Monday, October 22, 2012

Psycho

My first trek into a horror movie (and probably my last at the rate I'm going) is Psycho. If you haven't seen this movie and don't want it spoiled, then you probably shouldn't read this. It's a favorite horror movie of mine, and almost everybody has seen at least part of it. My earliest memories of this Hitchcock masterpiece came from Universal Studios Florida. They used to have this attraction there where you watched this short movie about all the different Alfred Hitchcock films and it showed the usual favorites: The Birds, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and-you guessed it-Psycho. Now, I didn't mind all the other footage, because to me it was just a bunch of old movies. I guess The Birds was a little unsettling, but it wasn't going to give me too many nightmares. Then, they played the shower scene from Psycho. Keep in mind, I was like seven or eight. I was traumatized. When you're a kid, one of the safest places is inside your bathtub/shower, and to see someone get stabbed to death inside a shower blew my mind. I liked scary stuff, but only because I knew it wasn't real. This was too real for me. I was super afraid of showering without the door locked for a long time. Any random noise would cause me to throw the curtain aside and prepare to fight...with...shampoo? Psycho was officially on my radar as a movie, and it was on the same trip that we saw the Bates motel. It was a replica of course, but it stood on the outskirts of the park until 1998 when they apparently tore it down. Seeing the footage, plus the hotel cemented it all in my mind. The hotel made it even more real for me since it was sitting right there in front of me, and if I bothered to go in there, I would be stabbed to death by an old woman! AAAHHHH! It wasn't even the first time I had seen the motel. America's Funniest People was a spin-off of America's Funniest Home Videos and ran for a couple of years in the early 90's. I can't find the footage, but for one of its openings it showed the Bates motel at the very end with the sound of thunder. I had always wondered what that creepy motel was from, and I found out that day at Universal Studios. Did I ever. I'm assuming that most or all of you have seen this movie, so I'm not going to bother with keeping the ending secret. You've literally had since the sixties to see this movie.

The movie Psycho is actually based off a book by the same name by Robert Bloch. Bloch published the book in 1959, and the movie came out in 1960, so you can see that Hitchcock wasted no time in getting this film made. The book was in turn based off of the serial killer Ed Gein. Both Gein and Norman Bates did their murders in a rural setting, both had deceased domineering mothers, had a room with a shrine dedicated to said domineering mother, and both dressed like women. When Hitchcock's production assistant read about the book, she showed it to Hitchcock, who proceeded to buy the rights to the film for $9,500 and told the production assistant to buy out as many bookstores of the book so as not to ruin the ending for movie-goers.  Paramount was not too thrilled about the prospects of the film and continually tried to prevent Hitchcock from making it. They told him it would cost too much, so he used a TV film crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. They said all their sound stages were being used, even though productions were in a known slump, and continued to say that the movie would cost too much. Hitchcock countered all this by saying that he would finance the movie himself, would film at Universal-International if Paramount would distribute, and he would also waive the director's fee of $250,000 for 60% ownership of the film negative. Paramount finally gave in. 

After receiving a dull treatment of the story from writer James Cavanaugh, Hitchcock met with proverbial newbie, Joseph Stefano. The meeting went well, and Stefano was hired as the writer of the screenplay. Hitchcock and Stefano changed a few things from the book. In the book, Bates was middle-aged, overweight, and more overtly unstable. On top of that, he was a drunk that had interest in the occult, and pornography. All these things were written out, partly due to the fact that they had cast Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, and he did not fit the book's description. The drunkenness was what brought on Bates' transformation into his mother in the novel, and so they had to re-thing that whole aspect. Probably the only other big change from the book was the way that Marion Crane dies. We all know that she dies in the shower by being stabbed to death, but in the book, she was beheaded in the shower. That's not even more terrifying is it?

Ever wonder why in the world that this movie is in black and white, even though the year is 1960 and color has been around for decades? This was another of Hitchcock's cost cutting maneuvers, but that wasn't the only reason. Besides admiring the black and white movie Les Diaboliques (left)and wanting the same feel, Hitchcock also wanted the film not to be too gory, as having a color movie with a stabbing may have been a little shocking at that time. The "blood" in the shower scene is famously chocolate syrup. Smart, huh? Another way that Hitchcock kept the film's cost down was by casting on a budget. He had gotten box office draws like Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, but both took the parts for a fraction of what they would of usually gotten paid. 

