Friday, October 23, 2015

Freaky Friday: "Psycho" (1960)

Janet Leigh in Psycho
The season is upon us, and it's time to get in the mood for Halloween. Every Friday in October, The Oscar Buzz will be highlighting the films that The Academy recognized that likely chilled you to your bone. While there have been several genres more prevalent than horror, there's been a fair share that have popped up and proven themselves among the more prestigious competition. What is it about these films that stand out? Are they just scary, or is there something more to their charm? Join in the journey of recognizing the award nominated scares that you may or may not have known about.

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
Written By: Joseph Stefano (screenplay), Robert Bloch (book)
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh)
-Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock)
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Black and White)

There are few directors as beloved as Alfred Hitchcock. With his masterful technique and an iconic mug, he helped to create some of the most suspenseful films in history while also reinventing how films are marketed. Even if you don't love his films, you have to admit that he made the medium exciting. In the case of Psycho, he went a few steps farther and even managed to buy up every copy of the book "Psycho" and convince audiences not to come to showings late. There were even billboards with his face on it to warn audiences of this fact. Of course, it makes sense, because part of the fun of Psycho is being lead along to the bitter end, where things slowly unveil themselves into some strange, haunting conclusion. In a lot of respects, Psycho is probably his definitive masterpiece, even over Best Picture winner Rebecca or the often more acclaimed Vertigo.

If there is one reason why, it's because Psycho is a film that reflects anything resembling a "Master of Suspense" mentality that he was known for. Yes, his other films had it. It's just that Psycho had it all, and in bigger spades. From the B-Movie sets he had used for his TV show to the promos where he toured the set, he made Psycho into such a big deal. He was a hype man. Thankfully, everything else about the production is astounding so that by the point that you discover all of this, you're already shrugging your shoulders because it makes sense. Why wouldn't a filmmaker who masterfully dragged audiences through several horrifying twists not want to manipulate the populous? I know that there's others that are arguably better or more impressive, but Psycho is condensed exhilaration.

It's a film that is uniquely captivating that it even spawned a movie several decades later called Hitchcock that discussed the making of the film. Of course, there was also The Girl, which was about the making of The Birds, but that was a made for TV movie. Psycho is also one of his few films to have quite a noteworthy franchise that spawned from it. Beyond the famous shower scene that has been countless times parodied, its soundtrack is itself iconic and recognizable; on par with themes for horror classics like Jaws and Halloween. But beyond this, Psycho was a film that molded the serial killer, even if Norman Bates is not nearly as prolific as Jason Vorhees or Freddy Krueger. There were a few Psycho sequels, most starring Perkins as Bates. There was even a notorious shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant that still is reviled and proves that Psycho is literally inimitable. There's even a Bates Motel TV show about a young Bates and his mother.

There is difficulty in appreciating Psycho as time goes on because of its legacy. We know that shower scene. Most of us know what's wrong with Norman Bates as an individual. To watch it 55 years later is to see the spoilers already seeped into your brain. You'll likely know the cues coming, and there's no way to fully appreciate the craft because of this. However, it's still a film that is so well made that it transcends this. Unlike Rear Window or North By Northwest, Psycho is prone to spoiling because of how much it hinges on those twists. Still, I think it is something that is easy to overlook for newcomers, especially because of how Hitchcock effortlessly misleads the audience and gets to the final reveals that make the film unnerving. If the sudden departure of Janet Leigh halfway into the movie is anything, it's Hitchcock telling us to be weary of what's to come. In this respect, it's personal communication with the director the likes of which aren't often seen.

Hitchcock wasn't the most prolific with The Academy. While he had won Best Picture for Rebecca, it seems more astounding that his more revered work was still decades on. It also raises the question on if he didn't receive acclaim for these films because they were too much of a populous output; or the modern complaint that you'd lobby at blockbusters. Sure, Hitchcock got a Best Director nod here, but it was rare for him to really get much else. Psycho didn't get a Best Picture nod, nor did Perkins get any recognition for his now iconic performance. It's one of those hindsight things that make the lack of respect classic films received  to be all the more baffling. Sure, Hitchcock was more into suspense and genre than most of his peers, but that doesn't mean that his efforts were nothing short of astounding.

Among the many Freaky Friday films I have selected, Psycho is likely the least shocking because of Hitchcock's legacy. He had several decades to his credit and was a veteran by Psycho. It shows in everything about the film from the marketing to the direction. It seems weird to call a film that was intentionally shot like a B-Movie to be his masterpiece, but in a lot of sense - it was. If nothing else, it has his most iconic character and probably the best score of the bunch; thanks to composer Bernard Herrmann. Probably due to my bias, it's hard for me to not talk about Psycho at length and its various achievements on and off screen. It's a film that is horrifying not only because of the violence (which is relatively tame), but because of the psychology and composition of various scenes. It's suspense at its most accessible.

With Freaky Friday coming to an end next week, it's hard to think of too many horror films that are as revered as Psycho. There's so much that even the least scare-fueled movie fan knows about it. While it may continue Hitchcock's later streak of not winning Oscars, it must be noted that this was during what is arguably the height of his career, with an impressive run of films that are still considered to be among his best. It just goes to show that even in old age, a director can produce work that transcends and appeals to a wide variety of audiences. It's what makes Hitchcock so great and is one of the reasons that Psycho remains what Psycho is. Everything else, from the sequels to the remake to the TV show, is just lip service.

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