Psycho After Six Decades

In preparation for my last post on horror noir, I recently re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 2020 marks the 60th(!) anniversary of the film’s release, I also couldn’t help but consider how the film holds up after all these years. Some thoughts:

A particular scene that has not aged gracefully is the one in which Marion overhears Norman’s mother berating him for wanting to invite the motel guest up to the house for dinner. Marion is listening through a closed motel window during a rainstorm, yet the conversation (which is riddled with stilted dialogue) inside the house up the hill sounds as if it is right in the next room. Hearing Norman’s mother speak is necessary for the misdirection the film deliberately creates, yet the execution of this scene is jarring in its lack of realism.

The famous shower scene has burned its way into public consciousness, but the subsequent scene (Norman’s cleanup of the gruesome murder) arguably has not garnered the appreciation it deserves. It forms a brilliant study in contrast: the shower scene (with its screeching string music and rapid cuts) plays loud and shocking, but the aftermath is muted and methodical. All that relative quiet is disquieting, as Norman (for nearly eight minutes) washes away the blood spill and diligently covers up the crime. As startling as Marion’s fatal knifing was, her postmortem fate presents more protracted horror to the viewer. Marion’s entire existence is erased as she’s wrapped in a shower-curtain shroud, set in a car-trunk coffin, and given an ignominious burial-at-swamp.

In another sense, though, the cleanup scene is clearly dated. Watching it from a current perspective, it’s hard not to consider the shoddiness of Norman’s efforts: his use of simple mop and running water to remove evidence of the murder would never pass the test of modern forensics. But it’s not just from a far distance that Norman’s negligence can be critiqued; a glaring lack of shrewdness is evident within the narrative of the film. A week and a half after the murder, Norman somehow has still failed to replace the shower curtain. Worse, he has not noticed the scrap of paper still floating unflushed in the bowl of the toilet (why the paper has not disintegrated long before Lila Crane discovers it there is another head-scratcher).

The private detective Arbogast certainly accentuates the film’s noir qualities (his echo of hard-boiled lingo is terrific: “You see,” he tells Norman,  “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”). Nevertheless, his sleuthing proves curious: if Arbogast is presumably employed by Tom Cassidy to track down the $40,000 that was stolen from him, why would the detective feel obliged to call up Lila and fill her in on what he has learned about her sister? His ready updating of the case seems a mere plot contrivance, a means of leading Lila and Sam to investigate the Bates Motel themselves.

Suspension of disbelief is further challenged in the scene when Arbogast gets killed. The bloody slash running down his face makes for a wonderfully grim touch, but his backwards glide all the way down the staircase is too stylized–and, ultimately, silly (Arbogast acts as if the steps were a sequence of banana peels). An ungainly tumble down the staircase (assuming such a stunt could be pulled off in 1960) not only would have been more believable, but it also would have helped to preserve the film’s big mystery. Based on the way the death scene is filmed, the viewer has to wonder how Norman’s old invalid Mother could have flown so quickly down the flight of steps after the falling Arbogast.

In hindsight, Norman’s stuffed birds (and preserved Mother) are not the only disconcerting pieces of his collection. Viewers in 1960 might easily have overlooked them, but a more modern horror audience is more attuned to the presence of creepy dolls. A pair of them can be seen lying in the background as Lila explores Norman’s bedroom, and their unsettling nature extends beyond the question of what they are doing in a grown man’s bedroom in the first place.

Psycho might not have been a perfect film, and certain of its aspects do not hold up well in six-decade retrospect, but it remains an indisputable classic. The marketing of the film at the time of its release was also ingenious: Hitchcock’s insistence that late arrivals would not be admitted to theaters, and his efforts to keep the film’s surprises from being spoiled (which worked to lure moviegoers with the promise of thrilling mystery). No doubt the film would face a much tougher task if it premiered in the present day, when social media is such a dominant factor. Then again, it’s intriguing to imagine the tactics that a master like Hitchcock might have been able to employ if he had all the tools of the 2020 mediascape at his disposal.

