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Cuckoo for Psycho: Revisiting One of Hitchcock’s Finest Films

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Riddle me this: what’s worse? Stealing from your employer, engaging in adultery, brutal murder, or flushing a toilet? According to the Hays Code intact at the time, the answer would be the latter… the dreaded toilet. Such is the case with one of the all-time classics and a pioneering force in the thriller/horror genres, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, Psycho, which was in fact the first motion picture to show a toilet flush. What else is there to be said about a film of such immense magnitude and impact? Spawning several much lesser-received sequels and a shot-for-shot remake staring Vince Vaughn, the following words will not necessarily be a review but more of an appreciation and introspection into a film that flexed its muscles on the world in a time when the world wasn’t ready.

If you’ve lived under a rock for the past half century or more, Psycho is the story of Marion Crane and Norman Bates. In an attempt to skip town with her lover, Marion leaves her work with the deposit bag and hits the road, eventually landing at the fated Bates Motel, where she encounters the now notorious character of Norman Bates. No need to divulge into the rest of the film’s plot, as it’s all common knowledge by now, and if not, then we don’t want any spoilers. A unique perspective into Psycho, however, stems from the film’s subject material, a novel of the same name by Robert Bloch released one year prior to Hitchcock’s film.

I purchased Bloch’s novel years ago and gave it a quick read, as it comes in at a page count of under 200. The ensuing prose, believe it or not, is far more horrific than the adaptation put to screen. Words are able to capture and create far more than film at the time could. It’s dark, unrelenting, and surprisingly horrific in its depictions of gore. The story is an allusion to Ed Gein, a famous serial killer from Plainfield, Wisconsin, who also served as loose inspiration for another horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you thought your mommy issues were bad, Norman Bates and Ed Gein have you beat. The innate link to a maternal figure and subsequent behavior has always existed, but a film like Psycho pushes boundaries and explores the deepest realms of such connection. The family dynamic in such films is turned on its head. The white picket fence and idealistic life aren’t always the reality as we see with a character like Norman Bates.

Psycho 2The legacy Psycho and all it has done for cinema is nothing short of a cultural revelation. The film’s iconic motel and house still stand today at Universal Studios Hollywood. There have been sequels, television adaptations, and even online games dedicated to the beloved picture. Just recently, my sister, who is my horror movie confidante, and I decided to stream the sometimes maligned Psycho II on a lazy Sunday. While it pales in comparison to Hitchcock, we found the sequel to be all around enjoyable and a fun spin on the franchise. The question begs, how does a 60-and-some-change-year-old film in black and white still stand tall in a medium saturated in quantity? The answer lies within the artistry and craftsmanship of one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. While subtle at times, the worldbuilding within a Hitchcock film is a subdued approach to tension. Everything feels compact and glued to a vision, a staple of basically every film in the revered director’s filmography. In a sequel released over 20 years after the first film, the lore and history behind Psycho still engages audiences enough to ponder its cinematic universe. As previously mentioned, the film spawned a shot-for-shot re-imagination in 1998 starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Gus Van Sant with directorial responsibilities, but why reinvent the wheel? Is it good? Not really. Is it bad? Not really. Was it necessary? Absolutely not.

Similar sentiments and criticisms can be made for the A&E television series Bates Motel. Another highly entertaining yet underwhelming branch of the Psycho tree, the series overstayed its welcome yet proved to be an engaging piece of the puzzle and yet another testament to source material worthy of such longevity.

Horror is in the eye of the beholder, and yet somehow the first cinematic reveal of a flushing toilet takes the cake according to film’s governing bodies of the time. Psycho’s restraint and its lack of the extreme brutality that is commonplace in many of today’s films is the most prominent aid in effectiveness. All you need is notable direction, shocking subject matter, and an iconic score, and you’ve got yourself a classic! Hitchcock doesn’t make it seem so hard. The greats make it look easy.


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