Film (1960)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

In these technologically advanced days when internet geeks obsessively dissect movies on message boards, it's hard to imagine the audience reaction to Psycho on its initial release. The shocker that everybody remembers - Janet Leigh dying in the first act in that bloody, brutal shower sequence - came during a time when the public's only way to hear about movies was through newspaper ads.

But the appeal of the film is down to more than just that upending of audience expectations, and it's all due to Alfred Hitchcock's genius. The director gathered his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, a host of no-name actors, a single famous actress and shot Psycho on the cheap. He then proceeded to market the film like a mastermind, buying up all copies of the source novel, making cast and crew sign confidentiality contracts, and preventing audiences from entering after the film started.

The result was a smash hit, and one of the greatest horror films of all time. Psycho was surprisingly original upon its release, but has been so frequently imitated in recent times, that the story has become all too familiar: a young woman escaping her turbulent life stays at a motel one lost and lonely night, only to be murdered by the owner's mother. Each subsequent person who comes looking for her meets a similar fate.

The classic 'check in and you'll never check out' pulp plot makes it Hitchcock's most famous film, if nowhere near his best, with much of the movie's recognition coming through its massive influence on the horror genre. Think of every slasher you've ever seen, from Friday the 13th to Halloween.

The mother of the film holds an equally influential spot in the annals of B-cinema. Mothers, when portrayed for more than a few minutes on film, are typically depicted as overbearing, overprotective and pretty much over the edge in terms of their sanity. Psycho's memorable mother is the queen of them all; a shrill-voiced hag whose sinister silhouette by the window hangs over the film like an ominous black cloud.

Each time her deathly form appears on screen, face unseen, the soundtrack cues that unforgettable strings-only score, now forever linked to a raised fist making stabbing motions.

It's a strong enough character - and relatable to everyone in the audience - that the twist at the end isn't nearly as ingrained in pop culture as the first shocker, a collective understanding between long-term fans of the film not to spoil it for new viewers.

Psycho's appeal might have diminished in recent years, partly due to cineastes re-evaluating the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre, and partly due to endless cash-in sequels and that awful shot-for-shot remake.

But what it may lack in surprises is made up for by that sense of comfortable familiarity. It's like a warm blanket laid over you by your mum: an old-fashioned slasher flick done by a master of the art.