Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Movie Review: "Psycho" by David Pretty

Psycho is clearly the product of a director at the height of his prodigious powers.  It's a film of supreme confidence; a well-oiled machine of squirm-inducing suspense peppered with moments of stark terror.  Unlike the clunky From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Psycho strikes the perfect balance between crime drama and horror film.

Here's the movie's extended dance mix EPK-style trailer.  They don't make 'em like this anymore, kiddies!  

Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a woman who's madly in love with a divorcee.  She's tasked to bank $40,000.00 from a work-related business deal but instead goes AWOL in the hopes of clearing her beau's debts.  To throw off her real (or imagined) pursuers, she takes a detour off the main highway and checks into a decrepit motel dominated by a creepy, Gothic house on a hill.  The rarely-trafficked site is run by the awkward and retiring Norman Bates, who appears to be starved for social interaction.

After overhearing an embarrassing confrontation between Norman and his domineering mother, Marion begins to appeases him, oblivious to the fate she's tempting.  Soon the hotel becomes the scene of a vicious and unexpected murder and the audience is left to ponder the true identity of the killer.  Layers of the mystery are slowly unpeeled, leading to one of the greatest shock endings in cinema history.

Everything in Psycho is top-shelf but the presence of Anthony Perkins is indispensable.  His iconic take on Norman Bates is incredibly nuanced, moving effortlessly from pathetic to evasive to assertive to completely nefarious.  It's a bloody shame that such a clearly-accomplished actor was chronically typecast, especially considering that his diversity is self-evident.

Janet Leigh is also terrific, portraying an essentially decent person who realizes, all too late, that she just isn't hardwired for duplicity.  Leigh's masterful portrayal of paranoia and nervousness is both genuine and sympathetic.  Vera Miles is also fantastic as Marion's sister Lila.  Her dogged determination in solving the movie's central enigma helps to usher in a truly unforgettable finale.

As one of the most consistently surprising and prolific film-makers of all time, Hitchcock trots out a veritable showcase of time-honored techniques and ends up delivering a masterpiece.  Instead of compromising his vision by shooting on a pre-existing site, the fastidious director had a fully-contained backlot set built to his exact specifications.  Although the motel and its accompanying creepy-ass mansion are inherently claustrophobic, Hitchcock's virtuoso skill with camera angles and editing really brings these locations to life.

Witness the eternally-powerful shower scene, which did for personal hygiene what Deliverance did for camping trips.  Back in 1960, this sequence was one of the most graphic, shocking and violent things that audiences had ever witnessed.  At the time, viewers would have sworn that they actually saw a knife plunging into the victim's body, but this just isn't the case.  By employing a flurry of quick cuts, off-kilter angles and a masterful use of music, Hitchcock tricks us into thinking that we've witnessed something far more graphic.  In fact, although the shower sequence gets most of the attention, the fate of Detective Arbogast is even more shocking.

I'd also feel remiss if I didn't talk a little bit more about the music.  I really wish that modern films felt compelled to have a soundtrack as distinctive and impactful as Bernard Herman's Psycho score.  The music that accompanies Janet Leigh's flight at the beginning of the film is just as effective as the hair-raising violin notes which batter our wits during the subsequent scenes of mayhem.

What else can be said about this horror classic?  Even long after the film's secrets are revealed, the performance of Anthony Perkins and Hitchcock's amazing showmanship make checking into the Bates Motel over and over again a worthy detour.

        Tilt: up.

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