Psycho, the Movie

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By Esteban Mejia Mesa (2001)

Psycho (1960)

Perhaps no other film changed so drastically Hollywood's perception of the horror film as did PSYCHO. More surprising is the fact that this still unnerving horror classic was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who never relied upon shock values until this film. Here Hitchcock indulged in nudity, bloodbaths, necrophilia, transvestism, schizophrenia, and a host of other taboos and got away with it, simply because he was Hitchcock. The great director clouded his intent and motives by reportedly stating that the entire film was nothing more than one huge joke. No one laughed. Instead they cringed in their seats, waiting for the next assault on their senses. The violence and bloodletting of PSYCHO may look tame to those who have grown up on Jason and Freddy Krueger, but no one had ever seen anything like it in 1960. Inspired by the life of the demented, cannibalistic Wisconsin killer Ed Gein (whose heinous acts would also inspire THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974 and DERANGED, 1974), PSYCHO is probably Hitchcock's most gruesome and dark film. Its importance to its genre cannot be overestimated. PSYCHO's enduring influence comes not only from the Norman Bates character (who has since been reincarnated in a staggering variety of forms), but also from the psychological themes Hitchcock develops. Enhancing the sustained fright of this film are an excellent cast, from which the director coaxes extraordinary performances, and Bernard Herrmann's chilling score. Especially effective is the composer's so-called "murder music," high-pitched screeching sounds that flash across the viewer's consciousness as quickly as the killer's deadly knife. Bernard Herrmann achieved this effect by having a group of violinists frantically saw the same notes over and over again. Hitchcock really shocked Paramount when he demanded that he be allowed to film the sleazy, sensational novel that Robert Bloch based on the Gein killings. Bloch's subject matter and characters were a great departure from the sophisticated homicide and refined characters usually found in Hitchcock's films, but the filmmaker kept after the studio's front office until the executives relented. He was told, however, that he would have to shoot the film on an extremely limited budget—no more than $800,000. Surprisingly, Hitchcock accepted the budget restrictions and went ahead with the film, utilizing television technical people, who were less expensive than standard Hollywood crews. Moreover, the director, realizing that Paramount expected this to be his first box-office failure, proposed that he finance the film with his own money in return for 60 percent of the profits. Relieved that its own coffers were secure, Paramount agreed to act as the film's distributor. But even Hitchcock's close associates refused to believe that he was making a wise decision. His longtime associate producer, Joan Harrison, refused to take points in this film, opting for a direct salary, telling him "You're on your own on this one, Hitch." After rejecting writer James Cavanaugh's adaptation of the Bloch novel, Hitchcock, at the urging of MCA, met briefly with writer Joseph Stefano, who had only one screenplay credit, THE BLACK ORCHID (1959), a less-than-inspiring film starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn. Although he had expressed doubts about Stefano (who would later go on to produce "The Outer Limits" for television), Hitchcock changed his mind after meeting the writer and gave him the green light. When Stefano told Hitchcock that he could not work up much sympathy for a peeping Tom killer in his forties (the age of the murderer in Bloch's novel), the director proposed using a much younger character and even suggested to the writer that Perkins get the lead role. When Hitchcock began production on PSYCHO, he was told that he would have to use the facilities at Revue Studios, the...
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