"It is absolutely required that you see Psycho from the very beginning!"
Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was released in 1960, and is now one of the most famous thriller films of all time.It has two big famous plot twists; at the time, Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep them secret (including an ad pleading "Don't give away the ending — it's the only one we have"), but these days, most people know about both through Popcultural Osmosiseven if they know nothing else about the film.Psycho begins as a crime thriller Film Noir: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large amount of cash from her employer and sets out for California, where she plans to hook up with her lover and start a new life. She stops for the night at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel, run by Momma's Boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his domineering mother in a house behind the hotel.Twist #1: As Marion has a shower in her hotel room, a dimly-glimpsed knife-wielding maniac suddenly appears and stabs her to death in the film's most famous and oft-parodied scene.After that, Psycho changes gears into something more along the lines of a psychological horror story (while retaining a few noir elements). The rest of the film follows the investigation into Marion's disappearance, first by a detective hired to recover the money she stole, and then, after he also falls victim to the knife-wielding psycho, by Marion's lover and her sister. It appears that Norman's mother may be killing off any woman he shows an interest in (the local sheriff mentions two other unsolved disappearances of young women in the area). This leads into...Twist #2: Norman's mother has been dead for years. Her domination is now entirely in his head, a split personality with the persona of his mother. It is Norman, under the influence of this personality, who has been committing the murders. Though the Mrs. Bates personality insists that Norman is the real killer because she can't move.Being such a popular movie, it naturally spawned three sequels (one being made-for-TV) that few know exist. Despite Sequelitis naturally setting in, they received better reviews than expected:
Psycho II (1983). Norman is released from a mental institution after decades of incarceration. He is cured but relatives of his victims conspire to drive him insane again, hoping to have him re-committed. Score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. This is NOT based on Robert Bloch's 1982 novel of the same name, which has a completely different plot which Universal flatly refused to film. Given that among other things it has a scene where many of the male movie stars of the day are portrayed as gay - not to mention the whole "Norman vanishes at an early stage before his fate is revealed towards the end of the book, and oh yeah he was killed" thing - you can see why.
Psycho III (1986). Norman is involved with Maureen Coyle, a mentally unstable former nun. Her suicidal tendencies confuse him... just as "Mother" starts up her old habits again. Directed by Anthony Perkins himself.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990): Norman has been rehabilitated and lives with his girlfriend Connie. He panics when he learns that Connie is pregnant, fearing that the child will inherit his mental illness. The film explores his younger years and his problematic relationship with his mother.
There was also an unrelated 1987 TV movie, Bates Motel, involving a man who'd befriended Norman while being institutionalized with him, and on his release learns that the now-deceased Norman has willed the motel to him.In 1998, Gus Van Sant released an almost shot-by-shot remake starring Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn. To the extent that it was the same as the original, it was widely regarded as pointless, and to the extent that it was different, it was widely regarded as inferior (probably the most notable difference being a shot of Norman masturbating and a gratuitous scene of Viggo Mortensen's butt). But the fact that somebody thought it might be a good idea suggests what a big place the original film has in the public memory. Indeed, Van Sant may have been doing us a favor: in his own words, he did it "so no-one else would have to". Look at the current trend of horror-film remakes (The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), The Hitcher, Friday the 13th (2009), and even a new version of Hitchcock's own The Birds came close to getting made at one point), and you'll notice he was ahead of the game in preventing Platinum Dunes from touching this one. Of course, he could just be backpeddaling.The 2012 film Hitchcock is based on Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and deals with the filming of Psycho.And in 2013 a TV series, also titled Bates Motel and a prequel (albeit set in the modern day) debuted on the A&E Network.The shower scene is now part of movie culture, and the music used, along with the film itself, is used in many scholarly courses as prime examples of their chosen subject. It's also Trope Namer for Psycho Strings and "Psycho" Shower Murder Parody.
This film provides examples of:
Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Norman is middle-aged, overweight, and a drinker. In the film, he is much younger and better looking and your basic "boy next door" type. Hitchcock felt the book's Norman Bates was too unlikable; making him better-looking made him slightly more sympathetic to the audience.
Adorkable: Initially, at least. Norman is handsome and sweet-natured, but stammering and shy - a little socially awkward. Hitchcock deliberately cast Perkins in the role to create this type of character, saying:
"I suddenly saw a tender, vulnerable young man you could feel incredibly sorry for."
Advertising Campaigns: In a campaign considered unusual for the average movie, signs and trailers reminded people not to come in late to Psycho. Hitchcock commissioned these to make sure everyone got a chance to see Janet Leigh's scenes, and they also ensured that viewers would not miss any important plot information. Previous Hitchcock movies then became re-released with ads reminding moviegoers to see each from its beginning.
