‘Psycho’ Considerations

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Ken Mogg

This article is the third in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

“Sam keeps Norman talking while Lila sneaks into the house to explore …  As we can’t make up our mind whether the danger is coming from in front of her (Mom) or from behind her (Norman) … we yield to a helpless hysteria.” —Raymond Durgnat (Inside Norman Bates, Focus on Hitchcock, 1972)

EXACTLY! RAYMOND DURGNAT’S CLASSIC essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho (spoiler warning: read no further if you haven’t already seen it) shows how well he understood the director’s capacity to outflank his audiences. Here are other examples: About the enthralling sequence of Marion Crane’s long drive with $40,000 stolen from her employer, Durgnat notes her two contrasting encounters. “The cop is saying, ‘I remind you of punishment: turn back!’ the garage hand, ‘I make crime pleasant and easy, go on.'” And again, after motel proprietor Norman Bates has cleaned up the scene of Marion’s murder in her shower by his homicidal Mother and disposed of the body in a nearby swamp, we are torn. Such filial protectiveness! “The spectator’s moral purity,” writes Durgnat, “is being outflanked at both ends—by morbid, pornographic interest, and by a sympathetic pity for charming Norman.”

Durgnat clearly sees how the initial conversation between Norman and the private detective Arbogast works. “In the battle of wits between [them] we sympathize with them both — Marion must be avenged … yet Norman’s motives are [seemingly] selfless …” Even so, Hitchcock has planted a hint of Norman’s more formidable side. Conversing with Marion, Norman leans forward, his eyes blazing angrily, and accuses her, “You mean [put Mother in] an institution, a madhouse?” Already he seems driven to protect his mother, even as next moment he admits, revealingly, that he had considered putting her away. “But,” he adds, “I hate to even think about it.” As critics have said about Psycho and Hitchcock, the director doesn’t cheat — just lets us leap to our wrong conclusions. About how nice Norman is, for example!

Initially, Durgnat isn’t complimentary about Hitchcock’s audience. “In Psycho nothing that isn’t disturbing or tainted ever happens, and to enjoy it (as most people do) is to stand convicted, and consciously convicted, of a lurking nostalgia for evil …” In the end, though, we arrive at “an unsentimental compassion towards insanity.” (The philosopher Schopenhauer claimed that humans are driven by an impersonal, non-rational force—which Psycho surely implies—and advocated an ethics of compassion to countermand it. He termed this ubiquitous force “Will”. Durgnat, for his part, sees Psycho as showing “the brutal Will of destiny”, implicit in Bernard Herrmann’s score and whose personification is the police patrolman, inscrutable behind his dark glasses.1)

At the same time, Herrmann’s score represents subjective dread, both the characters’ (especially Marion’s, on the road) and ours. Dread is fear, or, more specifically, a fear of what one nonetheless desires.2 Marion feels compelled to steal a wad of unmarked $100 bills (whose obnoxious owner had tempted her by remarking, “I never carry more than I can afford to lose”) in order to flee her job and marry boyfriend Sam. Once on the road, the dread starts to beset her. The pounding score alternates with a “yearning” music, for both of which the ubiquitous strings are well-suited.

The Credits

To appreciate how Hitchcock and Herrmann are able to intimate a great deal in a short space—as they do—we need look no further than the credits sequence. It starts with the obligatory Paramount logo shown in a chilling black-and-white image incorporating horizontal lines and total silence. Never has that familiar snow-covered mountain top been more functional!3 A momentary fade to black follows, then a dark grey screen appears. After a beat, Herrmann’s skittering yet pounding music announces itself and the screen is invaded by sets of horizontal black bars which come and go, regularly uncovering white titles underneath, starting with the words “ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S” and then “PSYCHO.” Sometimes the clusters of horizontal bars give way to sets of vertical ones. Meanwhile, the successive titles shatter, and are wiped or seemingly pushed from the screen by the hostile bars. There’s a certain symmetry to all of this, but it’s hard to define — as I’m sure the filmmakers intended. Saul Bass’s description of his work on the titles for Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) comes to mind: the image of a “jagged” arm “expressed the jarring, disjointed existence of the drug addict.” Mutatis mutandis, the Psycho titles anticipate the psychosis of Norman Bates — and, to an extent, of us all. (“We all go a little mad sometimes”, Norman will say.) The blocks of vertical lines resemble city buildings, and at the end of the sequence dissolve to a real cityscape of Phoenix, Arizona.

The black bars will return at the very end of the film (after its final image of the turgid swamp) to obliterate everything. Nihilism anyone?! The question arises of how exactly Psycho manages to exhilarate most viewers. Here’s Durgnat again: “People [who have just seen Psycho] leave the cinema chuckling incredulously, groggy, exhilarated yet hysterical, half-ready to believe that everybody in the world is as mad as Norman.” Hitchcock, with his mastery of subjective cinema in which onscreen events mirror the mind-state of characters and/or viewers (the expressionist Marnie provides a classic example) well understood that none of us knows anything “objectively.” (That was certainly Schopenhauer’s thesis. We can’t comprehend Will, only it’s Representation/s.) Finally, having been put through the wringer by the film, which was an avowed aim of Hitchcock’s, i.e., full audience involvement, and an outcome of his subjective techniques, we heave a sigh of relief that Norman has got what he deserved. Well, it’s ambiguous! But at least we’ve been given a scapegoat!

