6. Psycho: The Face That Wouldn’t Harm a Fly
I’m putting this here because this whole post is a massive spoiler for the 1960 classic Psycho, a word I still can’t spell after writing about 40 times in this post. If you don’t know how it ends…What is it like being 4 years old? Which kind of dirt tastes best? How did you learn to read so quickly?
‘Just go inside’
‘You’re not though…’
‘Oh God this is just like the film I’m losing it…’
This was a conversation I had with myself right after I watched Psycho for the first time at the age of 13. I was trying to return to my room. My house was a bungalow and the walk from the living room to my bedroom was a couple of strides at most. I stood outside my bedroom door, but I couldn’t push it open. It was late. I had stayed up to watch it on TV with my Dad. Now I needed to go to bed because that is what you do when you have done everything you are going to do in a day. Yep. The day was dunzo. So why was I still standing outside my bedroom door?
I am not sure what I was expecting. I pushed the door open and clawed on the light. A good start. Still couldn’t go in though. Still I argued with myself and picked my nails. What did I think would happen? It was like my feet were stuck. I still remember how it felt to be too afraid to go into my own bedroom. It felt…kind of great. I knew I had discovered something important about myself and how I felt about this film continues to inspire me.
Over the years I subjected several unsuspecting friends to the movie Psycho. They would make fun of the terrible falling down the stairs effect-
-and the old fashioned editing/sound mix/acting style. For a long time me and my friend (the same one who recommended Sleepaway Camp) would begin every conversation with ‘Oh God Mother…Blood…Blood!’
But, 9 times out of 10, the ending would get them too. I remember one friend, who had been sceptical that she would enjoy it seeing as we had already watched The Ring and Red Dragon without becoming terrified, viewed the final moments of the movie from the literal the edge of her seat before shrinking back in and saying quietly: ‘Can you turn the light back on now please?’
The scene in question is NOT the shower scene. It’s not even the scene where Mother is discovered. But before we get to it, let’s talk about the film called Psycho. Or even better let’s let Alfred Hitchcock talk about his new thriller, the biggest risk of his career that had the biggest pay off:
Yes. That is a 6 minute trailer starring the director talking about the plot of his movie while touring the viewer round the set.
Famously Hitchcock worked hard to keep the film flowing as he intended it for audiences going so far as to ban late comers from screenings due to the nature of the twist that by this point it is nearly impossible not to be aware of:
I wonder if she makes it?
The plot begins with Marion Crane and her decision to steal some money (her underwear goes from white to black-she’s gone bad folks!) and head out to see her man. She does a terrible job of not being suspicious while buying a car and while on the road starts to imagine people reacting to her choices. I love that scene because of Janet Leigh’s great face as she imagines the guy whose money it is accusing her of flirting with him. With the music and the lights and the rain and her intense eyes, it would be easy to imagine she is the psycho of the film’s title.
But then she pulls up to the Bates Motel. We meet the nervous, unassuming taxidermist Norman. Ok. Call of the search then. We’ve found our guy. He talks about how his best friend is his Mother and how he would never lock her up even though she abuses him. He talks like this to a person who he has just met. It is awkward. So even though the ‘nervous skinny dude with mama issues’ wasn’t a stock villain in the early 60’s it still doesn’t take a massive leap of faith to imagine Norman is going to murder Marion. Hell when the detective shows up to investigate Marion’s disappearance, it takes Norman about 40 seconds to make it clear he knows a lot more than he is saying.
Oh yeah did I mention Marion gets murdered? She does. This was unexpected for various reasons at the time but yeah…Not even half way through our lead character gets the stab from what seems to be Mother Bates.
An hour or so and another body later, Marion’s Sister and Boyfriend learn the truth: Norman wasn’t simply covering up for his Mother. He was dressing as her and performing the murders AS her. Norman is overwhelmed after the well preserved body of Mrs Bates is discovered in the cellar.
We get a rambling, much maligned scene where a psychiatrist explains to us the film we just watched and the fact that the ‘mother side’ of Norman, the more dominant personality, has now taken over completely.
And then it comes. Alone in a bare room, we hear Norman/Mother’s inner monologue. And Anthony Perkins gives one of the best performances I have ever seen using just his face.
You see, casting is important. Psycho was remade shot for shot in 1998 by Gus Van Sant in a move that still baffles people to this day. To my memory of watching it, the only changes that were made, and I mean the ONLY changes, besides it being filmed in colour, are when Norman is spying on Marion he is clearly masturbating (like his name!) instead of it only being implied and when the Detective is falling down the stairs a bunch of random imagery appears on screen. The 1998 version is bizarrely terrible for a number of reasons. But it is a fascinating experiment that demonstrates the fact that you can’t recapture what makes a film work simply by copying it. Vince Vaugn, an actor who permanently looks like he is about to fall asleep due to eating too many chicken wings in front of the Super Bowl, is no Anthony Perkins.
‘Being a killer makes me sleepy and bored…’
Enough of that. Back to the original.
So Mother Bates discusses the fine mess Norman has got them into and declares that she will sit quietly to demonstrate how err, nice she is, and won’t even swot the fly that has landed on…
The smile. There is no other facial expression that has both haunted and fascinated me through most of my life like the one Anthony Perkins gives at the end of this scene…
It fades into Mother’s skull (pause to see) and then cuts to Marion’s car being pulled out of the swamp. It is a triumphant, terrifying ending and I adore it even as I shiver at the sight of pure madness grinning about how sane they must look to an outsider.
I am not going to get into the depiction of psychosis/MPD/schizophrenia. All I know is the look Perkins gave the camera at the end freaked me out so much I couldn’t bring myself to go to bed after seeing it. I started to imagine what a person would have to go through to learn to smile like that.
By the time I sat down and watched Psycho I was aware that Norman was the killer. I was aware that Marion dies. I knew they find the body of Mrs Bates in the cellar. The only twist left for me was the final moment, the twist being: Dude be crazy. There is no going back for Norman now.
Until the sequel. Yep. That was a thing. With Perkins in it too. What a world.
Psycho is still a brilliant film. And that face STILL scares me. Looking it up just now made me go into fight or flight mode. Seriously. I actually just heard a noise downstairs…God I hope that was the post because now I have to go shower…
This isn’t a bit. I’m actually quite nervous now.
Oh, 47 minutes. It took 47 minutes for me to go into my bedroom that night.
Later tonight or tomorrow depending on how work goes…We learn your Mum probably does have a favourite child after all with #5