Why the original ‘Psycho’ is ripe to be rediscovered — Ultimate Movie Year

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Psycho”
Released June 16, 1960
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Where to Watch

With the growth of the Internet and now social media, spoiler culture in the modern era is an emotional minefield. Anyone can post their reactions to what they’re viewing instantly, causing casual fans and late watchers anxiety attacks as they try to avoid the news. Because of this, there are few things more marketable in today’s entertainment climate than a brilliant plot twist.

The original “Psycho” has not one but two of the biggest cinematic plot twists of all time, so surprising that even people who have never seen the movie know about them. But six decades later, I wonder: Has enough time passed that the known surprises of “Psycho” become mysteries again?

At the time of “Psycho’s” release, Alfred Hitchcock had become one of the industry’s premier directors, helming popular thrillers like “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo.” The television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” also helped raise the director’s awareness amongst audiences, as he personally served as the host. His personality was so familiar to people that it led to the unusual trailer for “Psycho,” which features Hitchcock giving a tour of the Bates Motel set, offering droll commentary and alluding to incidents that occur in the film, just enough to tease and interest audiences to find out the full story.

With Hitchcock serving as a master storyteller, he tells you everything and nothing at the same time, and it’s fun to go back and watch this after seeing the movie. “Psycho” begins with a dazzling credits sequence set to the exciting, iconic score by Bernard Herrmann. Then, it brings us into the story with the introduction of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who is frustrated with the financial woes of her lover, Sam Loomis. Marion returns to her office after a lunchtime session of afternoon delight, just as her boss closes a real estate deal that nets $40,000 in cash. Her employer asks Marion to deposit the money, but she instead decides to leave town with it. Her new criminal career is an immediate disaster after she makes eye contact with her boss on the street. Marion drives from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, to Sam’s place in California, but encounters a cop on the road. The police officer grows suspicious, and Marion becomes even more paranoid.

Desperate for relief after the long drive, Marion stops at the Bates Motel, an off-road, rundown location that is completely vacant. Norman, the motel proprietor, rents her a room and joins her for a homemade dinner conversation. But Marion couldn’t help but notice the tension between Norman and his mother, who stays in the house on the property, after overhearing an argument. Norman dismisses her concerns and following some more indirect conversations about their personal troubles, Marion decides to return to Phoenix to return the money (An excellent choice, too, considering any human interaction revolted homegirl so much, she looked like she swallowed a mouthful of bees, making her terrible at crime but enjoyable to play in Poker).

What follows is arguably the most iconic movie scene ever seen in a horror film.

It’s understandable why this moment made such an impression on audiences. It manages to include many essential elements of horror in its execution, from the lurid sensation of a naked woman, the sudden anticipation of seeing the killer in the background stalking the prey, and the instant impression Herrmann’s screeching music makes. Hitchcock, a master filmmaker, uses every tool at his disposal to increase our blood pressure, including the ambient sounds of the shower water running, and then draining, to the fast edits of the attack. But while the shower scene of “Psycho” has formed in our cultural memory, whether we’ve seen the whole movie or not, the most crucial surprise here is that the main character we’ve been following was just killed halfway through the film. The combination knocked audiences off their seats and resulted in one of the biggest twists in cinema.

While “Psycho” changes who’s story it is, it doesn’t change what it’s about: People with a secret who go to unbearable lengths to maintain it. The movie’s a slow churn of tension with a dash of horror.

“(The director) should understand the psychology of audiences,” Hitchcock said in a 1960 BBC interview. “He should also know that audiences love to enjoy the very thing they have built-in, and that’s fear. It all started when the mother says, ‘Boo,’ but for some inexplicable reason, they like to have their toe in the cold water of fear to see what it’s like.”

Since much of “Psycho” was filmed on a single location in the middle of nowhere, Hitchcock completed the movie with a low budget of less than $1 million. It received a considerable return, grossing $32 million at the box office (the equivalent of nearly $400 million in 2020 dollars). Even in an era of franchises and IP dominating at the box office, I have to imagine “Psycho” would still be a huge hit today thanks to the quality, surprise, and word-of-mouth potential it still contains.