Affably Evil: Norman. Movie-Norman/Anthony Perkins-Norman, that is.
Alone with the Psycho: The scene where Norman and Marion have dinner. It works so much better if you pretend you're watching it without spoilers. You begin the scene wondering what the clearly-going-psycho Marion is going to do to the helpless mamma's boy. As the scene progresses you begin to fear Norman just a little bit more than her.
Animal Motifs: Specifically, bird motifs: the stuffed birds in the parlor and bird pictures on the walls, Norman comparing himself and Marion to caged birds and noting that she "eat(s) like a bird", Marion's surname is Crane, Norman eats candy corn in a birdlike manner, Marion's robbery happened in Phoenix. Even the trademark Psycho Strings (see below) are reminiscent of a bird's shrieks.
Anti-Climax: The scene in which the audience finds out the truth about Norman's mother forms an effective climax to the film, but the scene immediately following it (in which the psychologist details every aspect of Norman's psychosis in exhaustive detail) has been described as "an anticlimax taken almost to the point of parody".
Anyone Can Die: Both played straight and averted. Considering how genuinely terrifying Marion's death is, and how unexpected it is when it comes, there's only one other casualty for the rest of the movie. Hitchcock reels you in twice with this trope.
Artistic Title: Courtesy of Saul Bass. Lines slide across the screen, bringing up and pushing away peoples' names.
The exception to this is Psycho II, where Norman is set up to be the Big Bad, but it actually turns out to be Emma Spool. In a grand subversion however, Norman steals the title of Big Bad back from her in the very last scene of the film.
Break the Cutie: Marion. Her death comes AFTER a conversation with Norman convinces her to go back and turn in the money. It's also heavily implied that his mother's abuse did this to Norman, and made completely explicit in the sequels.
Canon Discontinuity: The Beginning ignores everything but the original. Presumably because the ending of the third movie suggests he won't be released again. Arguably justified as Norman had been released in the second movie and deemed sane, but was driven insane again rather quickly and went back to committing murders - making the chances of another release very unlikely indeed.
Daylight Horror: Though all of the scary events take place at night, the four scariest scenes in the film - the shower scene, Arbogast's death, the reveal of Norman Bates as the killer, and the final scene where Norman has an extremely creepy interior monologue - all occur not just in well-lit rooms, but rooms with lights that are actually intense and glaring in the case of the shower and reveal scenes.
Dead Hand Shot: The famous shot of Marion's hand flopping down onto the bathroom floor as she falls over dead.
Dead Star Walking: One of the earliest examples of this trope, and maybe the most famous. Marion Crane is the central character and Janet Leigh is the star—until she gets offed completely out of nowhere thirty minutes into the movie, and the film becomes something very different.
Decoy Protagonist: Marion. Some have argued that after Marion is killed, Norman becomes the film's real protagonist.
Deliberately Monochrome: Allegedly to save time and money on special effects, as they could use chocolate syrup rather than having to mix up a batch of Kensington Gore. Hitchcock also said that in color, the fake blood going down the drain would be pink, and pink is not scary.
Dies Wide Open: Marion Crane, as revealed in the incredibly chilling shot that ends the shower scene.
Digging Yourself Deeper: Norman does this in his dinner conversation with Marion, comparing her to a bird because birds eat a lot.
Do Not Spoil This Ending: In 1960, at least. But at the time it was common to go to a movie halfway through and watch the rest with the next run. This one was set up so you had to watch it front to back. A few years later this would catch on with all movies.
Unfortunately, the VHS release, which includes a trailer for a Hitchcock boxset before the beginning, has a shot of The Reveal. And being VHS, it can't be skipped over.
Also, an older DVD release featured the big twist ON THE COVER.
Even Evil Has Standards: In Psycho II, when Norman finds out that his motel is being exploited by his Manager Toomey for prostitution and drugs since he's been away, he fires him. When Toomey threatens to have him locked up, Norman counters with blackmail. Toomey dies anyway, just not by Norman's hands.
Eye Open: One of the more disturbing ones in cinema history, as Hitchcock cuts to a tight closeup of Marion's dead, staring eye before a spiraling zoom out from her face.
Face-Heel Turn: Marion's sister goes from seeking justice on her sister's murderer to just plain paranoid when she hears Norman's being released after 22 years in the mental hospital and spends a good portion of II trying to Gaslight Norman back into a mental hospital where she thinks he belongs, not giving one shit that he's been cured and trying to make doubly sure his mental health never recovers from this second assault on his sanity.
Fan Disservice: The shower scene. Marion's nudity and vulnerability make the scene all the more terrifying.