The whole production was shot at Revue Studios, the same location as his television show. The film retained a tight budget of a little under $807,000 and filming took place between November 11th, 1959 and February 1st, 1960. As you can see, Hitchcock was not fooling around. Not only did he not want the movie to cost too much, but he didn't want too many people to read the book before they saw his movie. Nearly the whole film was shot with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. This trick closely mimicked the human perspective, which further involved the audience. This movie was all about suspense, and Hitchcock used everything he knew to help pull off that uneasy feel. The iconic house from the film was based off a painting of Edward Hooper's called The House by the Railroad (pictured left). In my opinion, Hitchcock couldn't have picked a better house, as this is one of the creepiest houses of all time. When I think of a haunted house, I picture this place. Both Leigh and Perkins were allowed to interpret their characters how they felt and move in the same fashion, as long as it didn't involve moving the camera. An example of what liberties the actors took is Perkins having Bates constantly munch on candy corn. Hitchcock was apparently a practical joker, or a filming mastermind, but most likely both. He had different versions of the mother corpse made and would hide them in Leigh's dressing room closet. Leigh never did find out if it was to keep her on edge for the role, or to gauge her reaction thus finding out which one to use that would best scare the audience.

Hitchcock is known for his economical way of shooting, mostly coming from his lack of re-shooting scenes. A few were a bit hard to do the first time around. After Leigh's character is stabbed to death, there is a close up of her eye. This had to be re-shot several times because the water kept getting into her eye, making her blink. Another scene that proved difficult to master was the reveal of the dead mother. The swinging of the chair, plus Vera Miles' character hitting the bulb, plus a lens flare all proved to be hard to coordinate and took a great deal of shoots to get just right. Another signature of a Hitchcock film is an appearance by Hitchcock himself. It's like Stan Lee now, but instead of being in a bunch of superhero movies, Hitchcock was in a bunch of thrillers and murder mysteries. His cameo comes at the very beginning as a man outside of Marion Crane's office. Rumors are that he didn't want to distract people with his appearance later on in the film, but the real reason is that he wanted to be in the same shot as his daughter, who played one of Marion's colleagues.

OK, so let's talk about the shower scene. Being that it is perhaps one of the most well known movie scenes of all time, there are a lot of myths and legends about it. So, here are a few facts about the scene. The scene entailed 77 different camera angles and was mostly close-ups. Hitchcock originally wanted to have no music whatsoever during the scene or any motel scene, but composer Bernard Herrmann convinced him to use the sequence he had made for the scene. Afterward, Hitchcock was so impressed with how it enhanced the scene that he paid Herrmann almost double what he originally was going to. That's part of the freakiness of the whole scene! The sticcado notes from the string section just put you on edge! The music just goes hand in hand with stabbing motions now. Like I mentioned before, the blood in the scene was actually Bosco brand chocolate syrup. Why chocolate syrup? Well, it looks a lot like blood in black and white, and the density is better than the fake blood they used at the time. How did they make the stabbing sounds? Well, they took a knife, and stabbed....a casaba melon. Not nearly as frightening, but it gave the desired sound.

Now for a little bit of movie myths. Rumors spread that Leigh didn't stay in the shower during the whole scene and a body double was used for some of the closeups. Not true! Leigh was used for the whole scene and a body double was only used for when her character is wrapped in the shower curtain. Another myth is that to get a good enough scream from Leigh, Hitchcock had ice-cold water used from the shower. False! Leigh herself has stated that she had all the hot water she wanted for the scene, and that all the screams were in fact hers. There is also another rumor that Leigh was only told to stand in the shower, and was not told about her impeding murder. Support for this rumor comes from those who say Hitchcock wanted a genuine reaction from her. Why isn't this true, though? Leigh signed onto the film only after she read the whole novel, so she had to know what was going to happen. Perhaps the most insidious rumor about the scene came from graphic designer Saul Bass, who claimed that he directed the iconic scene, and not Hitchcock. There are people on both sides that swear on their mother's grave that one or the other directed the scene, so it's not entirely clear who really did. Knowing Hitchcock, a known perfectionist, it is very unlikely that he would have let another direct such an important part of his movie. The shower scene comes at an interesting time in the film. Leigh's character, who had embezzled money from a client and ran off with it, had finally decided to come clean and leave. Before she does, she decides to take a shower. The shower signifies the baptismal waters as she is cleansed of her sin. She is then brutally murdered after finally deciding to do the right thing. I can't help but think of a certain show called Lost. In it, each character has a ton of problems, and once those problems are solved, or once their lives come full circle, they end up dying. Redemption leads to death. Same thing for Leigh's character. She was feeling redeemed, then she was stabbed to death by a man wearing his mother's clothing. Odd and frightening. Leigh herself was afraid of showers for a very long time after filming the scene and only took them if she had to and made sure every window and door was locked tight. I don't blame her at all!

There was plenty of controversy surrounding the film. Psycho is a prime example of the type of film that came out in the 60's after the erosion of the Production Code. The Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was the system of censorship on movies. The reason the Production Code eventually faded away was the invention of the television. Television was causing people to not want to leave their houses. People didn't have to go to the theater to get entertainment. Television was under stricter censorship than movies were at the time, so in order to combat this new medium, movies gave audiences something TV wouldn't for a long time: sexuality, murder, and violence. The scenes with Marion and Sam in the same bed, and Marion in a bra was completely new to mainstream audiences. They'd never seen that sort of thing depicted on screen. Another scene that caused a mild controversy was Leigh's character flushing pieces of torn up paper down a toilet. Audiences had never heard a toilet flush, let alone seen a toilet flush on film or TV before. This may seem incredibly silly now, but at the time it was incredibly taboo. If Married...With Children had been made twenty-five years earlier I'm pretty sure there would have been riots. The censors tried their hardest to "clean-up" the film, but Hitchcock defended every last scene in his film. The only thing the censors succeeded in erasing from the film was a shot that showed the buttocks of Leigh's stand-in.

