Nov 3, 2010

Classics: Psycho

What better way to spend Halloween than in the distinguished company of Norman Bates, his poor dessicated mother and the pointy bras of Janet Leigh?
I've seen Psycho many times. The first time, I saw it on TV in Mexico when I was 14 years old. My parents told me this movie was so scary that when they saw it on a double date, as they were driving to dinner after the screening, my Dad put his hand on the shoulder of my aunt Evelyn to ask her if she wanted to go for tacos, and she jumped and screamed.
So my parents sit with me watching the film on TV until the famous shower scene and they decide to go to bed and leave me watching on my own. I ask my Dad if anything horrible is going to happen after that and he says, Nah.
This movie scared the living daylights out of me.
I go back to my room in the dead of night, repeating the mantra "it's only a movie", and I close the door and I take off my clothes and I start scratching my shoulder and I use my other hand to scratch the rest of my back and the tips of my fingers touch and I scream bloody murder. The next day, my Dad, who otherwise might wake me up by storming into my room while singing the international socialist anthem, opens my door a crack and starts wrapping his hands around it, making his fingers writhe and squirm like evil creatures and making me laugh and scream at the same time. I couldn't shut my eyes as I washed my hair because I was afraid Norman Bates would come and get me with a knife.
Well, this time around the actual scares lost some of their potency (and looked slightly cheesy), but the film is still deeply, gorgeously creepy and disturbing. And the suspense is unbearable.
I think Hitchcock's genius manifests itself all over the movie but particularly in the casting of Anthony Perkins. Norman Bates is so cute and vulnerable and creepy sexy, a grown man that behaves almost like an innocent child, a solitary nerd with an unusual hobby. He does not seem at all evil at the beginning. This is very scary. It means that you can't really tell what horrors people harbor in their psyches. (In a parallel way, the same goes for Marion Crane. Who would have thunk that such a respectable looking woman would be shtupping a married man and stealing money?).
More importantly, at the time Perkins was a closeted gay man, and there are plenty of instances in the movie that hint at Norman's homosexuality. He sashays up the stairs and hides his mother in the fruit cellar! In those days there was that myth that possessive mothers tended to emasculate their male offspring and breed flaming queens. So Hitchcock exploited that quality he saw in Perkins whether he consciously knew he was gay or not. Which is why there can be nothing more egregiously wrong than casting a snarky Alpha male like Vince Vaughn in that role (except for having the audacity to think that you can make a shot by shot remake of Psycho). 
Norman's confused sexuality is very scary. He has a terribly unhealthy attachment to his mom, to say the least. There is horrible sexual panic (I blame it on the pointy bra), because supposedly it is the mother who doesn't want to share Norman with any other women. The psychology 101 is a little iffy but the fear is real. In short, parent/child incest: one of our deepest, most abiding and terrifying fear-taboos. Scarier than Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Michelle Bachman and our new Congress combined.
No wonder Norman Bates is a household name in pop culture. And poor Tony Perkins never was called to play almost anything but psychos.
Psycho has been paid homage (see Fargo), sequeled, ripped off and copied to death. But in its day it was a very daring film, both thematically and artistically. It's sexual frankness was unheard of at the time. And Hitch was doing unbelievably creative work with camera and editing, as in that classic shower sequence. The choice of using black and white and super expressive cinematography, the amazing title sequence by Saul Bass, who also worked as visual consultant in the film, the iconic music by Bernard Herrmann, the fantastic Hitchcockian black humor. It still holds up. A fantastic film.

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