30th Oct2020

Rewind: ‘Psycho’ Review

by Xenia Grounds

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson | Written by Joseph Stefano | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There’s no denying that when we look back on the horror film genre, one of the directors that we strongly associate with it is Alfred Hitchcock. Yes, there are multiple accounts of his problematic behaviour now but he did know how to make a solid horror experience and ones that stand the test of time. The most iconic of Hitchcock’s horrors is Psycho.

Now, Psycho is a horror classic and it has been brought again and again over the decades. It’s hard to imagine people don’t know what happens in Psycho but there are some details which are less famous than others. The premise is after stealing money from a client to start a life with her boyfriend, Marion Crane goes on the run and on her way, she comes across the Bates Motel and the twisted family that owns this place. From there, we meet the unsettling Norman Bates (Anthony Hopkins) and his demented mother who takes issue with practically anyone who comes to stay at her motel.

This movie was one of the first to introduce the concept of the horror being the person sitting right next to you. It’s captured perfectly in the character of Norman Bates. When we first meet Norman, he’s rather twitchy and he seems harmless enough but his mood swings are very sudden especially if you bring up his mother. His disturbingly close relationship with his mother and the fact that his life only revolves around her doesn’t seem to register with him as being troubling as we all rightly assume. He recognises it can be bad but in truth, it’s potentially deadly for both him and the people unfortunate enough to be considered a problem by his mother.

One of the mysteries that persists in this movie is Norma, the mother. We never really see her. More often than not, we just hear her vile and unwelcoming voice. She abuses Norman constantly and gets incredibly possessive over her son especially when another woman enters the picture. Saying Psycho is a story about severe mother issues is an understatement. Therapists would have a field day with that topic when it comes to this movie. However, as the movie goes on, we learn things about her that don’t align with what we see. From most accounts, Norma was very close with her son but it wasn’t considered toxic. It raises questions about whether Norma created the problems in Norman or were they always there? There are other details that make the character of Norma a mystery and one we never truly know because we only have other people’s perspectives to rely on. It’s probably the reason why Bates Motel centred its story around her for so many seasons. It’s because she’s an interesting, flawed enigma who we’re quick to see the mistakes of but realise she may not know the consequences of loving her son a little too much.

The scene we all know from Psycho is the shower scene. It’s the scene that has gone down in film history. It’s been parodied and referenced so many times in the past sixty years that it may not be as scary as it was but that doesn’t make it any less effective. We see the mother come in through the door unknown to Marion because she can only hear the running water and then the curtain opens, she screams, gets stabbed multiple times and the mother just walks away leaving Marion to die. What makes the shower scene iconic is how it’s made. We don’t see the knife stabbing Marion, we think we do but it’s just a case of clever camerawork. It’s a masterpiece in combining sound with storytelling. The score is just violins loudly screeching in the background while Marion screams in horror but it keeps you in a state of anxiety until the next cut away from the motel.

Thanks to shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, we’re more used to the idea of lead characters dying early on but in the 1960s, this was far from the norm. It was a brave move and one that works brilliantly in its favour. What the shower scene does is set you up because the only character we are left to relate to is Norman Bates. Since Norman takes the place of Marion as the character we empathise and sympathise with, it makes the twist ending hit a lot harder as we’ve been seeing over half of the story from his eyes. While I assume a majority know the twist because the Bates Motel series essentially recreated Psycho for this generation, I’ll keep it to myself in case you’re one of the fortunate people who can still watch this movie not knowing anything about it.

While I think the cast for Psycho did a great job, this was definitely the role that Anthony Perkins became recognised the most for until the end of his life. Some reports say that he grew to hate that because he felt like it typecasted him but regardless, there’s a reason why Norman Bates is considered the world’s worst momma’s boy. Like I said, Norman is prone to sudden mood swings. We’re never quite sure if he’s a time bomb ready to explode or a poor soul being tormented by his mother. Even knowing what the ending reveals, that’s something which will always be up for debate with Norman Bates. Perkins was brilliant at making us nervous whenever we saw him onscreen. His strange mannerisms and unsettling forced smile is enough to make anyone want to leave a room. It’s a complicated character to pull off and there’s a reason why it’s not been done often. Some may have unfortunately watched the shot-by-shot remake with Vince Vaughn which was a mediocre imitation of Norman Bates. Freddie Highmore did a better job because he didn’t just mimic Perkins but did his own thing with it and created a version of Norman Bates that would work better for the 21st century.

There were sequels to Psycho and the qualities of those sequels will be another thing we debate or whether we needed the sequels in the first place is another debate altogether. I personally choose to avoid them because I think the story is perfectly handled in this one movie and it didn’t need continuation. You can see the influence Psycho has made throughout the years. Stories like We Need To Talk About Kevin spring to mind but that’s one example of hundreds. If you are one of fortunate few to go into this classic completely blind then trust me when I say that is an enviable position to be in. Seeing it for the first time having no idea what you’re in for is the best way to go into it. For the rest of us who have seen it countless times, it will be a gem of the horror gem now and forever.


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