Hollywood has gone through its fair share of gimmicks, whether it's 3-D, vibrating seats that were installed for the showings of The Tingler, Smell-O-Vision for Scent of Mystery, and even Sensurround, which shook the theater itself for movies like Earthquake. All of these gimmicks have not lasted long, save for 3-D, which has grown popular yet again. Psycho employed a different gimmick. Hitchcock asked movie theaters not to let movie-goers enter the film if they were late. The movie depended on people being surprised by the fact that Leigh's character, the supposed main character, dies early in the film. Plus, Hitchcock didn't want people to miss Leigh in the movie, as she was one of the main draws. Though the movie theater owners objected at first, they realized after the first day of showings that it created even more hype for the film. Hitchcock also forbid Leigh and Perkins from doing any interviews, fearing that they may mistakenly give away plot points.

The gimmick and mystery of the film paid off, as the movie was adored by the public and became the biggest financial hit of Hitchcock's career making a little over $11 million dollars domestically (that's $82.5 million adjusted for inflation). That's pretty good considering he spent only $800,000 to make it. The movie had mixed reviews from critics, who were probably just mad that they couldn't get private screenings of the movie because of Hitchcock's refusal to ruin the movie by having critics give anything away beforehand. Some critics even went so far as to call it an ugly blot on an otherwise fantastic directing career, and a TV show padded to two hours. The great reaction from audiences caused a reevaluation by critics who have since labeled it as one of the best films ever made, horror/suspense or not. The film is often considered the first "slasher" film, as it was arguably one of the first that had a pscyho-killer that stabs people to death. This point can be argued by horror geeks, but I'm just saying that this is probably the first well-known horror movie with a stab-happy antagonist.

So you may have noticed that I didn't give a summary of the film. I really don't find this necessary, as most people have seen this movie just because of its notoriety. If you want a summary, read it on IMDB or Wikipedia, but I suggest watching the movie. Anyway, here are a few scenes that have always stuck with me. The whole first meeting between Norman and Marion is pretty unsettling. I don't know if it's just Norman or if its all the stuffed birds, but that whole scene just sets off all these warning bells in my head. Too bad Marion didn't hear the same warning bells. The peeping tom scene where Norman spies on Marion is just plain creepy. He literally created a peek-hole into one of the motel rooms. The shower scene goes without saying. The first time I saw Martin Balsam's Detective Arbogast get slashed across the face and fall down the stairs, I couldn't decide whether to laugh or pee my pants. It just looked like he was tap dancing down the stairs. I guess they didn't want to do a stunt double falling down the stairs so they just filmed him flailing around and made the background move. It still works, and it's pretty terrifying, but the tap dancing look makes me smile a little every time. The build up is what makes this scene work. He slowly walks up the stairs, and then you see the door at the top open ever so slightly. That's when you know. This guy is totally hosed. Then the strings music comes back and you just know that this guy is getting stabbed. The big reveal is another obvious one. The whole movie you think that Norman's mother is killing all these people, when in actuality it is Norman himself. Lila Crane has the misfortune of hiding in the same room that the mother is in, and then it's that slow reveal. The mother is long dead and looks surprisingly well. That being said, she still looks like a mummy and scared the hell out of me. The last scene I like in this film is in fact the last scene. It's so unsettling. It's just perfect. It's one of my favorite endings of all time. You'll just have to watch it to see for yourself. I'll just say that Anthony Perkins is a very good actor. Not just in this scene, but in the whole movie. I really should watch more movies he's in.

The movie has spawned many pretenders, as well as many sequels, mostly junk, and even a literal shot for shot remake in 1998 directed by Gus Van Sant and starring....Vince...Vaughn....as Norman Bates. Why Vince Vaughn? Why would you even think that's a good idea?! Vaughn is fine in comedies, but not trying to fill in the shoes of Anthony Perkins. Needless to say, Van Sant's movie was universally panned and proof Alfred Hitchcock was a genius. Anthony Perkins was the victim of type-casting from that point on, even reprising his role as Norman Bates for all three sequels. Janet Leigh was married to actor Tony Curtis for a time, and during that marriage gave birth to Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie Lee Curtis would go on to star in the slasher film series Halloween, and even shared the screen with her mother in Halloween H20: 20 years later. Psycho was nominated for Best Director (Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actress (Leigh), Best Cinematography, and Best Art-Direction. It lost for all of them, but Leigh did win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Psycho is one of those films that you almost have to watch every Halloween. It's just too much of a classic. 

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