Following on from a conversation I had with friends yesterday about the seemingly weird and sinister nature of Alfred Hitchcock as a person, I decided to kick off my Culture Mission by watching Psycho for the first time. (I am of course talking about the original 1960 version and none of this remake nonsense, which is happening far too much for my liking).
For anyone who doesn’t already know, Psycho stars Janet Leigh as a young secretary who steals $40,000 dollars and is running away to be with her boyfriend, until she stops at the Bates Motel en route and is stabbed to death in the shower by a strange old lady (presumably the mother of motel owner Norman Bates). What I didn’t know is that the film is actually an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, the villain of which was based on the real-life serial killer Ed Gein, who (Wikipedia informs me) was also used as the inspiration behind nasties in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs.
I have to admit, I was actually a bit disappointed with Psycho. After being reassured by my dad that it would scare the life out of me and keep me awake at night, I didn’t feel the slightest bit creeped out at any point in the film. Maybe it’s because I already knew all of the essential plot elements; maybe it’s because it was filmed in black and white (apparently to make the blood less gory, as well as being cheaper) and I need a bit of technicolour to really hold my attention; maybe it’s because it’s fairly difficult to find anything creepy on a Sunday afternoon when you’ve got a purring (and extremely flatulent) cat sat on your knee and can hear the sound of vegetables being chopped unnecessarily loudly in the kitchen. Whatever the reason, I’m currently feeling both rather proud of myself for not shrieking like a little girl, and also a bit let down that I was not made to shriek like a little girl.
Let’s begin with the character of Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. Okay, so we’re not meant to find out that he’s a seriously messed up serial killer with severe mummy issues until the end of the film, but there should be a little something sinister hinting that all is not well with him and his mother in their deserted motel. I know this ‘something sinister’ should be (and, for most people, probably is) there in the way he talks about his mother and his fondness for stuffed birds and his perverse little peephole into the motel bedrooms, but to be honest I found him quite endearing in his shyness and, more importantly, really rather handsome (which was more than a little distracting, I must admit).
Secondly, the infamous shower scene. Everyone knows about this scene, and it’s obvious what’s coming from the second Janet Leigh slips into her sexy little dressing gown, but rather than being frightened or on edge, I found the whole thing rather ridiculous and laughable. Considering the number of stabbings the poor girl was subjected to, there was a minimal amount of blood and no visible wounds. This may of course be due to the fact that all of the shots would suggest the knife made no contact (for obvious reasons, stabbing the leading actress is sure to be frowned upon, even under Quentin Tarantino’s “I strangled Diane Kruger with my own bare hands” standards). The sound of the stabbings (apparently caused by plunging a knife into melons) was really rather distracting and just sounded incredibly fake (not that I even have the faintest idea what stabbed flesh should sound like, but would it even make that much noise? Surely not at that volume, at any rate).
On to murder number two, which I wasn’t aware was coming, and so this did actually make me jump (much to the annoyance of the cat on my knee). This was even sillier than the first murder though. Private Investigator Arbogast is either stabbed in the shoulder or slashed across the face (I couldn’t work out whether it was meant to be a wound or a blood splatter), and then proceeds to fall backwards down the stairs in the most ridiculous fashion I have ever seen dramatised. He’s all flailing arms and horrified expressions, just falling backwards as if floating (because he was actually seated on a chair-trolley thing at the time to create pleasing camera angles), and only seems to lose his footing or roll or end up topsy turvy right at the very bottom of the stairs. Now I’ve fallen down a stair or two in my time, admittedly never so dramatically and certainly never down an entire flight, but I’m pretty sure that if I were to fall down an entire flight of stairs there would be a fair amount of tumbling and rolling and nasty head-cracking sounds along the way. Obviously I don’t expect anyone to fall down the stairs for real (not even for the sake of art!), but they could at least have tried to make it look a bit less like he was just sat on a chair howling with wind-milling arms.
And finally, the big reveal – Norman Bates kept the body of his mother as a companion, has taken on her personality, and likes to don a wig and slash young ladies in her disguise. I imagine if you didn’t know this was going to happen (which I did unfortunately, it’s probably one of the most spoiled film twists there is), this would have made a really effectively spooky twist to the story. But as I knew it was coming, I found it all rather laughable (once I’d got beyond the grizzly mummified corpse of Mrs Bates, obviously). Norman rushing in with his big knife and his mother’s dress was really rather comical, especially the many and varied faces he pulled while being restrained by Sam, and I think it would have made a better end to the story. The psychiatrist’s explanation afterwards of all the many twisted things wrong with Norman was a bit of a bashing over the head. The audience aren’t stupid, and they don’t need to be patronised with the ins and outs of his psychiatric assessment over-explained to the very last detail, I’m sure they’d have put two and two together and come up with the right explanation.
All in all, I was rather disappointed with Psycho. I just knew too much about what was going to happen, and so the whole film felt like a too-slow build to the crucial twists that I was already expecting. I’m sure this is more of a fault with me than the film itself, but there’s little I can do to erase what I know before watching it. Forget being frightened, I didn’t even find it as sinister a watch as I was expecting, although having said that it could all change when I’m trying to get to sleep tonight!