Early Scenes

As noted, what follows the credits sequence is a view of a city, with the camera gradually descending and slow-zooming into the space between a partially-open window and its sill, then into a darkened hotel room behind it. That image soon lightens, as if our eyes were adjusting to the gloom, and we see that a couple – Sam and Marion – have been making out on a bed. Successive titles have set the scene: “PHOENIX, ARIZONA”, “FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH”, “TWO FORTY-THREE P.M.” Each block of words has slid onto the screen from the side, then off again, just as the black bars did earlier. The fact that the words are all in capitals adds to the block-impression. The precision of date, place, and time is like an apt joke on Hitchcock’s part, no doubt evoking the police procedural Dragnet which had just finished its decade-long run on American TV (1951-1959; revived in 1967). The viewer feels another frisson of excitement to come. The track/zoom beneath the slightly-raised hotel bedroom window in order to show something illicit, i.e., love-making at lunchtime, troubles us not at all! We have paid our admission precisely to experience some vicarious thrills, and here are two Hollywood stars effectively doing our bidding! Carry on, Hitchcock and cast!

Of course, we have arrived too late for actual intimacy. Hitchcock allows us to see just enough necking to stir us; he’ll gratify us with a different excitement later in the film. He was well aware that “suspense” is analogous to sex. Psycho‘s early scenes are effectively about sexual frustration and prelude the images of the mother-dominated Norman spying voyeuristically on Marion. Director Richard Franklin (Psycho II) told me that Hitchcock regretted not being able to imply that Norman was masturbating as he watched Marion take her shower. Note too that there’s a relative “shortage” of women in the supporting cast of Psycho. Certainly, none of them is any match, photographically, for Janet Leigh’s Marion! There’s mousy Caroline in the real estate office where Marion works; there’s Vera Miles as Lila, whom for some reason Hitchcock dressed as dowdily as he could (though he had considered casting her as Madeleine in Vertigo!); and there’s the sheriff’s wife, for whom matters of the bedroom are, at most, to be whispered about.  Interestingly, Psycho‘s several males, excluding Tony Perkins’s Norman, tend to be declamatory, and their virility is not in question. Hitchcock seldom left us uncertain about our allegiances. (Incidentally, I value Sheriff Chambers’s hearty enunciation of “Ar-bo-gast”!) By contrast, Norman is a charming conversationalist, once he gets going! (His opening gambit to Marion, “You eat like a bird!”, is a bit lame — but quite in character, given his boyish disposition!)

Visuals and Screenplay

Just as artfully employed are the film’s visuals. The road scenes, and the Bates Motel, continue the horizontal-lines motif of the credits; the tall buildings of Phoenix, the old house behind the motel, the Fairvale Church with its spire, and the courthouse with its columns, feature vertical designs, again recalling the credits. Marion’s drive to California offers a slice of Americana to go with the reference to “many motels in this area” by the patrolman — shades of Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting “Western Motel”, whose dreary rolling hillside visible through a window is a likely influence.4 Marion’s trip provides a rough parallel to, say, the road scenes of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962); pessimistic later films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1970) and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) may be seen as likewise drawing on and contributing to such a road genre.

Something I hugely admire is the Psycho screenplay by the young Joseph Stefano.  Himself in psychotherapy at the time (as I remember reading in Stephen Rebello’s richly rewarding Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, 1990), he had a remarkable ear for dialogue and a resourcefulness that quickly earned him Hitchcock’s gratitude. The scene in Sam’s hardware store with the lady buying the pesticide is very clever. The lady reads the label on the can: “They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world …” The idea of mass extermination of “every insect” already sounds excessive, but she keeps going. “But they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless …” Well, that’s as maybe! Is it to the point, though?! Do insects feel pain?! Then comes the topper. “And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless!” Her solicitude sounds somewhat misplaced. What exactly does she mean by “should always be painless”? She’s not talking of war, one assumes. (So much for her “always”.) Perhaps she’s talking of executions?! The deliberate killing of a human being — in which, apparently, she will have a say! (During all of this, the dull, adenoidal shop assistant says nothing.) No doubt the point of the scene, structurally, is that it comes within minutes of the bloody killing of Marion in her shower by Mother. The lady customer’s concern for pain-free death strikes a humane note, but she has no inkling of what has occurred up the road at the Bates Motel. Her opinion can’t help but seem inadequate in the face of what the audience has just witnessed. On the other hand, as a piece of “light relief”, it is perfectly judged — like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth which follows hard on the bloody murder of Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Stefano had an excellent ear for repetition and other verbal mannerisms (like Norman’s stutter — though that may have been Tony Perkins’s own contribution).  Caroline’s willing diffidence, for example: “Teddy called me; my mother called to see if Teddy called. Oh, your sister called to say …” Or the mad cunning of Norman’s seeming acceptance when he has finally become his Mother: “They’ll see and they’ll say, and [pause] they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly!'” Or Sam’s repeated disgruntled reference to his “sweating” to pay alimony.

Then there is the film’s motif of impatience, of not being able to wait. The two sisters are its embodiment. As Lila says, “Patience doesn’t run in my family.” When Sam announces to her that’s he’s going out to the motel, and that she should stay behind, she complains, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Just sit here and wait?” (“Yeah!”, he responds.) Marion’s impatience to get married is the wellspring of Psycho. Wryly, she tells the stolid Sam, “They also pay who meet in hotel rooms.” She means, apparently, that she feels demeaned by having to have their rushed trysts at lunch-hour. (She will be paying in another way before long, the $40,000 not availing her.) Curiously, her phraseology echoes John Milton’s famous line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It’s another example of the resourceful Stefano’s ability to inject poetry—literally or in effect—into his screenplay.

