Happy Birthday, PSYCHO!

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 chiller-thriller PSYCHO still makes me crazy, in a good way. No, it’s not a perfect movie. The handling of the mystery solving isn’t nearly as passionate as the murder itself, and I always hated the way Norman and his mother talk in overlapping dialogue so you’re made to think he really must be hanging with a live woman.

But even BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN has a few low points—or so I hear. Gimmickry aside, PSYCHO jolted America into the ‘60s and we haven’t really been the same since. On the 50th anniversary of its release year, we can look back and see how profoundly the movie—dismissed by some lunatics as exploitive trash at the time—is a landmark in delicious arthouse perversion, a daring auteur curio which still manages to disturb and entertain.

Based on the 1959 suspense novel by Robert Bloch, PSYCHO spanned schizophrenia, drag, and Oedipal complexion, breaking all the rules as it veered down the lonesome highway that leads to Bates Motel.  The film’s biggest star, Janet Leigh, gets killed about 40 minutes into it—an unheard of practice back then, when stars lived to sail into the sunset with flawless hair and makeup. Even better, she’s a morally ambiguous heroine who’s trying to cleanse herself of her crime—literally—when she dies in the shower, a frantically edited chocolate sauce-laden scene that’s one of the screen’s most memorably chilling, down to the glaring eyeball and hint of buttocks.

Just as legendary are Anthony Perkins’ performance as motel owner Norman Bates, a twitchy charmer who stuffs dead animals and slays young girls in between making small talk like “My mother isn’t quite herself today.” And Bernard Hermann’s strings-heavy score is such a perfect accompaniment to all the jolty happenings that to this day, I can’t step into a shower stall without hearing it at full volume. (By the way, neither he nor Perkins received an Oscar nomination, which is probably the real shock about PSYCHO.)

Of course by now the dust (and chocolate sauce) have cleared and the movie has long been given its due. Its influence has been felt for decades, even if whenever a SAW sequel comes out, you wish Hitch’s preference for subtle suggestion over deafening sadism was still embroidered on all producers’ throw pillows.

And amazingly, PSYCHO is still prompting discussion. A new book called The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder takes a scholarly approach, critic David Thompson dissecting every scene with a loving scalpel. Writes Thompson, “The title warned that the central character was a bit of a nut, but the deeper lesson was that the audience in its self-inflicted experiment with danger might be crazy, too. Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady’s parasol. The orgy had arrived.”

But while Thompson had to write an entire book to prove how delicate PSYCHO’s shattering genius was, all the proof you need is this: The 1999 remake by Gus Van Sant, virtually going frame by frame, is one of the worst films ever made. Scary, huh?