In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies. Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie. And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is. Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster. In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.” The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters. What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door. Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path. So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac. And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.
Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories. It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.
But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie. Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time. The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted. The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening. For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.
But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest. The movie is a complete story. Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen. And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman get several good lines including the closing soliloquy.
And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie. The monster gets to tell his side of the story. In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too. Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape. And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him. And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable. Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.
Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder. When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”
And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster. Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood. But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing. And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).
What do I like about this movie? Everything. The actors are excellent. The dialog is perfect. Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen. I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out. But it’s the perfect adult horror movie. The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs. I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster. Man.