What’s the scariest movie of all time? Jaws? Alien? The Exorcist? The Shining? The Thing? Night of the Living Dead? No matter your taste, any top ten list of the most blood-chilling films ever made, would have to include (near the top) Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 1960 this twisted little thriller has been scaring generations silly with its tale of a conflicted bank employee, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who after stealing $40,000 from her employer, escapes Phoenix through the California desert. Growing weary, she checks into a little motel run by handsome and shy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). What ensues is the stuff of cinematic legend.
Although it’s hard to believe some have never seen Psycho (most were probably born after the last sequel was made in 1990), for their sake I will keep this post as spoiler free as possible – not easy since this film has become so ingrained in our culture. Has there ever been a film that spawned so many imitators, homages and flat out rip-offs? (A couple of imitators bear mentioning simply because they nearly match Psycho in graphic restraint and unbearable levels of sustained suspense – namely, John Carpenter’s Halloween and Brian DePalma’s Dressed To Kill.) The influence of Hitchcock’s masterpiece cannot be overestimated – neither can Bernard Hermann’s effective, vastly imitated score. (DePalma’s Carrie featured Bates High School and a staccato-stringed score purposefully reminiscent of Hermann’s.) It spawned a genre that rarely matches, or even dignifies, the source. The American Film Institute has Psycho at #1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Thrillers, and at #18 of the 100 Greatest Films. Deservedly so.
THE BOY NEXT DOOR WHO RUNS THAT MOTEL
Anthony Perkins, who for years hated his “Norman fame” (typecasting was inevitable), said this about that: “My resistance to Psycho ended one day in a hotel lobby, watching my reactions to people coming in and giving me their Psycho raps. Everyone has a Psycho story or two, and I used to give them my steely-eyed ‘go away’ look. My wife said, ‘You know, if you would just relax about this and not be so tense, you would give people the idea that you really aren’t like Norman and that it was only a role.’ … For years I’d been kind of bracing myself when I saw people coming across hotel lobbies or restaurant floors. The moment she said that, I realized what a smart line it was, and what a smart idea. I just dropped it from that moment. I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”
Perkins died at age 60, on September 12, 1992.
Psycho has had many incarnations on home video – the most recent was released in 1998 (see way below for a 2009 UPDATE on that last statement). For a decade-old DVD, this one’s hard to beat simply for its virtual treasure trove of bonus features. It includes a 94-minute documentary, The Making of Psycho (by acclaimed filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau) which is one of the most fascinating Making Of features I’ve ever seen. Interviews include January et Leigh, screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Pat Hitchcock and assistant director Hilton Green. This feature length doc (its almost as long as the movie) is alone worth the purchase price. Also included are:
Newsreel Footage – The Release of Psycho
The Shower Scene w/ and w/o music – Bernard Hermann, genius!
The Psycho Archives
Behind the Scenes
Shower Scene storyboards
Posters and Psycho Ads
Cast and Filmmakers’ Bios
This is a must own for any Hitchcock fan, and can be found online for under $15. (UPDATE: the Psycho DVD, Legacy Edition, featured below, can now be found for the same bargain price as the one above, and is definitely worth the upgrade. Find it at Amazon.)
MOVIE GRADE: A+
DVD BONUS CONTENT: A
In addition to the countless imitators I mentioned earlier, Psycho spawned three sequels, one TV movie (Bates Motel with Bud Cort – blechh!) and one remake (the less said about Gus VanSant’s 1998 shot-for-shot update, the better). Psycho II (1982), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV – The Beginning (1990) are all available now in a triple pack DVD, available on Amazon for under $10. Bargain!
