked when I shower.

Rev. Ron not only is a part-time stand-up comedian and wannabe movie critic, he once went Trick or Treating as Ernest P. Worrell…when he was 27 years old.  You can read more of his thoughts on movies by following him on Twitter (@RevRonster) or checking out his blog.