It’s hard to overstate what an absolute shock to the system “Psycho” was to the thriller genre in 1960. Not just for its content or its gore (which is tame by modern standards, but stunning for period audiences), but for the narrative swerve it takes at the end of its first act. By now the shower scene has become so iconic that any power it had to surprise audiences has been dulled. But at the time, it was the ultimate in storytelling slight-of-hand.
Audiences had seen trailers and posters advertising Janet Leigh as the star of “Psycho.” They came in expecting to see a film heavily featuring her. They followed her character for a half hour. They became invested in her, grew to like her, care about her. They wanted to see how her story would progress. And then, suddenly, her life is taken by a shadowy figure. The movie audiences thought they were seeing was over. All the drama and concerns of the previous half hour were, essentially, made moot. It was such a twist that director Alfred Hitchcock insisted no patrons be admitted late to the movie, lest they end up wondering where its star was.
Norman Bates stands still as one of the towering titans of horror, a character who remains so fixated in pop culture that sequels, remakes and a full prequel TV series have been produced to explore him further. Yet at the core of it all is a performance by Anthony Perkins which may never be equaled in the genre. On his surface Norman seems a nice, kind man. Maybe a little odd, but a good soul. But the more you watch the movie, the more you see subtle ticks and twitches in Perkins’ performance that hints at what lies beneath. “Psycho” has more twists along the way, ones that will make us realize the depths of its lead character’s madness, and if you’re looking for clues early on, Perkins has planted them for you.
Hitchcock made better movies before and after “Psycho,” but he never made one that bore itself into the tooth of pop culture’s mind more. The story goes that a mother sent Hitchcock a letter complaining that after watching the film, her daughter refused to take a shower. What should she do? The wry Hitchcock wrote back advising the mother to “send her to the dry cleaners.”
“Psycho” is available for streaming on Peacock.