The world of cult films — ‘Psycho’

(Photo courtesy of Paramount)

(Photo courtesy of Paramount)

Like a lot of people, I love to watch movies. Over the summer, when I wasn’t working, you would most likely find me up in my room watching a Woody Allen film. I tried to watch every movie in which he was involved, but that list is incredibly long and keeps growing yearly.

After watching a 20-year span of his career (his films from 1965-85), I stumbled upon another list — one of cult films. The list has hundreds of titles on it, ranging from sports flicks like “Slapshot” to vampire/crime dramas such as “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

Looking at the list, I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll be able to knock a few of these off during the school year. It would be great to observe these films and try to figure out why they have such a following.” This is what brings me here to the review of the first movie of my choosing.

But I have to admit something: I cheated. Right off the bat, I chose a movie that is not on the list, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” I’d never seen a Hitchcock film before and was tired of hearing how badly I needed to see one, so I finally took the plunge. Although it is not on the master list, I defend its cult status. I think it’s part of a larger Hitchcock cult. His movies have their own group of admirers — people who can’t get enough Hitchcock — and thus I decided “Psycho” would fit the bill.

Most of us will know the premise of the film: girl working for real estate company runs away with $40,000 that is not hers, ends up at the Bates Motel where she is accommodated by an awkward man, Norman Bates, who seems to be under the control of his old, invalid mother.

Girl then takes shower to wash away her guilt and is stabbed by a figure that looks much like an old woman. The rest of movies is a search for the girl and for the money, many people die, and it is revealed that Norman Bates, who killed his mother and her lover in a jealous rampage, has split personalities. He is both himself and his mother, and it has been Norman, dressed as his mother, who has been killing everybody. That’s a lot to take in, especially if you haven’t seen the film. Imagine how hard it was to cover this twist on the screen!

The director of photography for the film was John L. Russell, who mostly worked with television — and, in fact, with Hitchcock on his television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” — but Hitchcock had to make sure that the audience would play right into his hands on this one. He had to create angles and lighting where viewers would notice the shape of an elderly lady’s figure, but where facial features would remain hidden. This was extremely important in two specific scenes.

First, the famous shower scene. This scene took seven days to shoot, and the camera team shot 70 different angles. This was done for many reasons. First of all, the scene was racy enough for the standards of the time; Hitchcock had to put a cap on the nudity, and the gory violence of movies like “Saw” wasn’t a thing yet. Secondly, he had to hide Norman’s identity. Contrasting shots are used to show stark white backgrounds behind a shady face as Mrs. Bates pulls aside the curtain. It is such a masterfully created image.

Second is the scene of Arbogast’s death. The P.I. on the search for the $40,000 stupidly enters the old creepy house on a hill, and walks up the stairs towards Mama Bates’s room. Already prepped with the shot from the shower scene, I was expecting another shadowed shot of the antagonist, but instead the audience gets a striking overhead image of a figure in a dress swooping across the landing to stab Arbogast in his chest. Norman’s identity hidden successfully once again.

Hitchcock was a master at showing the audience only what he wanted it to see. A trick he often used was to use a character’s point of view, showing you exactly what the character was seeing. “Psycho” is a wonderful example of this. As Norman looks through the peephole into room one, we see only what he sees: Marion undressing before her shower. When a cop is following Marion, we see her view from the rearview mirror. This is grade-A suspense stuff! By bringing the audience into the eye of the characters, it is oblivious to the terrors that may be going on around them.

After finally watching one of Hitchcock’s movies, I have come to accept his genius and am captivated by the control he took over his films.

 

Reach the reporter at wruof@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @willruof