Friday, December the Eleventh
Alfred Hitchcock liked to play a game with censors. Despite an illustrious career, the director was no stranger to the wrath of the MPAA, so was hardly surprised when rough cuts of his films would return with a note that firmly ‘suggested’ he excised certain scenes. Hitchcock would simply return the film several days later in exactly the same shape, with not so much as a sliver of celluloid removed. The censor would then pass the film in its original state, having re-watched the new ‘cut’ under the belief their recommendation had been adhered to.
So it was that when an early version of Psycho was returned to the director with a demand that two particular cuts were made: the celebrated shower scene with Janet Leigh as Marion Crane and the film’s opening with Marion and her lover post-coital on a hotel bed. Hitchcock offered to re-shoot the latter scene with the censors present, expressly requesting that in return the shower scene remained intact. As it transpired, the censors never appeared for the proposed re-shoots and both scenes eventually passed uncut.
“I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help believing.”
If any film grasped the notion that terror, manifested from the seemingly mundane, could be far more pervasive than any supernatural element, it was Psycho. Set just off the interstate in the fictional Californian town of Fairvale, stood Bates Motel; humdrum and largely featureless with the exception of an imposing Gothic house set on a hillside beyond the 12 vacant cabins of the lot. The proprietor, Norman Bates, a handsome twenty-something who runs the motel, is an ostensibly amiable, if lonely figure (in a departure from novel’s depiction of Bates as short, overweight and in his mid-40s).
The switch in appearance proved a masterstroke, with Norman Bates initially eliciting a degree of sympathy as a likeable character trapped in a largely thankless vocation. It is all the more shocking, then, when the true nature of the man is revealed. The vicious murders of Marion Crane and private detective, Milton Arbogast, at the ‘behest’ of Norma’s mother, Norma – and directed with exacting precision by Hitchcock – remain two of horror cinema’s most iconic death scenes; the additional reveal of the desiccated corpse of Norma in the cellar late in the film an indelibly chilling image.
Initial reviews for Psycho were mixed. While a number of critics praised the film, a number were less than complimentary. The famed film critic for the Observer, C. A. Lejeune*, was so offended that she walked out of both Psycho and her job at the newspaper.
Nonetheless, the cinema-going public lined the streets outside theatres, eager to experience the thrills and scares promised by Hitchcock’s latest. Warnings from critics, exclaiming: ‘You had better have a pretty strong stomach and be prepared for a couple of grisly shocks’, merely drew larger and increasingly more fervent crowds.
But, while Hitchcock made every effort to ensure that fans completely submitted to the experience of Psycho with as little prior knowledge of the film as possible – even going as far as to take the unprecedented step that demanded no admittance once the film began – some critics saw fit to fly in the face of the director’s wishes. Variety deliberately gave away two major plot-points in one of the most revealing reviews ever committed to paper:
‘Among the victims are Janet Leigh, who walks away from an illicit love affair with John Gavin, taking with her a stolen $40,000, and Martin Balsam, as a private eye who winds up in the same swamp in which Leigh’s body also is deposited.’
In the end, it mattered little, as Psycho took $32 million by the end of its release cycle and validation of the horror genre from Alfred Hitchcock.
In a chilling coda that echoes the murder of John Lennon and subsequent rejection of horror by the mainstream, the television network CBS paid $450,000 to be first to broadcast Psycho in 1965. Three nights before the film aired, as her parents slept in the next room, Valerie Percy, the eldest daughter of Illinois state senate candidate Charles H. Percy was stabbed and beaten to death. CBS immediately and permanently pulled Psycho from its schedule. Valerie Percy’s killer was never found.
Dressed to kill
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, released two months before Psycho, explored themes of voyeurism, much as Hitchcock had two years earlier in Vertigo, but when comparing Peeping Tom and Psycho from a slasher movie standpoint, it’s clear that, despite both sharing elements that would go on to become slasher tropes, it is the former that sits more comfortably in the genre, even going as far as to feature a nascent Final Girl in the character of Helen Stephens.
Additionally, Peeping Tom‘s point-of-view depiction of murder echoes a number later slasher classics. Halloween‘s opening sequence is a clear homage, while there are several nods to Powell’s film in Friday the 13th. Psycho also instigated a later slasher trope, with Norman Bates ‘dressed to kill’. The Giallo would take up the costumed executioner mantle, introducing the black-gloved killer before Michael Myers pulled on a William Shatner mask and a boiler suit 18 years after Bates first dressed in his mother’s Sunday best.
The dawn of the 1960s, with its new, visceral take on horror, heralded a period of change and upheaval beyond Hollywood and the film industry that lasted an entire decade. John Carpenter was still in High School, Wes Craven had given up teaching and was making pornography while dreaming of a serious movie career, and Tobe Hooper was supplementing making short movies with a job as a documentary cameraman. Meanwhile, somewhere in Italy, the 46-year-old Mario Bava has been watching Hitchcock and Powell’s forays into horror with great interest.
In part three: The Yellow Peril – Giallo, the Black-Gloved killer, and violence as Italian art. Read part three here.
*C. A. Lejeune was almost equally disgusted by Peeping Tom, describing it as “beastly”. Psycho merely compounded Lejeune’s feelings, hence her subsequent resignation.