Psycho (1960) - Film Review

“People always call a madhouse ‘someplace’, don't they? ‘Put her in someplace’ ...What do you know about caring? Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing, and the tears, and those cruel eyes studying you? My mother there?...Oh, but she's harmless. She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds...People always mean well. They cluck their thick tongues, and shake their heads and suggest, oh, so very delicately.” A textbook definition of classical American Horror film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho delves into the unnatural aspects of the human psyche while delivering an eerie sense of both surprise and tension through fifty percent cinematography and fifty percent musical score.

The film pertains to a classic because of various elements that now define the aspects of American Horror. There is the constant element of sexual connotation with Marian Crane’s display in undergarments, and the opening scene involving two adulterous lovers sexually involved in bed. There is also and element of constant shadow and “pop out” scenes that give rise to tension and release the tension both abruptly and in terrifying fashion. A good example of this is when the Detective decides to investigate the Bates household while Norman was away, and Norman’s “mother” pops out from the room and murders the detective. Elements of the unknown and shadow can be seen through the more infamous shower scene in which Norman Bates dressed as his mother walks into the bathroom as a shadowy figure not being able to be readily seen by the audience behind the shower curtain, giving a spine tingling feeling of fear of a masked entity that has come to murder Marian. 

The most common element of fear within the human psyche is fear of the unknown and this is repeatedly used in the film. An unseen killer, an unseen mother, and many scenes involving picture readily unseen. A great scene that shows this is when Marian is on her way down the highway after buying her used car. She is seen driving towards a destination, but mostly from a mid-shot of her view driving the car. Close up angles of the face makes the audience uncomfortable and uneasy. When they showed shots of the road, it was rainy and there was only a blurred view of the passing car’s headlights and total darkness. The establishing shot of Marian driving into the Bate’s motel and the dinner in the parlor gave an eerie sense of mystery and fright, with the stuffed birds of prey put captured in a hunting position and the low-key lighting that surrounds the entire motel and rooms. The Matte background of the Bate’s home was also displayed using the low-key lighting with crooked trees and no leaves in the surrounding area giving you a kind of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feel for the home and thus, element of fear as well through the Mise-en-scene. 

Hitchcock’s primary use of the Trombone shot to zoom up on Marian’s face after she was killed and was lying on the bathroom floor gave a frightening view of the dead person and gives a small sense of vertigo as well. The director also used some Canted or Dutch angle shots inside the Bate’s household as Norman murdered the detective and some shots of the rooms. This gave a visual distorted perception of what was seen and thus adding to the element of fear of the unknown. There was also an interesting ambiguous perception of time seen through various montage’s of Marian with respect to passing cars, and dissolving images of her looking tired. It isn’t really known where she is at any point nor how much time has passed and again, this contributes to the element of fear. 

What I have found to be the principle reason for audiences being terrified of what was being seen and fifty percent of the film’s element of fear lies within the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. The stagnant pulse and screeching sound of the score within the first rolling credits to pivotal moments in the film like the shower scene and during each of the following murders give the viewer a really tense and uncomfortable out of your seat fearful mood that can’t be helped or ignored. Key notes playing from low to high and staying as a high note is audibly irritating like scratching a chalkboard and make the viewer even more uncomfortable than the main score. This is played before surprising turns a “pop outs” that occur in the film and encompass the overall intensity of the horror. 

Critics and audiences alike raved and shunned the film due to it’s approach on the madness of Norman Bates and his split personality. In particular however, later films copied Norman Bate’s method of killing and would later attribute it to being the grand daddy of all slasher films. The Friday the 13th series borrowed heavily from the film, in Jason Voorhees relationship with his murderous mother and the mysterious killer going around stabbing campers also borrows from the scenes in Psycho that show a stalking hidden figure trying to kill innocent victims. John Carpenter’s Halloween borrows from that as well with the main killer’s use of the knife as his primary weapon of choice for murder.

As shown to a modern audience, the film could be regarded in many ways. For the average film buff who would know aspects of plot twist and pop out scare tactics could easily predict what was going to happen and when. What is a timeless element of the horror is the musical score that keeps you alert and tense throughout the whole experience. Regardless of the audience, all will respond to the element of sound in the film with strong discomfort and alertness that drives the film’s element of horror.

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