Psycho is full of little hints and prolepses that lead us on, invoking our curiosity and promising pay-offs. In effect, it is built on the principle enunciated by Freud for telling tendentious, i.e., risqué, jokes: establish a suitable mood, protract the listener’s wait for the punch-line, include lesser climaxes along the way that serve as foreshadowing. One classic Hitchcockian prototype was the amusement park sequence in Strangers on a Train (1951). Recall its river-caves sequence where Bruno begins to stalk Miriam, intending to kill her. His boat follows hers, in which she and her boyfriends are fooling around. In the darkness, we hear a girl scream, but it’s a false alarm — girls do squeal when having fun with their young men! Bruno is biding his time. Relentlessly he tracks her, even allowing her to notice him and giving her a come-on. (The trampish Miriam is happy to flirt back.) The group, including Bruno, crosses the park’s lake to its Island of Love where various couples are making out on the sloping grass. The licentious mood is now pronounced. When Miriam briefly becomes separated from the boys — she may even have engineered it to give Bruno his chance — he moves in for the kill, literally. In Psycho, the structure is punctuated by at least three shocking climaxes with frequent little prolepses, including musical cues (read on). Durgnat is perfectly correct when he says that the cumulative effect reduces us to a helpless hysteria! By the final scenes, we are sufficiently worked up and almost pleading with Hitchcock to deliver his coup de grace.

Techniques

One of the director’s unfailing techniques was to work closely with Bernard Herrmann to arouse audience expectations, then relax the tension for a time. (There is a rhythm of suspense.) The score contains any number of ascending and descending passages, intimations of what this film is capable of, and what it will deliver, again and again, and again, i.e., its three main climaxes. Likewise, the script titillates us with little references that are only explained later. Norman refers to his mother’s involvement with a man, after her husband died, who “could have talked her into anything”. Only, when he died too, it was “just too great a shock”. “And,” adds Norman, “the way he died …” He trails off and changes the subject. Later we find out that the shock was Norman’s as much as his mother’s. (In fact, her intention to re-marry had already, in the psychiatrist’s words, “pushed him over the line” and he “killed them both”.) When Lila and Sam go to visit Sheriff Chambers, he mentions in passing “that bad business out [at the Bates Motel] about ten years ago.” Our ears prick up, but we have to wait until given a further clue about how “Norman’s mother has been dead and buried in Greenlawn Cemetery for the past ten years”.  Confused, we still don’t know the details of “that bad business out there.” Finally, the Sheriff describes what he calls a murder-suicide: “Mrs. Bates poisoned this guy she was involved with, when she found out he was married, then took a helping of the same stuff herself. Strychnine.” (Clearly, the police concluded that gentle Norman had nothing to do with it!) And again, when in an overhead high long-shot, already used for the murder of Arbogast, Norman carries Mother downstairs, we hear her protest at being taken to the fruit-cellar: “You hid me there once, boy, and you won’t do it again, not ever again.”  Again confused, we wonder to what occasion she is referring. Only when the psychiatrist clears up matters at the end — in a necessary scene that has been, I think, unfairly maligned5 — do we hear that Norman substituted a weighted coffin for his mother’s body, and, drawing on his taxidermy skills, kept the treated body in the cellar.

Metaphysics

There’s a metaphysical truth underpinning Psycho, giving it weight. In 1960, after completing the film, Hitchcock told an interviewer: “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” The film’s psychiatrist speaks of reality coming “too close” to Norman, pushing him over the line into madness. Which is tantamount to saying that Norman represents something in all of us. Compare again Schopenhauer’s assertion that we are all bound in subjectivity, that we cannot know the one Will (though we may, he thought, sense it working in, and through, us), only its manifestation in endless Representations. But is your set of Representations ultimately any more real than mine?!

Generally, Hitchcock’s films draw a lot of their suggestive power from what I’ll call their Vague Symbolism.6 I’m thinking, for example, of the role Hitchcock assigns to Psycho‘s stuffed birds (an owl with outspread wings, a perching crow, a pheasant).  And why, for that matter, is Norman himself given bird-like gestures (arms spread out, or twice “flapping” his upraised palm at Marion as if to say, agreeably, “Don’t trouble yourself!”).  As noted, he tells Marion in that same scene, “You eat like a bird!”  Later, Mother defends herself by putting all the blame on Norman: “As if I could do anything but just sit and stare like one of his stuffed birds.” Even Marion, at the end of the parlor scene, as she leaves to go to her room, trails her arm behind her like a wounded bird.  Hitchcock loved such visual poetry, using images – “pure cinema”, he often called it – to say things beyond the everyday power of words to evoke. You might say that he was suggesting parallels between the diversity of the bird realm and the human realm — both have their aggressors and their victims, for example – and again Schopenhauer comes to mind, for his insistence that there is an unbroken continuity between humans and animals: all are part of Will (roughly, the life-force).