Some reviewers, however, were unimpressed at the time. Time magazine called it “a spectacle of stomach-churning horror,” but that didn’t keep away audiences, perhaps speaking to Hitchcock’s perspective. Wanda Hale from The New York Daily News said, “The obvious thing to say is that Hitch has done it again; that the suspense of his picture builds up slowly but surely to an almost unbearable pitch of excitement. ‘Psycho’ is a murder mystery. It isn’t Hitchcock’s usual terrifier, a shocker of the nervous system; it’s a mind-teaser.”

The movie had some long legs. “Psycho” remained in the public consciousness decades after its release, whether it was a re-release in theaters, television airings, or clips shown in film retrospectives. There were three sequels released in the 80s that may be forgotten, but at least reaffirmed the status of the original. Gus Van Sant directed a shot-for-shot remake of the original 1960 film in 1998 that basically had the same effect as the sequels. There was a five-season television series based on the movie called “Bates Motel” that ran from 2013–2017, but as a prequel, it suffers because it’s ultimately telling us a story we already know.

The original “Psycho” was placed on several American Film Institute lists, including #14 for Best Film and #1 for Thrills. “The Simpsons,” which reached critical heights in the 90s with references that canonized our cultural memories, paid homage to “Psycho” in the 1990 season two episode, “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.”

How did people know about “Psycho” all those years later without having seen it? Simply put, there were fewer avenues for entertainment in those days, and society watched the same popular movies and shows, more or less. Cable boxes and home video rentals were a relatively new experience in the 80s, and the Internet didn’t explode until the late 90s. If you grew up in this era, at some point, one of the things you were into was going to reference “Psycho.”

Does “Psycho” still resonate? For as long as the movie lived in the culture, it is still 60 years after its release. Our niche culture is far more divided, and viewership for everything is shrinking. “Psycho” isn’t streaming on any subscription service at this writing, so viewers actually have to seek it out and purchase it to watch. The avenues for fermentation are not as open as it once was.

That might be the kind of environment that would make “Psycho” a brilliant discovery for younger viewers. I believe the movie would be a massive cultural success if it came out now (well, not “now” now, given the Covid-19 pandemic put much of our lives on pause, but you know what I mean). Imagine if one of the streaming hubs would not only pick up the rights to “Psycho,” but promoted it alongside one of their latest releases as the most important film you can watch this weekend. A young audience would light up social media after seeing “Psycho,” creating the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that compels others to see it ASAP before the story is spoiled for them. A mini-industry of reaction videos would spring up on YouTube. And just imagine the Internet memes that would result from the shit that goes down at the Bates Motel.

With all due respect to the prequel series, the last thing any film needs is somebody afterward crafting a story to explain everything you already know about the original. “Psycho” is like a magic trick with multiple plot twists that lose all impact by explaining everything that happened beforehand and repeating the same beats after the various sequels. Any attempt to broaden the story of “Psycho” eliminates what makes it unique as a perfect film experience. It’s the kind of flick that would also encourage people to see it again and again, taking their friends along for the first time while watching to see if the twists hold up. Norman may seem like just a weirdo to audiences from the 60s, but modern viewers would see his behavior flash more red flags than a Chinese military parade, and it makes “Psycho” all the more thrilling.

“Psycho” is undeniably an American movie classic, but it’s primed for a revival in a world that goes ape-shit for true crime sensations like “Tiger King.” Like Hitchcock said, we all want to dip our toe into the water to see what it’s like, and this water is filled with secrets and surprises.

The Weekend: If Memorial Day weekend served as the most coveted release date of the significant movies of the year, you could make a good case for the second weekend of June in the pole position of the summer. This weekend historically has several high-profile and re-watchable classics that, released a few weeks after the Memorial Day juggernauts, would go on to find massive success at the box office.

Well before the age of the summer blockbuster, Hollywood studios released several classics that are still celebrated today. Back in the day, Billy Wilder was one of the medium’s most prolific directors, producing high-quality work in many different genres. In 1960’s romantic comedy “The Apartment,” Wilder casts Jack Lemmon as a lonely insurance agent who lets his company’s executives use his place for their affairs, but gets second thoughts when his crush (Shirley MacLaine) becomes one of his boss’s lovers. A few years later, Elizabeth Taylor starred in the 1963 epic, “Cleopatra,” which became the most expensive movie ever made up until that point. Lee Marvin turned a group of criminals into World War II commandos in 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen.” Finally, Robert Altman directed a vast ensemble cast in his 1975 satirical drama, “Nashville.”

