Every once in a while a movie comes along that changes everything. It may be a new technology, or an expansion or new use of an old one. (These don’t even have to be good, they just have to be new.) It can be a way of handling a story that is new. It can be a societal breakthrough, in dealing with sex or violence or racial issues. Everybody will have their own list, but mine includes The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Birth of a Nation (horrible morally, but the first true epic), The Jazz Singer (silly little film except for a few minutes of synchronized sound at the end), Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Wild Bunch (violence), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (previously banned language), whatever film pioneered on-screen nudity—probably from France, Deep Throat (stupid, but look what it started), Star Wars (special effects), Toy Story, Avatar (really using 3D).
Psycho is on the list. Those of you younger than me may not remember, but a few short years before it was taboo to show even a married couple in the same bed. Insanity, but there it was. (You could not show pregnancy, either. Go figure.) Psycho opens with Janet Leigh in a bra and slip, on the bed with a shirtless John Gavin. They are not married, and it’s clear they have been … ah … well, decorum prevents me from naming the filthy act. That alone would have been remarkable enough, but there is much, much more. Even before the opening, the music and even the stark titles are jarring, fingernails on a blackboard with screeching strings. Hitch liked the score so much he doubled Bernard Herrmann’s usual fee, and later said that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” I think he was right.
After a short intro, Janet Leigh shocks us by stealing money and running away, and from then on every frame heightens the tension. She makes every stupid move a fugitive could make during her getaway, but that’s the point: she’s an amateur. There is a brief respite of peace talking to Anthony Perkins at the Bates Motel, which seems a refuge … and yet there’s something funny about the dude. Not really scary, but … funny.
Of course, today everyone over the age of fourteen knows what comes next, but imagine poor old me, age thirteen, not having a clue what’s coming, sitting in the theater munching on my popcorn, when Norman’s mom pulls back that shower curtain and starts hacking away. There are people who swear the blood was red (it was Bosco chocolate syrup!), that they saw the knife slashing into flesh (the knife never touches her, it’s all genius-level film editing). There are people who to this day don’t feel secure behind a translucent shower curtain. Me, I about wet my pants. This one scene may be the single most audacious move a film director has ever done. In a movie, the girl may be in peril, but she’s the girl, she’s the center of the story, she’s your lead actress, you know she’ll be around at least until the last few minutes. Marian Crane dies at about minute 47, and we were all stunned. Stunned! From then on many, like me, were squinting our eyes during tense scenes, and shouted out loud when Norman’s mom burst out of the bedroom in that wonderful overhead shot, and stabbed Arbogast (Martin Balsam). As for the real ending (not counting the too-long and static explanation of Norman’s condition) … when that corpse turned around I almost had a heart attack.
Nobody can ever recapture the purity of that experience. We are now so desensitized to splatterfest movies that we yawn as heads are lopped off, guts pulled out, rivers of blood flow in dumb movie after dumb movie. But Psycho was the granddaddy of the modern horror film, and what amazes me is that it still works. No, it doesn’t scare me anymore, but it brings back that memory of being frightened. And believe me, I don’t scare easily at the movin’ pitchers. This is one of only three movies that genuinely scared me, the other two being Jaws and Alien. That’s it. Just three.