Here’s a different form of repetition, which may again suggest the life-force: again and again in the early scenes, Marion’s wide eyes are highlighted, as when, catching up after her lunchtime assignation with Sam, she applies make-up at her desk in the office. Then, when she goes on the road, we are again treated to those same eyes, belonging to the vivacious Janet Leigh. Gradually, though, the glare of the road, and — after night descends — the oncoming headlights of other cars, take their toll, and Marion’s eyes narrow. At one moment, she seems in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Precisely then, the illuminated “Bates Motel” sign looms up and, fatefully, Marion pulls in. Marion’s murder in her shower — occasioning unprecedented shock and horror for the audience — is aptly underlined by a bravura cut from an extreme close-up of blood running down a plughole to a view of her now lifeless eye, then an incredible sustained pull-back to take in the bedroom and the unattended money, concealed in a folded newspaper. Then on to the open window and a view of the tall house behind the motel. From one of its windows, presumably, the one where we saw Mother pacing when Marion first arrived in the rain (a sound now replaced by that of the still-running shower in Marion’s cabin), comes the voice of Norman: “Mother!  Oh God!  Mother, mother!  Blood, blood!”

In some ways, the wordless scene where Norman, the good, dutiful son, cleans up the shower stall and bath (and, at the last minute, heedlessly tosses the newspaper concealing the stolen money into the boot of Marion’s car alongside her body wrapped in a shower-curtain — a grim parallel there), then sinks the car in the nearby swamp, is my favorite scene in Psycho. (Another is the entire road sequence. Another is Norman and Marion’s conversation.) Here, too, there’s an echo of Macbeth, as when Lady Macbeth says, dismissively and almost facetiously, “A little water clears us of this deed!” Only, Hitchcock wants to underline his grim situation in a cinematic way, at the same time giving us a “breather” after all that has just happened. Once Norman has stowed Marion’s body in the boot, he returns with a mop and pail to clean up. In a “prelude” that signals what will follow, he washes his bloodied hands in the basin. The music has gone high and eerie. His movements are rapid and efficient: no namby-pamby dabbing for Norman. Then he moves on to the bigger task of cleaning up the entire shower stall and bathroom. Again he does the job efficiently, and we watch, riveted. By now, the music is performing little swirling movements of its own in apt curlicues that seem to chase each other, maintaining the eeriness. In retrospect, we can appreciate that they are already evoking the title of the film, a mind that is unhinged (no wonder that Norman had spoken of his dislike of “creepy smells”).

But that’s enough. Psycho is primarily a film to be seen — and lived through. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock had Thornhill say, near the end, “I never felt more alive!” It’s the journey that Hitchcock offers us, that is so rewarding. Over and again!

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Notes

  1. Too dogmatic? By Durgnat’s own description, the agreeable car-dealer California Charlie is part of what constitutes the Will that impels us all. (After all, Will is ubiquitous.)
  1. Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread defined Dread as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy”.
  1. Leading the way, Saul Bass’s opening titles for North by Northwest (1959) incorporated a stylised MGM lion roaring against a sinister green background.

4.  Hitchcock acknowledged his admiration for Hopper’s paintings — among which, of course, is “House by the Railroad” (1925), a palpable model for the Psycho house.

Edward Hopper - House by the Railroad (1925)

  1. Employing a culinary metaphor, someone has said that many reviewers and critics appear to “have never been in the kitchen” — meaning, they’ve not considered every aspect of what it takes to prepare a balanced and satisfying meal.
  1. I don’t mean the elusive “figure in the carpet” of an author’s work, as incorporated in the title of Henry James’s novella (1896) to which Penelope Houston referred in her denigratory article on Hitchcock in the Autumn 1963 Sight and Sound. But nor do I mean a simple symbol like the final image of North by Northwest (a train entering a tunnel) which Hitchcock admitted was a phallic symbol!

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Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999, revised 2008) covers every film “in loving detail” (Bill Krohn). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on “Hitchcock’s Literary Influences” for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock (Wiley Blackwell 2011,  2014), and an essay on “The Cutting Room” in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012).

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Psycho IV: The Beginning

Blu-ray Cover.jpg

Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: August 23, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 96 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.78:1

Notes: This title is available in various DVD editions of the film from Universal Pictures.

Title

“It was a great burden of responsibility to carry on the tale first told by one of cinema’s greatest artists, and I was a very young filmmaker, in age as well as in experience, who had a lot to prove.  I was more worried about not f**king it up than anything else.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

Perhaps the mysteries of Norman’s past should remain a mystery. One has to wonder what Alfred Hitchcock would have thought about the three Psycho sequels. The world will never have a definitive answer to this question, but it can be said with some authority that his writing collaborator on Psycho, Joseph Stefano, was never terribly fond of the first two sequels.

Those films changed Norman from a sensitive and pitiful – if not sympathetic – villain into a laughable figure… Psycho II and III say, in effect, there’s no way to survive with a psychological problem. If you’ve got it, the law can keep you locked up because there’s no chance for cure. I thought, ‘Vile!’ I don’t think l need that message. It’s just not true.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stefano’s disdain for Psycho’s first two sequels might come as a surprise to anyone who remembers that the screenwriter provided the screenplay for Psycho IV: The Beginning. It becomes all the more amazing when one considers that the film was made for television (originally airing on Showtime on November 10, 1990). To say that the film wasn’t a prestige project would be an understatement. After the critical and box-office failure of Psycho III, it is surprising that Universal even bothered with the film at all.

