Wednesday, October 8, 2014

23 Days 'Til Halloween: We all go a little mad sometimes (Psycho)

End of last year, when I was wrapping up my pop culture highs and lows for 2013, I mentioned that it had been my intention to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time as part of my annual Spooktoberfest, but had been thwarted by its lack of physical availability through Netflix. Apparently everyone wants to watch Psycho around Halloween-time, and I was done in by my unoriginality. So this year, I made sure that I had the flick high in my queue in September, so that I could finally get that title crossed off.

Which makes this seasonally-appropriate post my official announcement thereof, because honestly, what am I going to do, write a review of Psycho? I know this is a drum I beat a lot, but there are some fixtures in pop culture that just LOOM like … like

Exactly. What at this point can I say about Psycho that hasn’t already been said? What facet of it can I analyze that hasn’t been analyzed to death? (Rimshot.) My usual instinct to declare serious SPOILERS a’comin’ is extra-heightened in this case by the fact that Psycho has not one but two huge twists to it, but then again those very twists are in fact the lion’s share of the movie’s claim to fame, right? There are a percentage of people who have never seen Psycho, and I was one of them until just a couple weeks ago. Despite the notoriety of the film, it’s probably a not insignificant number of folks, at that; I was an outlier but not an unheard of anomaly. But if there’s a percentage of people who have seen any Hollywood movie at some point in their lives and yet are utterly unaware that the nominal anti-hero protagonist Marion Crane is murdered halfway through Psycho in a shocking narrative swerve, and/or have no clue that Norman’s mother was dead all along and Norman was the cross-dressing murderer, that number must be much, much closer to zero. Maybe not exactly zero, but dang close.

So it turns out that after all this time, all my education both formal and on-the-fly, I still am really in it for the story whenever I sit down and engage with a movie. I can appreciate the artfulness of the cinematography, or the nuance of the acting performances, but ultimately it all comes down to the tale being told. Psycho is a doozy, of course, but I have to admit that it’s a very different experience knowing what’s coming than it must have been for the innocent (in several senses of the word) audiences back in 1960. The one thing I take exception with, if I may permit myself the minor blasphemy of criticizing the master, is the explanatory monologue by the forensic psychologist at the police station. And I know I’m really not the first person to say so, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus. The scene goes on too long and just sucks the energy right out of the film. It’s as if Hitchcock worried the audience would feel they had just been bamboozled by a double-whammy of plot twists that only succeeded because they flew in the face of internal logic, so he included a condescending exposition-dump to convey how it was all actually quite logical if you could see all the pieces of the trick from the other side. Even if the monologue were an explication of profound truths, it would still be a lousy way to bring down the curtain. And after five decades or so of developments in the field of criminal psychology, the whole speech sounds more like hogwash to me. Fortunately, that’s not exactly where the curtain comes down, as we get one more bracing dose of Norman’s eerie otherness that seems determined to defy easy explanations.

It may be impossible for Psycho to truly get under the skin now that it’s been thoroughly dissected and enshrined in the pop cult canon, but that’s all right. The aforementioned appreciation still comes into play, between Hitchcock’s visual genius and truly excellent portrayals of Marion and Norman by Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Psycho is on basically every Must-See list around, and that’s as it should be. If you’re in the subset that just hasn’t gotten around to seeing it yet, I recommend you correct that. The bates Motel is still worth a visit.

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