 

Harrowing Shadows: 11 Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

At its darkest, noir naturally shades over into horror, as countless genre films have demonstrated over the years. In honor of “Noirvember,” here’s a list of eleven exemplary works of horror noir:

 

Freaks (1932)

Steeped in dark-carnival atmosphere, Tod Browning’s controversial shocker is also driven by a noir narrative. A scheming pair of lovers (the trapeze artist Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules) plot to seduce the dwarf Hans, to poison him following his marriage to Cleopatra, and then steal his wealth. The climactic scene in which the titular sideshow performers carry out their vengeance against the conspirators during a driving rainstorm forms a classic combination of horror and noir.

 

Psycho (1960)

No director mixed mystery and suspense with terror and horror better than Alfred Hitchcock. This seminal cinematic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel conveys a strong noir vibe: driven by love to a desperate act of robbery, a fugitive woman suffers bloody comeuppance at a lonesome motel (at the hands of a quite violent “femme”). The private detective who subsequently searches the old dark house overlooking the Bates business doesn’t fare much better.

 

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ debut effort signals its dark leanings in its very title (drawn from a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest). This tale of marital infidelity and attempted vengeance (by the cuckolded husband) features shocking acts of murder, premature burial, nightmare visions of revenant return, and one frightfully rogue private detective. The sense of horror is only intensified as randomness and misunderstanding precipitate a series of catastrophic events. My all-time favorite film noir.

 

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s genre-splicing novel, in which a hard-boiled detective stumbles onto the occult, delivers some truly horrifying visuals (the blood spill seems almost as copious as the rainfall). It also offers one of the most stunning plot twists this side of Chinatown. Throw in a frightfully good performance by Robert DeNiro as the sinister Louis Cyphre, and the quintessence of horror noir is achieved.

 

Cape Fear (1991)

De Niro rears his psychotic head here in this remake of the 1962 film, playing the Robert Mitchum role like a redneck Hannibal Lector. Any notion that De Niro’s Max Cady is your basic criminal stalker is destroyed the second he bites a hunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek. There’s also a great set-piece in which he grimly outwits a private detective on a stakeout. Director Martin Scorsese underscores the horror noir nature of the film in a harrowing, protracted climax that transpires during a raging squall.

 

Basic Instinct (1992)

Ok, calling this one a “masterpiece” might be overstating the case, given the abundance of sleaziness and cheesiness. But the horror here extends far beyond the gratuitous glute-shots of a butt-naked Michael Douglas. Sharon Stone is a modern-day femme fatale guaranteed to turn wet dreams into sweat-soaked nightmares. After the savage, in medias coitus icepicking in the film’s opening, the recurrent sex scenes splashed across the screen utterly terrify even as they titillate.

 

Se7en (1995)

Much of David Fincher’s work qualifies for this list, but none of the director’s other films can surpass this one’s combination of the gritty and the grotesque. In lesser hands the basic premise (a serial killer with a baroque schema) might have seemed derivative, the stuff of made-for-cable movies, but Fincher crafts a masterfully-atmospheric film filled with viewer-traumatizing tableaus (the crime scene for the “Sloth” victim alone places Se7en in the horror noir hall of fame). Even when the narrative leaves the seedy confines of the city for sunny expanse in the climax, it heads off into shocking, devastating territory.

 

Dark City (1998)

The best and darkest of the numerous future-noir films that followed in the wake of The Matrix. Alex Proyas’s stunning cinematic vehicle starts with standard noir elements (the main character finds he has lost his memory, as he awakens in a room with a dead prostitute sprawled on the floor) and then takes the idea of urban entrapment (in a rain-slicked nightscape) in a whole other, mind-bending direction. The film’s human-corpse-wearing alien “strangers”–extraterrestrial Cenobites engaged in bizarre experiment–are as unnerving a group of villains ever to form a criminal underworld.

 

Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese sways toward the Gothic in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thrilling twist on a detective novel. As if an island asylum for the criminally insane (where illicit, secret experiments might be taking place) wasn’t creepy enough already, the film adds some spectacularly heavy weather, rat-infested caves, and a protagonist haunted by visions of scarred monsters and corpses come to life. I would also argue that the gut-punch of a climactic plot twist here hearkens back to Angel Heart.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A moody, highly-stylized piece shot in black and white and melding street crime and the supernatural, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film checks all the appropriate boxes. The female of the title is more fearful than someone to fear for: an antiheroic Iranian vampire who prowls the stark wasteland of Bad City (and who leaves quite a mark on a drug-dealing pimp). Calling this one the lovechild of Nosferatu and Sin City isn’t some pithy pitch, but rather an acknowledgement of two of the works that ostensibly influence Amirpour’s artistic vision.

