Study Guide

Psycho

Psycho Introduction


Release Year: 1960

Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch (novel)

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles


Psycho wants you to know that there are bad people out there.

That seems simple enough; everyone who's sat through an elementary school Stranger Danger class knows there are bad people out there. (And that they drive in white vans.)

But in the simpler times before 1960, horror movies usually didn't think that "bad people" were horrible enough to be, well, horror. Instead you needed vampires, werewolves, creatures from the black lagoon, or alien monstrosities. Bad people weren't nasty enough to send shivers up your spine and screams past your tonsils.

But Psycho doesn't need the zombies or the vampires. The Big Man himself, director Alfred Hitchcock, figured that normal people could be scarier, nastier, and way more upsetting than any mere alien. For one thing: aliens usually look like… aliens. Bad people can look like, say, a harmless boy-next-door type named Norman Bates.

  

(Ugh. The three syllables of "Norman Bates" are enough to send our blood running backwards and our fingers towards our front door deadlocks.)

The film starts out with a good girl gone bad: Marion Crane. The first thing we see her doing is having illicit sex with her boyfriend on her lunch break—no biggie today, but a real shocker back in 1960. Then the next thing she's stealing a huge chunk o' change from her real estate job and running for the hills—which is still a despicable thing to be doing, even today.

Marion's bad news. But she's not the worst news. That'd be (ugh, that name) Norman Bates.

Norman owns the Bates Motel, where Marion stops for the night to rest up from her flight with all that money. And Mr. Bates seems like a sweet man with a clinically insane mother… until he stabs Marion to death in the shower, stabs a detective to death on the stairs, is revealed to be in possession of his mother's long-dead corpse, is revealed to be suffering a split personality, and is revealed to have a record of homicidal lunacy that's longer than an Olive Garden menu.

Hey: who needs werewolves when you have a voyeuristic, serial killing maniac like (ugh: that name, that name) Norman Bates?

But who actually wants to watch this stuff? Who wants to watch a movie that imagines the worst about everyone? Who wants to leave the cinema seeing a nasty thief in every secretary and a murderer in every hotel clerk?

Ha. Ha, ha. Everyone does.

Psycho was hugely popular on its release, breaking box office records around the globe—people stood in Disneyland-long lines to get into a showing. It made more than $15 million by the end of the year it was released, which made it by far the most successful of Hitchcock's movies. (And Hitchcock was a massively successful director.)

As a result, Psycho generated numerous sequels, and many popular imitators, launching a whole genre of money-making exploitation films dubbed slashers, including the Halloween series, the Friday the 13th series, and the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

The public loved Psycho, but critics were uncertain about it at first. Early reviews were mixed. But the film eventually become celebrated as one of Hitchcock's greatest achievements, and as one of the most important films ever made. It received four Academy Award nominations, including for Best Director and for Janet Leigh as best actress. It's now so highly regarded that it's hard to believe in retrospect that it didn't win them all.

Maybe the judges were just too traumatized by this film to give it the gajillion little gold Oscar statuettes it deserved.

What is Psycho About and Why Should I Care?

We admit it; sometimes we get a little overenthusiastic. That burrito last night was not literally the best thing we have ever eaten. That corgi was not really the cutestwutestthingohyesyesyesyouare. Despite everything we once said, Drake's dancing in the "Hotline Bling" video is probably not more influential than everything Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp did, combined.

But when it comes to Psycho, the idea of hyperbole doesn't really exist. This film is just that boundary shattering.

We talk above about how it redefined horror movies. And that's huge. But Psycho's main achievement was that it changed the way stories in cinema could be told.

And we're not exaggerating.

Psycho: the story of Marion Crane. Who steals a ton of money. Who runs away. Who goes to the Bates Motel. Who… gets stabbed and dies fifty minutes into her own movie.

And Psycho ain't a 70-minute film. It's an hour and fifty minutes long. Which meant that Hitchcock killed off his own protagonist less than halfway through the film… and didn't even replace her with another protagonist.

Sure, it's the fact that Marion gets stabbed (and not that she's an absentee protagonist) that will have you taking baths and not showers for the next three weeks. Sure, the image that will stick in your mind after watching Psycho is probably Mrs. Bates' skull-head (and not the bar at the bottom of your screen telling you that you still have an hour to go after Marion bites the big one).

But in terms of filmmaking, this one little murder changed the entire landscape of how you were allowed to tell stories.