30 years earlier, while Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stephano were preparing the screenplay for Psycho, they would often discuss Norman’s backstory. The two men threw around a number of possibilities as to what might have happened in that old Victorian house, and these conversations formed the impetus for the Psycho IV screenplay.

“Hitch was interested in what I had to offer, like one of my background ideas for Norman’s upbringing. I imagined a scene—which people will recognize from Psycho IV –where Norman is horsing around with his mother. When she notices he has an erection, she becomes rabid. To teach him once and for all that’s he’s not supposed to do that, she forces him to put on a dress, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet. The incident had no place in Psycho, but I told Hitch anyway, and he was fascinated—very curious about things of that nature, Freudian psychological backgrounds.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Erection Scene

The accidental erection scene in Psycho IV: The Beginning: Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey portray Norman and Norma Bates.

The third sequel was meant to represent a tonal change for the series. The previous sequels could be described as “over the top,” and everyone involved wanted the film’s prequel to have a more sober tone.

“In the run of the making of the film sequels, it seemed that the treatment of Norman, after all the years of his iconography and being spoofed and satirized, it seemed that there was a tendency to lean towards ‘camp’ in portraying him in the sequels, and I wanted to bring that down, and give him the complexity and danger that his character possessed in Hitchcock’s original.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

It is arguable as to whether Garris succeeded in his efforts to tone down the camp elements that featured in the previous sequels, but it seems that Joseph Stephano had similar notions while writing the script. He even went out of his way to avoid mentioning the events that occurred in the two previous sequels in any real detail.

“Gearing up for Psycho IV, I decided to ignore the two sequels – like the business in II about Norman’s mother. Instead, I based my script on background material I’d had in my mind for over 30 years—information that couldn’t be in the original without giving the ending away. I wrote five drafts, making changes because of time and budget constraints. Thanks to the director, Mick Garris, my vision was on screen almost intact.

In Psycho IV, the time is five years after III, and Norman is out of the hospital. He’s a married man, and he’s finally learned how to love somebody and have natural sex without killing his lover. But when Norman’s wife becomes pregnant, there’s a crisis. His fear that his illness will be passed on to a new generation prompts him to call into a radio talk show focusing on matricide. As the film progresses, he resorts to the only neurosis that ever worked for him.

The question might be asked why, if Norman is cured, does he revert back to his old ways? I think he explains when he says, ‘I’m cured, as I’ll ever be, but I’m still me.’ No matter how cured we are of certain psychoses, we revert when the chips are down. The film couldn’t just be about Norman getting cured. It had to be about that cure coming undone…

…So far, audience reaction has been good, and I’m pleased. With the exception of Variety, which called the movie ‘Psycho-babble,’ the reviews have also been strong. Norman Bates has a crisis, but the resolution leaves everyone glowing – which is not the reaction you’d expect after seeing a Psycho movie.

People may be surprised at the ending I chose, but if you’ve done your homework, I think it will seem natural. Any other way would have been preposterous – just one more dreadful Psycho sequel. It will end as life would have it end.”Joseph Stefano (as told to Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Stephano seemed satisfied with the finished product, but it must be said that Variety wasn’t the film’s only critic. Many people disliked that the film ignored the two previous sequels and considered these omissions glitches in the series’ continuity. This could easily be argued either way. However, it must be said that the two previous films were subtly alluded to in the film’s dialogue: “After the last murder four years ago—umm—murders, plural…

Some might question whether it is feasible that Norman Bates could be rehabilitated in four or five short years, but one might evade such logistical speedbumps by telling themselves that he was released under his wife’s care—especially considering the fact that she is a psychiatrist. That Norman’s aunt, Emma Spool, isn’t mentioned doesn’t represent any real glitch in continuity. After all, she was absent during Norman’s formative years. There might be an issue with the death of Norman’s father—unless the bee stings said to have killed him were caused by Spool. It is too bad that these stings were shown on the corpse, because the bee sting story could have also been a subterfuge meant to keep an unsettling and violent reality from affecting the very young Norman. One does wish to give a film the benefit of the doubt. Then again, all of this is probably an exercise in futility, because one could simply choose to experience the film as a direct sequel to Psycho. Alternative timelines are actually rather common among horror sequels.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

“All you really have to know is that Norman once again got hauled off to the rubber Ramada and, as he says, he wanted to be either executed or locked away forever so that he would never hurt anybody again, because Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul with a dark side. But Norman’s conscious mind is always on the positive things in life. So once again he’s in and once again he’s out.” -Anthony Perkins (The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

There are other problematic elements in Joseph Stephano’s script that are much more unfortunate, because they could very well alter one’s understanding of Hitchcock’s original film. The first issue concerns the nature of Norma Bates. Stephano has written her as a one-dimensional monster, and this becomes the film’s fatal flaw. It is true that we see fleeting moments of kindness, but these seem to be quite few in number. This represents a missed opportunity, because one wishes for a more dynamic and multilayered personality than what we see here. Norma’s character seems to be more complex and interesting as portrayed by Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel. (Although, this series comes with a list of its own issues.) It is wrong to assume that Norman’s projection of a shrewish personality upon his mother is an accurate reflection of her character. This shrewishness was more likely born out of his own anger towards himself and the insane jealousy that he felt. Frankly, it is surprising to find that Stephano didn’t recognize this.