 

True Detective, Season 1 (2014)

Technically, this is not a theatrical film but an HBO series, yet a perfect addition to the list nonetheless. Show creator Nic Pizzolato invokes weird-fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti, as he scripts a gripping narrative in which a murder investigation uncovers conspiracy and depraved ritual. Season 1’s Louisiana mise-en-scène is at once haunting and haunted, and the killer’s discovered lair in the finale makes the Sawyer abode in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like it belongs in Better Homes and Gardens.

 

Fatal Attraction–An Alternate Ending

Fatal Attraction is a film long familiar to me (pet rabbit in the stewpot!) through pop culture, but one that I had never actually seen from start to finish. I finally watched it the other night (it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime), and while I found it an entertaining (early) entry in the Psycho Stalker subgenre, I couldn’t help but think that the opportunity for a truly killer ending was missed.

Towards the conclusion of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film, Dan (Michael Douglas) reaches his breaking point with Alex’s (Glenn Close) harassment and endangerment of his family. Half-crazed himself, he breaks into her apartment and violently attacks her. In the midst of strangling her to death, he appears to come to his senses, and relents. Alex isn’t the forgiving or forgetting type, though, and soon charges at Dan with a butcher knife, which he manages to wrest from her. After a lengthy stare-down, he places the knife on the counter and silently exits.

But what if the scene didn’t end there? Imagine if the unstable Alex–who already slit her wrists earlier in the film because she couldn’t bear the prospect of losing Dan, decided to pick up the knife and kill herself with it after he walked out. Given the signs of forced entry and the fingerprints left on the weapon by Dan, it would be easy for the police to then arrest him for Alex’s presumed murder. To me, this would have been a much more interesting turn of events than the standard climax Fatal Attraction proceeded to present, complete with incidents that had to seem cliched even at the time (wait, she’s not really dead and leaps up for one last attack before being shot!). It would also shift the questionable moral tone of the film, which ends up situating the adulterous Dan as the heroic defender of his family (we last see him having his hand shaken by a policeman, and being drawn into the embrace of his still-loving wife). The alternate ending I’ve envisioned would not leave the character unpunished for his infidelity. How darkly ironic Dan’s fate would have been if he was ruined for doing the right thing morally-speaking (not killing Alex), after the wrong choice he made by having an affair in the first place.

A more downbeat ending for sure, but arguably a more satisfying one. A young Michael Douglas naturally conveyed smugness, so I don’t think viewers would have been all that bummed to see his character receive his comeuppance.

 

History Lessons: “Nine Nightmares” (Episode 2.6)

Some quotable quotes from the season 2 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, an episode that focuses on “nine uncategorizable films that push the boundaries of horror”:

 

Eli Roth: Great horror films entertain us and provoke us. They put society under a microscope, making us question not just what we fear, but why we fear it.

 

Jordan Peele: Sort of existing with a privilege, and a privilege that many of us enjoy, is violent act. And that’s the central theme of Us. This idea that when we look in the mirror, both individually and collectively, we might realize it’s not as simple as ‘I’m the good guy.’

 

Mary Harron: When we were filming American Psycho, I realized that the fear a woman has going on a date, or going to a guy’s apartment, and something bad happening, or him suddenly transforming from one kind of person to another, is a very strong female fear. Movies are a way of exploring those fears.

 

Joe Dante: [The Wicker Man is] about faith and how faith doesn’t really pan out for you. I wouldn’t say it’s on the side of the paganists, but it certainly comes close, because devout as the hero is, it doesn’t save him.

 

Michael Dougherty: The [E.G.] Marshall story [in Creepshow] does represent a lot of the sociopolitical things that were going on at the time. You know, him being a blatant racist character who is trying to live in this protective white bubble, literally, in his compound, and he’s terrified of other things getting into that world.