Musicals were once one of Hollywood’s most popular genres, but 1978’s “Grease” marked the end of an era. Adapting the Broadway musical while adding new songs for stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, “Grease” was huge when it was released in Week 24 (and remains a favorite of many today), but it was the last musical to find success at the box office for a long time. “Grease 2” was released on the same week in 1982, but without its top two stars from the original (replaced by a young Michelle Pfeiffer as the female lead), nobody cared.

DC superheroes don’t own this weekend quite like Marvel does at the beginning of May, but they do have a bit of history here. Richard Pryor joined Christopher Reeve for 1983’s “Superman III,” which started the downhill slide for that franchise (but as goofy as it can be, it’s honestly a fun, low-key Superman movie). Val Kilmer slipped on the Caped Crusader’s mask for 1995’s “Batman Forever” to battle Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face and Jim Carrey’s Riddler, alongside the debut of Chris O’Donnell’s Robin. Once the 90s Batman film series exhausted itself, Christopher Nolan presented a new vision with Christian Bale wearing the cape in 2005’s “Batman Begins.” Zack Snyder recruited Henry Cavill to go up, up, and away as Superman in 2013’s “Man of Steel.” 1990 saw the debut of Warren Beatty’s underrated “Dick Tracy,” also from the comic pages. And while the archer of Sherwood Forrest was born way before comic books, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” evokes the adventure of heroism, with Kevin Costner suiting up as the outlaw in 1991.

By the time 1986 rolled around, writer and director John Hughes established his own brand of teenage comedy with the success of “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Weird Science.” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” released on this weekend in 1986, became his magnum opus. Matthew Broderick stars as the carefree title character whose dominating charisma becomes the center of the world in an upscale Chicago suburb. “Ferris” was the apex of Hughes’ directorial career, and proved to be one of the most enduring comedies of the 80s. Incidentally, the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, “Back to School,” was also released on the same day in 1986.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was also one of the biggest success stories of the 80s, and he was particularly adept at lifting sci-fi action projects. 1987’s “Predator” has a simple premise, an alien hunting an elite paramilitary team in Central America. Still, Schwarzenegger and director John McTiernan exceed expectations with their execution, crafting one of the most fun spectacles of the era.

Flash forward a few years later. Matt Damon was a movie star in his own right after the success of “Good Will Hunting,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” but none of those were action films. That’s what made 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” such a surprise when it was released in Week 24. Playing an amnesic assassin on the run in Europe, Damon brings an intensity and unexpected physicality to the role that makes him compellingly believable. Director Doug Liman brings a stylish efficiency to “The Bourne Identity” as well, and while the film series would change directors in the future, the template for success was formed.

Some other notable Week 24 releases include “Rocky II” in 1979; “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” in 1999; “The Karate Kid” remake and “The A-Team” in 2010; “22 Jump Street” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in 2014; “The Conjuring 2” and “Now You See Me 2” in 2016; “Cars 3” in 2017; and “The Incredibles 2” in 2018.

One of my rules for the Ultimate Movie Year is that you can only choose one movie per director, and besides Hitchcock, few filmmakers are more well-known than Steven Spielberg. I can think of at least a half dozen Spielberg movies that could have easily made this list, and three of his biggest hits premiered on this same weekend. First up is 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the film that gave the world Harrison Ford as the adventure hero Indiana Jones. Spielberg developed the movie with Star Wars creator George Lucas, and the result is not only a thrilling tribute to the serial movies that offered cliffhangers every 10 minutes but one of the best summer adventures of all time. Spielberg followed that up the next year with 1982’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” the heart-warming family film about a lost alien that, for a time, became the biggest box office success of all time. While the director would continue making hit films over the next decade, his movies avoided this golden release weekend he established for himself until 1993. “Jurassic Park” combined state-of-the-art (at the time) CGI effects with top-tier practical craftsmanship to bring dinosaurs to the present, terrorizing adults and kids at a malfunctioning vacation spot (Two decades later, the franchise returned with 2015’s “Jurassic World,” though Spielberg only produced). To say all three movies are bangers is an understatement, but as I’m bound to choose only one “Spielberg” picture, I must pass on these classics to celebrate the film that changed the way we go to movies …

Next Week: “Jaws”

Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on June 11, 2020.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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