Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho is not only one of the greatest films of all time, but also one of the most important. Too many films to mention have borrowed from its innovative marketing drive, countless great film-makers have been inspired to create their own masterpiece from Hitchcock's most famous work of cinema, and viewers have dissected it as one of the most complex and ingenious films of all time. But most of all, Psycho redefined an entire genre. On that day in June 50 years ago, horror changed, and it changed forever.
I consider Psycho to be a timeless film. Sure, Mrs Bates's corpse looks awfully unrealistic now when you compare it to the anatomically correct gore movies that have become almost the face of genre cinema today, but for the time it was a horrific prop. Where many films today use cheap thrills to get to the audience – disguising a bad script, hollow plot or even lack of money with an over-abundance of gratuitous violence, blood and guts – Psycho is a perfectly balanced movie with equal parts of horror, thrills, suspense, blood and shocks, which makes it the ultimate genre film. It's stripped down to the very bare bones of filmmaking, relying solely on story, script, direction and the performances of its cast. Not only does it precede the likes of Saw and Hostel-esque gore, but it has been hailed as what gave the “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis the motive to make Blood Feast three years later, the first splatter movie, not only with the idea, but the determination to get such a film passed by the ratings board, which Psycho had barely done. The board had to be given a detailed explanation of what a transvestite was before they gave it the OK.
The film is also the very first in the history of American cinema to feature a flushing toilet, which was considered a taboo at the time. Now also add the idea that Hitchcock supposedly decided to shoot in black and white so the blood (which was chocolate syrup) wouldn't be red, thus “cooling down” the ratings board. The movie really broke taboos and pushed the envelope, and in the present, it can be looked back on as a revolutionary work, changing the face of our beloved genre. I personally am very much a fan of the first Saw and Eli Roth's Hostel, but would they be around if Hitchcock hadn't decided to adapt Richard Bloch's novel? I very much doubt it.
Many directors who themselves have created films important to the very fabric of cinema have had their masterpieces inspired by Psycho. John Carpenter's legendary Halloween is often credited as the film that kick-started the golden age of horror in the 1980s, with the decade of the slasher phenomenon in the forefront of the genre, yet the man himself readily admits that Hitchcock paved the way for the slasher sub-genre, and that Psycho was the first of its kind. Samuel Loomis in Halloween even shares his name with John Gavin's character in Psycho. The same can be said for Italian master of horror Dario Argento, whose excellent body of work contains films that are distinctly Hitchcockian both stylistically and aesthetically.
In Argento's gialli, which are deep-rooted crime thrillers, sexually charged and with touches of horror and mystery throughout, a knife is often the weapon of choice for the killer, whose identity we never discover until the elaborate finale. It is usually just the blade and the gloved hand clutching it that we see as the blood flows and the body count rises, a technique so prevalent throughout Argento's filmography that it has become a staple of what makes Dario Dario, yet that highly effective technique is one born out of the shower scene in the Joseph Stefano-written landmark. When there are so many post-Psycho icons like Carpenter and Argento, whose cinema we have enjoyed for two generations all because they took the heart and soul of the film with them in their careers, it really is quite amazing, and hammers down just how meaningful and powerful the movie is, every bit as significant as its much celebrated director.
The infamous shower scene not only became one of the most harrowing scenes ever put on film, but also the apex MacGuffin. When you think of false protagonists, Janet Leigh's portrayal of Marion Crane just has to be the first to come to mind. Her death is quite simply flawless in its complete unpredictability, and not only does she become the first victim of the film, her demise is an unrelenting bloodbath made chaotic by its jarring cinematography, quick cuts and Bernard Herrmann's fantastically frenzied score, which terrified me as a child even without a visual, something that I can now, in retrospect, remember as a fond memory as a 20-year-old in 2010 with a passion for horror.
Marion's death was a real game-changer. Because of its compelling, shocking nature and dramatic change to the story, Hitchcock actually had cinemas prevent access to audiences who were late attending screenings, so there was no way that the strength of the surprise could be hindered by people missing the development of Crane's character, right up until the moment where she decides to cleanse herself of her sins and take her final shower. Hitch also optioned the rights to Robert Bloch's novel and bought as many copies as he could to prevent anyone reading and finding out the climax. An incredibly smart move that shows just how dedicated Alfred was as a filmmaker to protect a story he believed in so much. Such a move was unheard of back then and its presence is still very much felt today.
With Kevin Williamson's screenplay for Scream, and later on with the sequels, various portions of it were quite literally kept under lock and key until the respective scenes were shot in order to prevent any major plot points falling into the hands of anyone who would leak secret details, especially of the ending, to the press and the internet. Not only that, but the Wes Craven film, which is widely attributed with the rebirth of horror in the 1990s, is heavily inspired by Psycho, and contains a variety of references, from dialogue to Drew Barrymore's false protagonist death in the iconic “What's your favourite scary movie?” scene at the top of the movie. With her status as a Hollywood star, you'd have expected her character to be featured from beginning to end, just like Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Also, Stuart's (played by Matthew Lillard) house in the film has an uncanny resemblance to the Bates residence. The greatest horror film of all time was a big part of arguably the greatest horror of the '90s.
Nowadays, the market seems to be saturated with spoofs. The new millennium came ringing in with Scary Movie, and from there sequels followed, which in turn became like branches on a new tree of sub-genre films, birthing a seemingly endless amount of satirical take-offs that cover just about every kind of movie you can imagine. This machine of lampooning titles was inspired by the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker pictures, namely Airplane! and their big break in the form of John Landis's The Kentucky Fried Movie from 1977, which the three wrote. The work of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker is a prime comparative example of how films with importance leave lasting impressions that transcend generations. Like filmic family trees, you can trace these films to, if you will, their ancestors.
Psycho stands in the pages of history as an all-time classic, a legend, and with its impact still strongly felt today with too many shower scene and music parodies that I can count, its effect is inescapable. Like how Jaws kept a generation out of the water, Psycho kept a generation in fear of taking a shower, and it is the vitality of this haunting predator of perfect film-making that continues to live on in this day and age as forcefully as it did 50 years ago.
• Read our review of the Psycho 50th Anniversary Blu-ray
• This feature first appeared in the July FrightFest E-zine