 

Chris Hardwick: Horror is the genre that gave us the bad good. Like there could be a really great horror movie and that’s fun to watch, but a really bad horror movie can be fun to watch, too.

 

Alexandra Billings: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; it’s breathtaking. So it’s unfortunate that it sits on a foundation of transphobia in a really big way, in a really blatant way. Because Dressed to Kill came out at a time when trans people were still thought of as illegal, making us murderers made perfect sense. It wasn’t a big stretch to think that we would go from jail to killing someone.

 

Eli Roth: It’s supposed to be shocking. you’re not supposed to watch and then move on to something else. You know, if you can get through Cannibal Holocaust, you see some of the most incredible, incredible filmmaking ever.

 

History Lessons: “Chilling Children” (Episode 2.5)

The kids are far from all right in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of HorrorHere is some of the fine guidance offered, on dealing with “Chilling Children”:

 

Kier-La Janisse: Everybody sympathizes with Carrie. The character of Carrie White continues to resonate, generation after generation, because she is sort of like this heroine character for anybody who has been marginalized, or bullied, or has had an oppressive parent.

 

Mick Garris: What could be more frightening than your child gone wrong [such as in We Need to Talk About Kevin]? I mean, how organic is that, how horrendous would that be? Because you’re there for at least eighteen years, man. However your kid comes out, you have a responsibility.

 

Eli Roth: The Bad Seed arrived in the mid-1950’s, one of the most conservative periods in American history. The generation that grew up during the Great Depression believed in strict discipline and frowned on selfishness, and Rhoda embodied their worst fears about their children.

 

Dana Gould: It’s the innate fear that parents have, that your child is here to replace you. They’re here because you’re leaving, and they’re going to take over. And the anxiety [as reflected in Village of the Damned] is that they’re not going to wait.

 

Don Mancini: What all these movies have in common is that they were about kids supernaturally punishing their enemies. And I think that is something that is extremely attractive to young people who feel that they have no control over their lives.

 

Milly Shapiro: You don’t want to punch a child; you don’t want to kick a child. They’re scary, but you’re like, ‘I can’t do anything, it’s an actual child.’ And so it’s a very unnerving thing to watch a scary child, or a child with a knife or anything like that.

 

Jason Middleton: It’s Alive dramatizes the idea, you know, of a monster kind of born, and it’s because of environmental factors, so it works in that whole eco-horror theme. But it’s also just very much about the idea that for men, childbirth is something over which they’re going to exercise little control, and, you know, what’s going to happen with this birth.

 

Ghastly Cast

One of the highlights of Halloween season (other than the fact that it is Halloween season) is the appearance of various horror-related articles in the media. Case in point: this pre-Halloween feature in Esquire that I just came across, “The Best Horror Movie Characters of All Time.” The piece, which broadly defines “character” and ranges beyond the monsters and heroes one might expect, makes for a fun read. It’s likely to keep you in the holiday spirit and inspire you to keep up with your horror-movie bingeing.

Take heart: just fifty-one weeks until next Halloween!

History Lessons: “Witches” (Episode 2.4)

The topic of last night’s episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror was perfectly suited to Halloween. Here is some of the wisdom conveyed about cinematic witchery:

 

Joshua Leonard: Without Heather’s monologue [in The Blair Witch Project], and without the weird framing of that shot, I don’t think the film works. I think that very iconic moment made the film and added so many stakes and so much relatability to the film. And Mike [Williams] and I had no idea that she filmed that until we saw it for the first time in the theater.

 

Eli Roth: The merciless Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most recognizable creations in cinema. Green-faced, hooked-nosed, pointed chin: she represents one of the oldest villains of folklore–the evil crone. And like many horror archetypes, she’s the product of cultural anxiety.

 

Rachel True: It’s an analogy for female sexuality. If you notice [in The Craft], as our powers get stronger, our skirts get shorter. Society’s always been scared of women and their sexuality, and teenagers, that’s their burgeoning sexuality when it hits. So the witchcraft is kind of an analogy for the fear we have of women coming into their power.

