Film Study One : Psycho
Upon its release, Psycho was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography and Best Director. It is ranked number one on the American Film institute’s 100 Years, 100 Thrills list and film critic Robin Wood called it ‘one of the key works of our age’.
Psycho provides an excellent example of reception context. Modern audiences often aren’t affected by the violence in the film. We’ve seen much more violent and graphic murders on television and in films like Saw and Hostel. We’re the film through a lens cut by years of desensitisation to violence and horror. When Psycho was released, audiences, of course, had a very different reaction. First there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding the film. By the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock exceptionally well known. Renowned for his films and the television program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his name was synonymous with suspense.
The publicity campaign for the film stressed that no one would be admitted to a screening of the film after it had started. “It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning!” said posters for the film. “The manager of this theatre has been instructed at the risk of his life, not to admit to the theatre any person after the picture starts. Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilation shafts will be met by force. The sole objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy Psycho more.” In Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Stephen Rebello noted: “Hitchcock maximised his three most exploitable commodities: the title, the shock climax, and his own persona as a roly-poly ringmaster of a macabre circus of horrors.” The trailer for the film – during which Hitchcock gives the audience a tour of the Bates Motel – reinforced this message while he mischievously planted a few red herrings in the minds of his audience.
For its time, Psycho was edgy. Even the opening sequence of the film – which shows Marion Crane in a bra and skirt – was provocative. Psycho was also the first Hollywood film to feature a toilet flushing. So you can imagine how audiences responded to the brutal stabbing of Marion Crane in the shower. “The atmosphere surrounding Psycho was deeply charged with apprehension,” wrote film theorist William Pecheter, describing how it felt to watch the film with an audience of the day. “Something awful is always about to happen. One could sense that the audience was constantly aware of this...it was, in the fullest sense, an audience; not merely the random gathering of discrete individuals attendant at most plays or movies.” In Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho, Joseph Stefano – the film’s screenwriter – recalls watching the film with his wife and some friends. “As the movie went on,” the writer said, “I saw people grabbing each other, howling, screaming, reacting like six- year-olds at a Saturday matinee, I couldn’t believe what was happening.
I found it hard to reconcile our movie with how the audience was reacting. I never though it was a movie that would make people scream. When Marion Crane was in the shower and audiences saw the woman coming toward her, I thought they’d shudder and go ‘How awful,’ but I never thought they’d be so vocal. And neither did Hitchcock. When the shower sequence was over, paralysis set in. Nobody knew quite what to do.”
Psycho is one of the most influential horror films ever made, inspiring generations of filmmakers. “Dealing with Hitchcock is like dealing with Bach,” said filmmaker Brian de Palma. “He wrote every tune that was ever done. Hitchcock thought up practically every cinematic idea that has ever been used and probably will be used in this form.”
To aid your study of the film, download the Psycho Workbook
and Sample Answers
acknowledgement Brett Lamb