Fanservice: Janet Leigh stripped down to a bra and slip in multiple scenes.
There's another shower scene in Psycho II, but rather than it being a scene of shocking violence, we get a flash of Meg Tilly's breasts and a lingering shot of her toweling off, lovingly centered on her naked butt.
The Film of the Book: Robert Bloch's novel was published in 1959, and Hitchcock's film sticks very close to the novel's plot. Other than the Adaptational Attractiveness (see above), the only main difference in the novel is that the conversation between Marion ("Mary" in the book) and Norman actually takes place in the house.
Foiler Footage: Psycho IV reportedly had 4 endings filmed to fool... someone.
Foreshadowing: A lot of Norman's more blackly comic lines ("She's not herself today", "A boy's best friend is his mother" and "Living with an invalid, it's practically like living alone") and his rambling monologue about mental hospitals take on a much greater significance once you know the ending.
Not to mention one of Marion's lines ("They also pay who meet in hotel rooms") in the opening scene. Also, when Marion is packing to leave Phoenix with the money, her bathtub and shower are prominently visible in the background.
Genre Shift: Typical Hitchcock film, crime thriller, anti-heroine steals a wad of cash and goes on the run. First act ends with her pulling into a roadside motel for the night—and then a huge Gut Punch as the film turns into a dark and violent drama.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: Norman staring at Marion through the peephole. Something is causing his body to shake. We also see Norman go in to stare at the dead Marion, then later see him leave the room and wipe his hand on his shirt. Yeah.
Towards the end of the shower scene, when Marion reaches out and grabs the shower curtain, the naked breasts of body double Marli Renfro are visible in the background out of focus. (Picture here, possibly NSFW).
Good Colors, Evil Colors: Marion changes from white lingerie and a light-colored dress to black lingerie and a darker dress after deciding to embezzle the money.
Grand Finale: Psycho IV was made into this at Anthony Perkins' request, since he knew he was suffering from AIDS and would likely not have lived long enough to make a fifth film.
Gut Punch: The shower sequence is possibly the single most famous example ever.
Halfway Plot Switch: The first half of the film focuses more on Marion's fleeing and her interaction with Norman. The shower murder that triggers the latter of the plot doesn't come until halfway.
Probably one of the best in cinema history, since most people who haven't seen the movie assume the death is the climax... something Hitchcock counted on with his promotions.
Hitchcock did this intentionally to upset the audience. Up until that mid-way point, the audience had been identifying with an attractive, blonde, cold-blooded thief. Halfway through they suddenly have to switch their identity onto a creepy young man who is covering up a murder. Hitchcock wanted the terror of the film to come from the audience being disgusted with themselves.
Hey, Wait!: Marion starts to drive away from California Charlie's without her suitcase from her old car.
I Am Your Mother: Mrs. Emma Spool at the end of Psycho II. She's crazy and not his mother.
Incest Subtext: On a stormy night in Psycho 4, his mother makes Norman take off his clothes and snuggle up beside her in the matrimonial bed. This experience scares him, so he lays into his own bed instead. Daubing her in the same part is also heavily eroticized, confirmed by her sudden snap-out scare and rampage. And their overall jealousy of every girl he likes/her boyfriend.
Jump Scare: Arbogast's death scene. Before it happens it's apprehensive and the atmosphere is tense, then the strings start up as "Mrs. Bates" blindsides the poor sap out of nowhere.
Karma Houdini: Only really in the second movie for murdering Mrs. Spool, not that she was so innocent herself. Otherwise averted, as Norman is arrested for the murders in the first and third movies.
Made even creepier by the fact that in the last frames of that scene, Norman's face is superimposed with that of his mother's skull.
He repeats the same stare in the last scene of Psycho III.
Kuleshov Effect: The shower scene is often used as an example of this trope. After watching it, everyone immediately understands that Janet Leigh's character has been stabbed to death, but if you slow it down, only three frames actually show a knife piercing human flesh (this is fast enough to count as subliminal messaging). The audience's understanding of what has taken place comes entirely from the way the images and sound are arranged, not from the actual content.
Love Redeems: A theme in all of the sequels, each of which gives Norman a love interest: Mary, Maureen and Connie. It plays with it a little though: it's more that the love of a good woman might keep Norman stable and deal with his sexual repression though, sadly, it doesn't work well enough in the case of Maureen because of bad luck, and Mary's efforts were undone by the actions of her own mother and Emma Spool... and bad luck.
MacGuffin: The stolen money is just a motivational element for the lead character to run away and wind up at the motel.
