Remembering Psycho: The blade, the shower, and the chocolate syrup

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“We all go a little mad sometimes.”

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Sixty years ago, the grand meister of macabre introduced to audiences a rather extreme example of Oedipus Complex via a rather disturbing film that makes gives a whole new complexity to the word “shower”.

The year was 1960. And people have already seen grand epics in Technicolor.   A year before, a faux biohistory of a man named Judah Ben Hur was brought to life by the peerless Charlton Heston.  A good two decades before, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh engaged the audience in the will-they-won’t-they-my-Gawd-he-finally-left-her tale, that grand cinematic tribute to the lost values of the American South, Gone with the Wind.

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Audiences were jaded, wanted something new.

There was nothing new about Psycho, technical wise. 

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In fact, it was thought to be a step down as director Alfred Hitchcock, according to legend, decided to go black-and-white because he was not satisfied with the way red food coloring would look drip-drip-dripping on the kitchen knife’s blade the way chocolate syrup does (the official reason was not as romantic – crew was working on a tight budget).

Plus, what the audience thought as the main character – Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, who later on gave birth to another Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis – was killed off 40 minutes into the film.

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The discordant soundtrack, the death of  (what was supposed to be) the heroine, the rather disturbing relationship between Norman and his mother, and the really low death count (tame by slasher standards) would not have worked.

But it did.

And now Psycho remains relevant and unmatched, and has become a textbook example of how horror – stripped of its schlock, and gore – can still work if done correctly through atmosphere build-up, and a really relatable character. Anthony Perkins did not have the godly movie star looks of contemporaries Paul Newman, and Cary Grant, nor the oozing machismo of Sean Connery (Bond, James Bond), John Wayne, and the King of Sexy Squints Clint Eastwood.

Perkins instead has the relatable charm of the every man.  Wispy, geeky, his Norman seems like your prom partner who is ready to piss his pants when meeting your parents.  He seems like your shy next-door-neighbor who goes to your doorstep furiously blushing to ask for a cup of sugar as they have ran out.

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He was likeable, dorky, but you can sense there is something quite odd, off about the way he acts, like his niceness is all demeanor, all put on.

And the audience was shocked to learn why.

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With the advent of gorefests like Hostel, and Saw, and Psycho’s spiritual, and thematic siblings – Identity, No Vacancy, Friday the 13th, even Fight Club — audiences are becoming harder and harder to scare (that yolky eye bit in Eli Roth’s masterpiece takes a little more time to shake off than most).

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Still, we are blessed with films like Psycho which through the deft hands of a true master, rises above the conventions of its genre.

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Which is why the film, 60 years later, never fails to shock, and its tropes and themes leaving an indelible mark in modern cinema.

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