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Boston Globe (19/Feb/1999) - Original 'Psycho' still splatters and matters



Original 'Psycho' still splatters and matters

Now that the recent ersatz "Psycho" has slid into deserved oblivion, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 original is back at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. As well it should be. "Psycho" is the mother of all slasher movies. To see it again (in a new 35mm print) is to realize how widespread a debt subsequent filmmakers owe it, and how much more crude and less craftsmanlike they have been than Hitchcock. With his characteristic unflappability, Hitchcock took what others would have regarded as handicaps in the production process and used them to advantage with "Psycho."

Paramount, the studio releasing the film, didn't like it. They wouldn't consider giving Hitchcock Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, they said. No Technicolor either, they said. In fact, they said, they had no room for him on the Paramount lot. Unfazed, Hitchcock filmed "Psycho" at Universal, where his TV show was produced. His cinematographer was John Russell, who regularly filmed his TV series. Hitchcock, who trained with German Expressionists, was well aware of the potency of black-and-white imagery when it came to simulating the dream state -- or, in the case of "Psycho," the nightmare state. Black-and-white was, is, and ever will be far more effective at rendering fantasy and emotional states than color, with its enslavement by literalism.

"Psycho" looked a lot like a TV show of the period. When it moved away from the Bates Motel and the spooky old Victorian pile behind it, "Psycho" looked and played flat and banal in its portrayal of the workaday world, even in its menacing red-herring sequence when a creepy cop bulldogs Janet Leigh shortly after she enters California with $40,000 she stole from her boss to remove the financial obstacles to marrying her lover. The film even begins in a deliberately trashy B-movie ambience, with Leigh flailing about on the sheets in a cheap hotel with her lover, played by John Gavin.

But the money part of "Psycho" takes place at the virtually deserted Bates Motel, where Tony Perkins's aw-shucks boyishness as Norman Bates sets up a shocking contrast with the now-classic shower scene, when Leigh's repentant Marion Crane symbolically went to cleanse herself after deciding to return the money, only to be turned into a human pincushion, to the stabbing strains of Bernard Herrmann's brilliant post-Prokofiev score. Hitchcock took particular relish in revealing that he used chocolate sauce for all the blood. And insisted that Joseph Stefano's script stayed close to Robert Bloch's novel, its source.

Bloch, in turn, drew upon a grisly true-crime case that unfolded in 1957 in Plainfield, Wis., within 50 miles of where Bloch was living at the time. A search for a missing woman led to her corpse's being discovered, mutilated, in Ed Gein's farmhouse. There, police discovered other body parts, lampshades made of human skin, and a boarded-up room that had belonged to Gein's dead mother. Bloch, an H.P. Lovecraft protege who had been moving from supernatural to psychological horror during the 1950s, said he found himself able to think like a psychopath quite naturally. He joked that being a writer cost him a flourishing career as a mass murderer.

In its time, "Psycho" mostly got dismissive reviews, was regarded as trashy, the cinematic pulp fiction from which Bloch had graduated. But Bloch knew from scary. And so did Hitchcock, whose delight in manipulating audiences bordered on the sadistic. It's difficult to watch "Psycho" with anything like fresh, scandalized eyes today. There simply have been too many imitations of it since 1960. But don't count "Psycho" out. Count it in. It's a terrific piece of filmmaking, one of Hitchcock's most sheerly visual films, even if the drives driving the making of the film are scarier than those driving the story. To see "Psycho" again is to be reminded of Hitchcock's finesse at twisting the knife.