Unlike most Hitchcock movies, however, the motivation's not the apparent one. It's the red herring that helps set up the Halfway Plot Switch's effectiveness, since Bates is clearly broke. That Marion died was an open secret that everyone knew about, so the revelation that Marion intended to return the cash felt to them like Norman or his mother were going to find out and kill her over it. Hitchcock played to audience expectations, then crushed them an hour early. The end result is that the movie first-time watchers expect is thrown out the window less than halfway through the running time, and nobody knows what to expect next.
Mummies at the Dinner Table: Norman keeps his mother's corpse in the master bedroom, occasionally taking her to the basement when someone comes to the house.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the second movie, Lila and Mary attempt to Gaslight Norman in order to drive him crazy again and get him sent back to the asylum for the rest of his life. They only manage the former, likely because they weren't counting on Emma Spool's interference.
No Tell Motel: Not the Bates Motel, but the place where Marion and Sam have met for a tryst in the opening scene.
Nothing Is Scarier: There is extremely little explicit horror content in the film. It was made by The Master of Suspense himself, after all.
Parental Incest: Norman's extreme issues with his mother and sexuality are both very firmly connected. As the sequels which go into his youth detail how, at the very least, their relationship was weird.
Peek-A-Boo Corpse: Even if you already know Norma Bates is dead, her corpse will freak you out. No eyes!
It's worse than that. Every bird in the movie was a Chekhov's Gun staring right at you.
Peeping Tom: Norman has a peephole in the office that he uses to watch Marion in Cabin #1 when she undresses for the shower.
Pragmatic Adaptation: The film is very different from the novel: most notably, Marion Crane only appears in one chapter, and the shower scene takes place offscreen.
As well as the character of Norman Bates going from a middle-aged alcoholic to a younger, handsome and deceptively sweet-natured kind of guy.
Shower Scene: It seems like it should be pretty sexy—we are talking about Janet Leigh naked, after all—but Hitchcock frames and shoots the scene to give it an ominous feel. Then the door opens and the movie veers off in a completely different direction.
The Shrink: Delivers a painfully long, boring Info Dump in which he spells out everything that the audience already knows.
Slasher Movie: Not a full member of the genre, but a clear influence on those that followed.
While the movie does codify the short, vicious bursts of violence punctuating long set-ups, it's otherwise thoroughly averted. Only two people die on-camera, and a third is only threatened. While there's plenty implying that this isn't the first time Norman's killed, even since his mother, the gore is subdued and the violence mostly off-camera.
Sorting Algorithm of Mortality / Sorting Algorithm of Deadness: Defies both of these. No one expected the main character to be killed off, and less expected her to stay dead once it happened. And yet, that's what this film does. Think about how few films defy this rule even today, and you get a sense of just how ahead of its time Psycho was.
Split Personality Takeover: According to the psychiatrist, "Mother" has taken over, and in the last scene Norman is talking in Mother's voice and having Mother's internal dialogue.
Stealing from the Till: Marion makes a crazy spur-of-the-moment decision to run off from the bank she works at with forty grand.
Unintentional Period Piece: Interestingly, Gus van Sant's 1999 remake is more this than the original is, thanks to the only new line of dialogue van Sant put in the script—Julianne Moore as Lila is listening to a Sony Walkman when she's introduced, and she says "Let me get my Walkman" when she and Sam are leaving his hardware store.
To put this in perspective, the other movie famously based on this is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The primary difference is that Psycho reflects more on how seemingly harmless and normal Norman was, while TCM dwells primarily on the grisly nature of Gein's crimes.
Roger Ebert criticized that scene in his 1998 review of the film, saying it "marred the ending of a masterpiece" and was "an anticlimax taken almost to the point of parody." Hitchcock, having made Psycho before villains as psychologically screwed up as Norman Bates were commonplace, may have believed that the audience would be unable to accept his behavior unless the motives were spelled out in explicit detail. Knowing that doesn't make the nearly-five-minute speech any easier to sit through, though.
Knowing Hitchcock's usual methods of audience manipulation, he was probably invoking this on purpose, to make the smarter members of the audience uncomfortable with the idea that this pat explanation is all that's necessary to understand Norman.
Villain Protagonist: Marion is a thief. Norman's evil personality is a murderer. Norman's "good" personality tries to cover up the evidence of the evil personality's crimes.
Visual Innuendo: The entire shower scene. The distinctly phallic silhouette of the knife, the stabbing (or rather, penetration), the ejaculatory spurts of blood. It's symbolic of a rape that the severely repressed killer cannot otherwise carry out.
Wall Slump: A dying Marion slumps against the wall and slides down to the bottom of the tub.
Norman's reaction to seeing her.
Wham Line: "Norman Bates's mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years."