The other problem concerns the actions of Connie Bates (Donna Mitchell). Why would an established psychiatrist risk Norman’s mental health—and her own safety—by actively trying to conceive a child without his knowledge? It is established that she knew the extent of Norman’s anxieties about the issue, and she should know that betraying his trust could do irrefutable damage. One will admit that Connie isn’t one of the more developed characters in his screenplay, but it is clear that her character isn’t supposed to be a devious personality. This part of the film seems forced and underdeveloped, and the blame rests largely on Stephano’s shoulders.

Luckily, the script issues are overshadowed by a very powerful character named Norman Bates. It is incredibly difficult not to be drawn into this unusual but sympathetic character’s universe. What’s more, Mick Garris enhances our experience of this unique universe with a number of interesting stylistic choices.

“I wanted the colors to be highly saturated, to set up an immediate contrast to the Hitchcock original.  I wanted to set it apart right up front, without dismissing the connection with the characters, the house, the motel, and all of the iconic imagery that we wanted to emphasize… It was important that the radio station be very contained, almost claustrophobic and modern, with the blue light emphasizing the technological world of today.  Norman’s home was warmer, with a glow of nostalgia.  But there would be shocking intrusions of red, as when Norman cuts himself and bleeds into the sink. In the flashbacks especially, I wanted the colors to be heightened, almost a historical Technicolor richness to it, as I feel our memories are more colorful than reality.

There also needed to be a real sense of visual exaggeration.  And I wanted to place Norman into his own flashbacks at his own age at the time and as he was as he relived them, to place the modern Norman into his own memories.  That was a lot of fun. I just really wanted to give the language of cinema a real workout, which is not easy when it was shot in 24 days for television.” –Mick Garris (Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

While his direction is never as accomplished as Alfred Hitchcock’s, Garris does manage to create interest (even if suspense is lacking). It is also nice to see that he brought an element back to the film that was sorely missed in the two previous sequels.

“I didn’t know why no one had used one of the greatest scores ever in the preceding two sequels with the unbelievable Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho, which he described as black and white music because there was no horns and percussion, just strings. So, we actually orchestrated that music.” –Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

These Bernard Herrmann themes elevate the film and give it a vitality that surpasses one’s expectations—as long as those expectations are reasonable. Psycho IV: The Beginning isn’t much more than an interesting footnote about the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s enduring classic. It contains a number of strong performances, and there are many good ideas scattered throughout the film. Unfortunately, these ideas never seem to congeal, and the end result feels like a missed opportunity. Alfred Hitchcock’s influence upon Joseph Stephano’s screenplay for the original Psycho was paramount, and his absence here is sorely felt.

SS1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with a slightly altered version of the same one sheet artwork has been used since the film’s original broadcast.

The menu also utilizes this artwork and is accompanied by an iconic Bernard Herrmann theme that we all know and love. The overall result isn’t particularly special, but it is a reasonably attractive presentation.

SS2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is surprising to find that Shout Factory’s transfer of Psycho IV: The Beginning exhibits a reasonably high level of detail. One can see textures and facial pores, and clarity is also nicely rendered. Television films rarely look this good (even in high definition). Black levels are accurate and do not crush important details that hide in the darker recesses of the screen. One doesn’t wish to say that colors are natural here, but they do seem to be accurately represented. The lighting design is rather dramatic to say the least. It is nice to see them vividly represented here. Skin tones certainly look natural when they are lit naturally. There is a healthy layer of film grain to help the viewer forget the film’s television origins, and it is nice to see that it hasn’t been scrubbed clean. Nothing in the way of noise or digital artifacts seem to distract from what looks like a very solid transfer. It never approaches perfection, but this particular title isn’t likely to see a better 1080p transfer.

It should also be mentioned that the film was composed for widescreen, because it would receive a very limited theatrical release after its initial Showtime broadcast. Mick Garris states in the included commentary that he is happy to see that the film is presented in the widescreen format on this disc, so purists do not need to protest the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This release serves as a bridge between its 1.33:1 television format and the 1.85:1 theatrical format.

SS3

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

To be honest, this is a rather remarkable 2.0 stereo sound mix. It isn’t likely to give one’s speakers a workout, but it is clearly rendered and well balanced. The film’s iconic music is impressively mixed, and dialogue is always clean and clearly audible. The track has more life than anyone has any right to expect.

SS4

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Mick Garris (Director), Henry Thomas (Actor), and Olivia Hussey (Actor)

This informal track finds Mick Garris leading a conversation about the film’s production with Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey. The resulting track is surprisingly engaging if not ultimately enlightening. There aren’t any memorable dead spots in their discussion to interrupt the flow of information. Fans of the film should be thrilled to have this included on the disc.

Rare Behind-the-Scenes Footage – (HD) – (13:15)

This rare VHS footage from Mick Garris gives viewers a rare glimpse behind the scenes as the cast and crew work on some of the scenes that take place at the radio station. The footage was taken on the first day of the shoot. One of the more interesting aspects of the footage concerns a brief excerpt of dialogue that alludes to Emma Spool and the events of Psycho II and III. Joseph Stephano always claimed that he chose to ignore these events, so this raises questions as to whether this bit of dialogue was added to the script by someone else.

The Making of Mother: An Interview with Tony Gardner – (HD) – (27:41)

Tony Gardner (makeup effects artist)  isn’t the most articulate speaker, but his memories about his love for Alfred Hitchcock’s original film and his work as an effects artist for Psycho IV are interesting enough. He covers quite a bit of territory considering the limited scope of his experience. Fans of the film will certainly find the interview interesting.