Are these sequels as good as the original? Of course not – how could they be? But they’re still pretty entertaining. (SPOILER WARNING: If you’ve never seen Psycho, you may wish to skip the synopsis and reviews of the sequels below.) Here’s the breakdown:
PSYCHO II (1983)
This sequel (stylishly directed by Hitchcock pupil Richard Franklin) set a record for the longest length of time between a film and its follow up. Filmed in 1982 (released in ’83), the tagline read: It’s 22 years later and Norman Bates is coming home. After years of treatment at a mental institution for the criminally insane, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) returns to his mother’s house and motel under the care of a psychiatrist (Robert Loggia). After getting a job at a local diner, Norman befriends a co-worker (Meg Tilly) and invites her home. But is “Mother” really gone? Anthony Perkins is marvelous here — sad, funny, scary and touching. Dennis Franz and original cast member Vera Miles also star in this surprisingly effective thriller. The script by Tom Holland (pre- Fright Night and Child’s Play) is clever, suspenseful, reverential and amusing. And, oh that production design — very cool to see this iconic house and motel in living color.
MOVIE GRADE: B+
PSYCHO III (1986)
After a disgraced nun (Diana Scarwid) and a no-good drifter (Jeff Fahey) show up at the Bates Motel, tragedy ensues. Anthony Perkins takes over the director’s chair this time and infuses much black humor into the story. After watching this in theaters during its initial run, I think I categorized it as suffering from an 80’s slasher fare mentality – yet rewatching it recently, it was much better than I remembered. It’s still the least of the series, but has an undeniably morbid charm … along with one verrrry sad death.
MOVIE GRADE: B-
PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING (1990)
Produced by Showtime, scripted by original Psycho screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, and directed by newcomer Mick Garris (who would later direct the Stephen King miniseries, The Stand and The Shining), this prequel finds Norman Bates calling into a radio talk show where the subject is matricide. When the host encourages him to share his story, Norman recounts his trials as a young boy living with his widowed schizophrenic mother. These haunting memories are more than just images of the past, they threaten to rekindle his killing urge in this spine-chilling thriller. Better than expected – great casting makes all the difference. Henry Thomas (Elliot in E.T.) is quite good as the teenaged Norman, as is the lovely Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), whose comely charms as young Mrs. Bates give her a sick edge whilst manipulating her innocent son. Not great art, but oddly compelling nonetheless.
MOVIE GRADE: B
To state the obvious, Psycho is one of my favorite movies of all time. And while these sequels are nowhere near as good, my nostalgic affection for the original may have affected my reviews by half a grade or so. For me these films put the mental in sentimental.
There is no bonus content on this 2-disc/3-film set (save for trailers), but the films are all presented in anamorphic widescreen (previous editions were not). However, much like the in-the-can, waiting-for-distribution Jaws documentary, The Shark Is Still Working, a similar project has been produced regarding the Psycho films. Robert Galluzzo (Icons of Fright Productions) and Chris Garetano (Horror Business) are the producers. “I was inspired to start this documentary for a number of reasons. The main one being a lack of one,” says Galluzzo. “Like many current horror filmmakers out there now, I was at the ideal age when all the sequels came out, and there’s very little material out there documenting the stories behind the making of those ‘Psycho’ sequels. I will cover the original movie, but there’s already so much out there about Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’ I’m really interested in answering all the burning questions fans have had through out the years about the sequels. And I can confidently say that I’ve already uncovered never-before-heard stories from the filmmakers involved.” This documentary, The Psycho Legacy, has not yet found a distributor, but a 12 minute preview is posted below.
UPDATE 9/22/2010 – THE PSYCHO LEGACY has found a distributor, and will be released in October 2010. Click HERE for my review.
Late last year, Universal released three Hitchcock films in their 2-disc Legacy Series. These included Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho. They are, all of them, worth every penny of the upgrade. In fact, Amazon has the Psycho: Legacy Edition available for around $15.
Feature Commentary with Stephen Rebello
Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho
The Shower Scene
The Shower Scene: Storyboards by Saul Bass
The Psycho Archives
Posters and Psycho Ads
The Making of Psycho
In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy
Hitchcock / Truffaut Interview Excerpts
Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Lamb to the Slaughter”