Ha ha. Shower thoughts! Get it? Alright, alright; I’ll lay off the puns.
If you can believe it, there was a time when I wasn’t completely obsessed with movies. Back in high school, I took a “Literature Through Film” class as an excuse to watch movies as the class of the day. It was a chance for me to relax for an hour before going off to work. I remember when it was announced that we would be watching Psycho (1960), the principle of the school came in and assured us that even though this movie was rated R, there was nothing in this movie that would violate our cultural religious beliefs. However, if anyone felt uncomfortable, the teacher would provide an alternative assignment. (I grew up in a very conservative part of Utah) No one took the alternative, and I myself was super excited to see a real life, unedited rated R movie! (Once again, I was really conservative growing up.) When the credit rolled, I found myself with a deep sense of…boredom. Despite being in a film class, I had not begun to appreciate all the nuances and technical aspects that comes with filmmaking. I had expected a lot more shocking visuals and graphic violence to accompany the movie regarded as the greatest thriller/slasher film ever made. In my youthful arrogance and ignorance, I wrote off Psycho as being overrated and was determined to leave it at that. Thankfully, I grew up.
My Redemption Arc
It was around 2014 when I discovered my love for watching and collecting movies, and around the fall of 2015 when I first began seriously studying film as a medium. I took an introduction to film class with my roommate, and I began really appreciating what goes into making a film. I began to expand my watch-list beyond the bi-annual Disney and Marvel movies, getting into more independent films and familiarizing myself with different directors. About a year later, I realized that I still had neglected a whole genre: horror. I had always been a bit apprehensive about horror film because of my conservative upbringing, but I also knew I wouldn’t be a very good film critic if I refused to watch an entire genre. So I began to ask around to see what the best horror movies were. I slowly began to really appreciate and admire horror as a genre simply by how much effort it takes to create a good horror picture. Cheap B-horror movies are a dime a dozen, and I can’t tell you how great it is to see a fantastic horror movie. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when the Backseat Directors writers were having a group discussion about critically acclaimed movies that were overrated (in contrast to our “Defend Your Movies” series on the podcast). I threw out that I thought Psycho was boring, and the gasps of outrage and disbelief could be heard throughout the far reaches of space. André (the founder of Backseat Directors) brought up the suggestion that I should watch it again and see how I feel about it now. Knowing that my knowledge of movies had grown, and I’d probably have a different opinion now, I agreed. So, what’s my verdict? Psycho is a masterpiece.
Surprise vs Suspense
Many fans of Hitchcock are likely familiar with his famous advice about surprise vs suspense:
There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean…TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
One thing that plagues a lot of modern horror/slasher films is the over use of jump scares, and the lack of suspense building. They tend to go for the surprise angle and not the suspense. For some movies, that’s completely fine. However, an over reliance on suspense over surprise actually cheapens the quality of the film. This is the reason the original Halloween (1978) was such a success. It wasn’t as bloody or gory as most modern movies, and even the Halloween sequels themselves. But the constant stress of waiting and not knowing what the killer was going to do next kept us on the edge of our seats. I believe this drew its inspiration from Psycho.
“Re Re Re Re”
The music of Psycho is the heart and soul of the movie. Hitchcock even admitted that without the music, he was convinced that Psycho would be doomed to be a made-for-TV movie. However, after seeing the film with the finished score, he was confident in the film.
Going back to my comparisons with the original Halloween… in both films, the music elevated what could have been a B-movie into a masterpiece. Both had great themes and haunting melodies that accompanied the sense of being watched and stalked.
I just want to acknowledge how outstanding Anthony Perkins’ performance is in this movie. When we first meet Norman Bates, he seems like the perfect boy next door: a shy, but good natured man. Then slowly we learn that he is a peeping tom, and covers up for what he believes is his mother’s murders. The subtle change in his face and in his eyes over the course of the film is absolutely brilliant.
Back in high school I knew almost nothing about different types of movies, nor how they were made. In the words of my old boss at the movie theater, I was a “popcorn muncher.” Now, I totally understand why this movie is referred to as a classic and a masterpiece. Those terms are rightly used. It was because of Psycho that movies like Halloween could become so beloved. I’m so glad I watched this movie again. I own it now, and so should you.