Of all the genres of film that exist, the one that I am least qualified to write about is horror. I’m just not a huge fan of horror films. Of the original Friday the 13th films, I have only seen Jason X. Of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street films, I have only seen the first and last installments and for the most part, any staple of the genre that I am supposed to have seen, I most likely have not. In fact, I will go so far to say that there are not a lot of horror films that are actually good. I know I’m going to get ripped apart for that comment, but for me it’s rare to find a horror film that I can recommend that others should go and see. I’m not a big fan of slasher films, as I don’t find them scary. When I watch them, they are more to see the inventive death scenes then for being scared. What I do appreciate is a good horror film that doesn’t resort to a ton of violence. Recent films like Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 2 and The Strangers did an effective job of this and earned their scares. As much as I enjoyed those films, there is no better horror film than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This was a film that I saw at a young age, and was one that I watched behind my parents back, which turned out to be a very bad idea as images from the film stayed with me for months on end.
Why is this film so good? Well, for those of you who read my column last week, you’ll know that I think the score for Psycho is in my opinion, the best score in horror film history and one of the best scores of all time. The piercing sound of the strings make it sound like knives cutting through flesh, and in the famous shower scene, it is edited to the images with fantastic results.
The whole vibe of Psycho is unsettling. When Marion Crane is stealing money and going on the run, you’re always thinking that she may be caught and that she’s never in the clear. This adds to the tension, especially when Marion’s boss notices her in her car while he is walking across the street. It just adds a sense of urgency and tension that this woman is on the run, without a ton of dialogue.
When the film moves its events to the Bates Motel, the tension continues to build as we meet Norman Bates. Norman and Marion’s dinner conversation is awkward and you just get the sense that there is a reason why not many people come to the Bates Motel anymore.
Once the film moves to Marion’s hotel room (and the famous shower scene), we go through a fairly long period, where not much is spoken. Even though nothing is said, the tension reaches a breaking point. You just know something is going to happen and you’re thrilled and scared about why it is taking so long to happen.
Norman watches Marion through a peephole; Marion is taking her time in the bathroom getting ready for her shower. These long, drawn out moments just build and build to the horrifying events that are about to happen. When the silhouetted “Mother” appears and kills Marion, it’s horrifying to the audience, but a massive stress release as well, as all the tension that has built up, can be let out with a cathartic scream.
What makes this film so interesting is that it killed off the focal point of the film about halfway in. Think of how many films kill off their supposed main character midway through a film. It doesn’t happen very often, because all that time the audience has invested in the character is destroyed. What is so smart about the script is that even though Marion is physically gone from the screen, she is not forgotten thanks to her sister, her old boss and a private investigator.
Eventually, the new characters are able to trace Marion to the Bates Motel, which leads to another gruesome scene. The sequence inside the actual house on the hill is another master class on how to draw out scenes to help build tension. The private investigator methodically goes around the house looking for clues, which again builds the terror inside the viewer as we all know something is going to happen, but are not sure what will happen and when it will take place. Eventually, the “Mother” appears at the top of the staircase and violently attacks and kills the private investigator. Again, the suspense and terror of waiting for something to happen continues to build until the audience is allowed a cathartic experience.
The most terrifying image (for me) comes near the end of the film, and it is just a masterful piece of directing and editing. It is the scene where Lila is in the basement and she notices someone sitting in a chair. The slow reveal of who is actually in the chair is horrifying and is the image that is seared in my mind. If that were not enough, Norman comes in looking to kill Lila.
The final sequence, where we are watching Norman in a cell while we get a forensic psychiatrist explaining why Norman behaves the way he does bothers some film critics, as they don’t believe the explanation that is giving, but I rather enjoy it, as you just watch Norman’s behaviour and realize how disturbed he is. Norman is pure evil at this point and the way he looks at the camera is completely terrifying, no matter what your age.
Psycho is masterfully directed by Hitchcock (it is also my favourite Hitchcock film), it contains strong performances, has great editing, has a script that leaves you guessing and a wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann. I may not be the biggest horror fan, but I know a good horror film when I see one and Psycho is the best of the best.
Well, that concludes my take on the greatest horror film of all time and we’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree? Do you think I’m way off the mark? Let me know as I’d love to hear from you. Until then, have a Happy Halloween!