A Look at the Scoring of Psycho IV – (HD) – (06:12)

This vintage VHS footage was taken during the film’s scoring sessions and is ultimately a rather anemic look at this aspect of filmmaking. It is vaguely interesting but less engaging than the on-set footage. Those interested in film scoring might gravitate towards this short glimpse at the scoring sessions, but they will be more likely to remember some of the other features.

Photo Gallery – (HD) – (06:06)

This collection of rare photos from Mick Garris is reasonably interesting but not particularly spectacular.

SS5.jpg

Final Words:

Shout Factory has given Psycho IV: The Beginning a solid Blu-ray release. It isn’t one of their strongest Blu-ray transfers, but it is probably the best that this title is likely to receive.

Review by: Devon Powell

SS6

 Source Material:

Steve Biodrowski (Interview: Psycho Screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Cinefantastique, 1990)

Michael E. Hill (Psycho IV: Tony Perkins Takes Norman Back to the Beginning, The Washington Post, November 04, 1990)

Mick Garris (Trailers from Hell, 2013)

Lee Gambin (Q&A: Horror Maestro Mick Garris Revisits “Psycho IV: The Beginning, Fangoria, March 10, 2015)

Offbeat Blu-ray Review: Homicidal & Mr. Sardonicus

Blu-ray Cover 1

Distributor: Mill Creek Entertainment

 Release Date: July 19, 2016

 Region: Region A

Length:

88 min (Homicidal)

90 min (Mr. Sardonicus)

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 Dolby Digital (448kbps)

Subtitles: None

Ratio:

1.85:1 (Homicidal)

1.78:1 (Mr. Sardonicus)

Notes: This is the high definition debut of “Homicidal,” but “Mr. Sardonicus” previously received a Blu-ray release as part of another “double feature” release from Mill Creek Entertainment in North America. Both titles are available in various DVD editions.

HitchHead

William Castle’s on-screen introductions to his films might bring to mind those witty opening and closing monologues that bookended Alfred Hitchcock’s television shows. His appearances in the promotional trailers for his films might even bring to mind Hitchcock’s amusing theatrical trailers. However, there are major differences between Hitchcock’s understated approach and William Castles overstated approach to these appearances. It seems that Castle just couldn’t quite get inside Hitchcock’s head!

The Master of Suspense Vs. The Master of Schlock

“…Then I did the money-back guarantee for 1961’s Homicidal. That broke into Life, Time, and all the magazines. I had remembered Hitchcock and Psycho (1960), with its ‘nobody seated after the picture starts’ rule. I thought I could out-Hitchcock Hitchcock with this thing. So, I said, ‘I’ll give them their money back in the last minute of the picture, if anyone is too frightened to stay in the theatre.” -William Castle (October 24, 1973)

William Castle’s efforts to “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock” is evident not only in the marketing of Homicidal, but also in the film’s plot and structure. It was an obvious attempt at capitalizing on the success of Psycho. This becomes rather interesting when one considers that Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make Psycho after noticing that William Castle (and others like him) were making a good deal of money with their cheaply produced horror films. Hitchcock couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if such a film was skillfully made by a more talented director (such as himself). It would give him an opportunity to experiment while appealing to a new generation of moviegoers. The resulting film was so successful that it resulted in a string of imitations, and it seems fitting that Castle would be one of the first filmmakers to make such an effort.

Comparison 0

Comparison 1 Comparison 3

Unfortunately, William Castle seems to have misunderstood the entire purpose behind Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant marketing campaign. Hitchcock’s approach was born out of an effort to ensure that audiences weren’t distracted by the absence of Janet Leigh (the film’s biggest star) if they happened to come in late. His gimmick ensured that audiences would never become distracted while simultaneously bringing audiences into the theaters in droves.

The opposite is true of William Castle’s gimmicks, which were often distracting to viewers and sometimes interrupted the natural flow of his films. His gimmick for Homicidal is a perfect example of this. At a key moment in the film, the film is stopped as a timer appears on the screen along with Castle’s voice:

“This is the fright break! You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a heartbeat… a frightened, terrified heart. Is it beating faster than your heart or slower? This heart is going to beat for another 25 seconds to allow anyone to leave this theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture… Ten seconds more and we go into the house. It’s now or never! Five… Four… You’re a brave audience! Two… One.” –William Castle (Interruption at the end of Homicidal)

Fright Break Refund Ticket

This is a “Fright Break” Refund Ticket.

Fright Break

These are screenshots from William Castle’s “Fright Break.” Castle made the “cowards” wait for the film to end in a yellow booth called “coward’s corner” before being allowed to receive a refund.

It seems absurd in retrospect that Time magazine should criticize the shower scene in Psycho, calling it “one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed,” only to include Castle’s ham-handed replica in their top ten list. However, none of this should lead one to believe that Homicidal is a complete disaster. It is merely a missed opportunity.  The film’s first sequence is quite promising and genre fans should certainly enjoy the campy murders. The fact that the ending of the film is unbelievably predictable isn’t even an issue, because the viewer is enjoying the ride (at least until the ridiculous fright break catapults them back to reality at the worst possible moment).

PSYCHO

Alfred Hitchcock’s marketing gimmick was born out of a desire to avoid audience distraction.

