Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock || Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by: Joseph Stefano || Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire
Music by: Bernard Herrmann || Cinematography: John L. Russell || Editing by: George Tomasini || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 109 minutes
The modern horror species owes a substantial amount of its fame and genre tropes to one of famed English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s most lauded films. Most every iconic genre trope of scary movies originated in Hitchcock’s legendary slasher-precursor, from the Freudian, voyeuristic sexual tension between the killer (almost always male) and his victim (almost always an attractive female), to the psychologically disturbed background of the killer himself, to the then groundbreaking concept of killing off major characters thought to be the protagonist, thereby inducing uncertainty and fear over who would die next, and even the manner of the murderer killing with a slashing or cutting-device, was made famous by the first modern horror film in 1960.
Like many great directors before and since, Hitchcock set out to shoot what otherwise might be perceived as a “lowbrow,” or exploitative movie, but design it in with the utmost care, skill, and artistic vision. In other words, Hitchcock sought to prove that any story or concept could be interesting or “artistic” — it just depended on how it was executed.
With Psycho, Hitchcock popularized the idea of shooting a story without a protagonist, killing off multiple key characters that, from the film’s premise, appeared like the story would follow as the “main character” from beginning to end. Psycho uses this approach to keep the viewer guessing who will survive and who will die next. This element of surprise adds tension and suspense to each situation, and makes the narrative harder to predict. Nowadays this plot structure is considered standard practice for horror filmmaking, particularly slashers descended from Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). However, Psycho was the first to execute that framework, and arguably the only one to perfect it.
Hitchcock, along with Stanley Kubrick and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino, is one of the few directors to become successful using this oddball tactic for telling stories in film. Psycho is famous not only because its narrative structure is so unconventional, but because its story is so unconventional in such an effective, nuanced way. Numerous horror films have attempted to mimic the style of Hitchcock’s most famous film, using surprise to fool the audience into thinking certain characters will survive or not, and most of them fail. Pulling off this type of story is hard to do, because it’s easiest to follow and become invested in a story’s outcome when you have single, well-defined main character and point-of-view. Shifting perspectives in storytelling, both in film and other narrative media, is a risky choice that often doesn’t pay off.
Psycho executes this unique story structure with relative ease, and the movie is much better for of it. Every scene, particularly the murders, has a substantial level of tension that builds beautifully before the kill. There is an unnerving sense of dread anytime a stranger approaches the character we are following, as if nobody can be trusted and must therefore be feared, which of course is Hitchcock’s intent. While Psycho possesses little in the way of blood and gore, something that many of its descendants would frolic in, the film itself feels violent and intrusive. The murder scenes have this intense, penetrative, predatory feel to them, because the killings are ambushes and the murderer does not give his victims opportunity to struggle or fight back. That, and the now classic cues of high-pitched, string orchestra notes screaming loudly as the killer’s knife plunges into the victim’s flesh, contribute to each murder’s viciousness.
Altogether, Psycho is one of the best horror films ever made because it perfects an unconventional writing style and uses its unique concepts to its advantage. Where most of these story techniques would feel half-baked and confusing in lesser hands, Hitchcock and writer Joseph Stefano know how work the script and stage it in a way that does the story justice. The film takes its time, makes you feel uncertain and fearful at every turn, and leaves you with an immense feeling of satisfaction at having made it through to the ending credits.
Few characters are studied or developed in great detail, because in this narrative structure, the focus is on the terrifying atmosphere and the killer himself, and that’s what makes an unconventional film like Psycho work so well. It is one of the select members of cinema that succeeds in such an unorthodox way, but after watching it, I assure you that you will be glad Psycho slashed outside the box.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Psycho’s nonconformist narrative style works like a charm. The fear of the unknown and the foreboding, creepy atmosphere adds to the tension as each character is stalked by a killer who strikes when its victims are at their most vulnerable. Hitchcock’s direction guides the audience through every scene and orchestrates the murders so they feel as violating as possible.
— However… a sacrifice that comes with Pyscho’s now archetypal structure is that few characters (other than the murderer, of course) are memorable in any way.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? Haunted house? Check. Seedy looking hotel? Check? Creepy swamp right behind said motel? Check. Seriously, didn’t people even in the 1960s know this was where you only went to get murdered?