Remember that this was a different world. Movies were a little conservative, and a little escapist, back in 1960. If a character was introduced as the protagonist and stuck it out through the first half hour of the film—and especially if the POV of the film gazed through her eyeballs—she wasn't expected to buy the farm until the last moments of the last reel.

And yet, Hitchcock disposed of Marion Crane the way you'd dispose of a used Kleenex. (No, not by stabbing her in the shower. What are you doing to your poor Kleenex?)

This is as groundbreaking as if Hitchcock—one of the most famous, influential, and well-regarded directors ever—had just told the world: "A climax? In a story? Nah: you don't need one." Or if he had decided to say "You know, we're just going to tell this thing backwards. How d'ya like them apples?"

And of course, today we have Memento (a film told backwards) and we have Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film with zero real climax). But without Hitch breaking one of the most sacred rules of onscreen storytelling, we might not have gotten to that place quite as easily.

So while Alfred H. is rightly remembered as the The Master of Suspense, the Granddaddy of Gore, the Blonde-Whisperer, The Bloke With Birds, and Probably The Most Enjoyably Sadistic Director Of All Time (we made a few of those up), we'd like to also point out that he also turned cinema storytelling on its dang head.

And then he stabbed at cinematic storytelling's head and cackled as it screamed. Because Hitchcock.

Trivia

After filming Psycho, Janet Leigh avoided showers for the rest of her life. (So if you found that scene scary, you're in good company.) (Source)

Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, starred in Halloween (1978) one of the most famous slasher films inspired by Psycho. There's apparently a genetic disposition to have someone come after you with a knife (on film). (Source)

Hitchcock wasn't fond of actor John Gavin, who plays Sam. Still, Gavin got the last laugh by going on to be Ambassador to Mexico in the 1980's. (Source)

Psycho Resources

Websites

Psycho for Psycho
This is an extensive Psycho fan site, including information on the movie, the sequels, the television series Bates Motel, and more.

Psycho for Hitchcock
This is the official Hitchcock website, with a biography, filmography, images, quotes, and links to interviews and other information.

Movie, Book, or TV Adaptations

Psycho II
In this 1983 sequel to the original, Norman Bates (again played by Anthony Perkins) is released from the asylum after 20 years and things go badly. Most critics liked the film okay… though it's not Psycho, obviously.

Psycho III
A 1986 sequel, this film begins shortly after Psycho II ends. It was directed by Anthony Perkins, who plays Norman Bates yet again. Reviews were mixed.

Bates Motel
This 1987 made-for-TV film is set during Norman Bates' youth. No Anthony Perkins here. It was supposed to be a pilot for a series, but the series was (ahem) cut.

Psycho IV: The Beginning
The 1990 made-for-TV movie is set after Psycho III, but with flashbacks from before Psycho. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates one more time, because why not?

Psycho
This 1998 shot-by-shot remake of Psycho was directed by Gus Van Sant, with Anne Hech as Marion Crane and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. It's in color and more explicit than the original… but despite that, it was roundly panned, and is basically hated by everyone.

Bates Motel
This A&E television series began in 2013. It focuses on Norman Bates' life before Psycho. Freddie Highmore plays Norman and Vera Farmiga plays his mother Norma. The series has received good reviews.

Articles and Interviews

Psycho Thumbs Up!
Roger Ebert's lengthy discussion of Psycho explains why it's great.

The Horror Movie That Changed the Genre
Critic Owen Gleiberman explains how Psycho changed horror films. No longer would horror focus on monsters; instead it would focus on… well, psychos.

"Hitchcock Enjoying His Favorite Game"
Critic Bidisha looks at misogyny in Hitchcock's films, including Psycho.

Video

"Here We Have a Quiet Little Hotel"
This is the original trailer for Psycho; notice Hitchcock shows up at the beginning. He was a brand in himself.

"The Shape of the Film Is a Continuous One"
Hitchcock talks about pacing and camera shots in Psycho.

"The Three Levels of Human Subjectivity"
Critic Slavoj Zizek compares the three levels of Norman Bates' house to the three levels of Norman Bates' psyche.

Audio

Scree! Scree! Scree!
An NPR radio story talks about Bernard Hermann's score for Psycho.

Images

"The Master of Suspense Creates a New Screen Excitement!"
This is an original poster advertising Psycho.

That Scene
This is perhaps the most famous still from the movie; Janet Leigh screaming in the shower.

We Are In Shadows Looking Tense
Here's another publicity still from Psycho.