Actually, the gimmick for Mr. Sardonicus (which also received a 1961 release) was even more distracting. In this particular film, Castle actually appears onscreen and talks to the audience:

“That’s how the story ends, with the lovers living happily ever after. But has Mr. Sardonicus been punished enough, or don’t you agree with me that such a miserable scoundrel should be made to suffer and suffer and suffer? When you think what he did to his wife and to those girls… and about those leeches, I think ordinary punishment is too good for Mr. Sardonicus. If you feel that way too, if you want to show him no mercy and punish him as he deserves, then hold up your punishment poll ballot with the thumb pointing down like this. If, on the other hand, you’re one of those ‘I wouldn’t hurt a fly’ kind of people, one of those sweet, nice, kind, souls who would let Mr. Sardonicus go free, you should hold your ballot with the thumb pointing up like this. Now we’re ready for the voting: No mercy, or Mercy? Hold the ballots high please…” –William Castle (Interruption at the end of Mr. Sardonicus)

He then pretends to count votes before declaring “no mercy” as the winner and the film continues. It is more than obvious that there is only one ending, so this particular gimmick isn’t even a real gimmick. It is a mere distraction, and it is too bad that it comes at the end of a reasonably engaging (albeit cheesy) monster flick.

Oskar Homolka in Mr. Sardonicus

Oskar Homolka (seen here in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus) had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE in 1936.

William Castle is probably known more for his gimmicks than he is for his filmmaking ability. He isn’t an incompetent director but he never approached the level of artistry achieved by Alfred Hitchcock. His films can be quite fun for those in the right mood, but don’t make the mistake of believing that anyone can “out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.” We’re looking at you, Brian De Palma.

Homicidal - One Sheet.jpg

The Presentation:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with attractive “double feature” artwork that features vintage one sheet poster for each film.

The menu is similar in its design and features the same one sheet art for both films.

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Both features are given equally fine image transfers that fall short of being great. Homicidal displays a rather thick layer of grain that adds to the filmic texture of the film without becoming uneven. Detail is rather good and showcase fabric textures and set definition quite nicely. Contrast is also quite nice and features solid black levels and shadow depth. The same can be said of Mr. Sardonicus, but it must be mentioned that the skin textures sometimes appear somewhat artificial during this particular feature.

Sound Quality:

2.5 of 5 MacGuffins

One doubts if the sound for these films was ever anything to brag about, and Mill Creek Entertainment’s sound transfers are a lifeless reflection of each film’s bargain basement roots. The largest problem that immediately comes to mind is the lack of a lossless audio transfer for both features. This issue becomes especially annoying when it is teamed with the knowledge that Mill Creek Entertainment’s previous release of Mr. Sardonicus featured a lossless audio track. It is impossible for one not to question their reasoning behind the downgrade.

The sound itself is about what one might expect from a transfer of a low budget film from the early 1960s. Both films suffer from the same audial maladies with the music and sound effects being banished to the center speakers. Clarity and range suffers somewhat throughout each film, but this isn’t particularly surprising. The dialogue is always clearly and evenly rendered, and what else can one expect from a bargain budget Blu-ray release of a bargain basement film production?

Special Features:

0 of 5 MacGuffins

There is no supplemental material included.

Mr. Sardonicus - One Sheet

Final Words:

William Castle’s gimmickry is the wart on the face of these two horror diversions. Mill Creek Entertainment’s Blu-ray transfer isn’t outstanding, but the disc does provide serviceable transfers of both films for fans to enjoy in their own living rooms.

Review by: Devon Powell

NOTE:

William Castle’s 13 Ghosts and 13 Frightened Girls has also been released on Blu-ray by Mill Creek Entertainment with comparable image and sound transfers.

Blu-ray Cover 2

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. This exact same transfer is being released with the same supplemental features in this new Pop Art edition of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

THE BIRDS - POPART

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The Birds (1963) is also being honored with a new Pop Art edition of the film that includes the same transfer with the same supplemental features available on Universal’s previous release of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho

cover2

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. The exact same disc has recently been re-released with the same transfer, supplements, and artwork (minus the 50th Anniversary label). The only difference between the two releases is that the more recent edition comes with an Ultraviolet copy of the film.

Steelbook Cover

There is also a Limited Steelbook Edition of Psycho. This release contains the same transfer and supplements as the previous discs, but will be presented in a steelbook case with new artwork.

Steelbook Back Cover

For more a detailed review on all three releases:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition.

Book Review: Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie

9780252078248_lgPublisher: University of Illinois Press

Release Date: October 1, 2011

Nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the category of Best Critical/Biographical, 2012.

Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick’s Scripting Hitchcock explores the collaborative process between Alfred Hitchcock and the screenwriters that he chose to write the screenplays for Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. Drawing from extensive interviews with the screenwriters and other film technicians who worked for Hitchcock, Raubicheck and Srebnick illustrate how much of the filmmaking process took place in the scripting phase of production.

One might assume that the book simply treads a path that is covered in detail by Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Tony Lee Moral’s Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, and Moral’s follow-up The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds. However, Scripting Hitchcock proves to have much to contribute to the study of these films. It makes an excellent companion piece to the other publications, but also stands on its own as a decisive look into Hitchcock’s relationship with his writers. It manages to educate the reader while enhancing their appreciation of the films in question. What else could anyone ask?

Review by: Devon Powell