 

Ari Aster: One of the first images that came to me when I was developing Hereditary was that of the dollhouse. This artist who, you know, was making these very true to life replicas of the spaces in her life. That just felt like an appropriate metaphor for this film about a family that ultimately has no agency. Ultimately, they are like dolls in a dollhouse.

 

Scott Derrickson: Here’s this good person [Tomlinson in The Witch], who is being consumed by an evil that she cannot escape. She only wants to be good and only wants to do what is right. And the idea of being usurped by evil is a one of the scariest ideas you can think of, from a theological or religious point of view. But at the same time, the movie is very critical, in saying that this what religion and religious hysteria and religious repression also inevitably does to young adult minds.

 

Rob Zombie: I like the ending [of The Lords of Salem] a lot, because I’ve always been a big fan of Ken Russell movies, and I like crazy shit. Because I thought, if you have someone [the character Heidi] who their entire soul is being stripped away because they are being dragged to hell by witches and forced to give birth to Satan, well, what’s that gonna look like?

 

Ernest Dickerson: What Dario Argento was really doing [in Suspiria] was, he was making an adult fairy tale. It is amazing to see that his inspiration for it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. He wanted the color scheme of a Disney film. And he got it. It’s another externalization of the fears and the anxieties the main character’s going through.

 

Jennifer Moorman: It’s not common in other genres to see women as powerful and dangerous. And to watch them take back the power, and use it to break free, is really exciting.

 

History Lessons: “Body Horror” (Episode 2.3)

Some juicy nuggets from last night’s body-horror-themed episode of the docuseries Eli Roth’s History of Horror

 

Joe Hill: So in Hellraiser, who’s the monster, what is the menace? I think the menace is really obsession, you know, much more than the demons. You go with the demons when you can’t rise above your obsessions, your own fixation with the puzzle box. When you’ve turned away from your wife and into that unhealthy fixation.

 

Mick Garris: [David Cronenberg] had lost his mother to cancer and was experienced with seeing the decline of the human body from within, a revolt from within. And so much of his work is about a body in revolt, and changing, and turning septic and almost evil.

 

Dana Gould: Body horror is a meditation on the transitory nature of the human form. We all get old, we all decay. That’s true horror to people.

 

Katherine Isabelle: Walking around in a female body is terrifying. You’re a target, you’re an object, and I think that part of the reason why we have all these walls, is obviously to protect us.

 

Eli Roth: And that’s what the disease becomes in Cabin Fever. You’re with your best friends, but you’ve got to isolate them, or you’ve got to kill them, because whatever is inside them could get inside you. And suddenly you’re not seen as a human anymore. And I think there’s something very real about that. You know, when lepers have leprosy, what do we do, we isolate them. When SARS happened, when this disease you don’t understand–tent them off. People want to get out–too bad: epidemic, population control, can’t let them get out. There’s something really, really scary about that.

 

Eliza Skinner [on Society]: Obviously, it’s like all a metaphor about propriety and fitting in, and also capitalism, and having the upper class act as though they’ve got access to much finer things, when really, they have access to much more upsetting and debased things.

 

Eli Roth [closing commentary]: Sometimes disgusting, often disturbing, but always powerful, body horror films make us question our prejudices about physical difference, our attitudes about sex and gender, our fear of disease and contamination, and how much our appearance determines who we are. They confront us with the beauty and horror of being human.

History Lessons: “Monsters” (Episode 2.2)

Some quotable quotes from last night’s monster-focused episode of the AMC docuseries Eli Roth’s History of Horror:

Joe Dante: When you’re a kid, you want monsters, and the more monsters the better. And if they got zippers up their backs it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re monsters. Later, you get a little bit more discerning, and you start to realize that maybe the less you see the monster, the scarier he might be.

 

Eli Roth: Alien‘s dark view of labor relations was a challenge to the status quo. As was the film’s disturbing production design, which powerfully associated sex with death. H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs played on the audience’s deepest sexual anxieties.

 

Tananarive Due: [A Quiet Place is] such an immersive film, that even as an audience member, what you’re drawn in with is that you can’t make a sound. Even the people eating popcorn next to you are making you jump.

 

Quentin Tarantino: The true auteur of King Kong is Willis O’Brien. Because if you look at the original posters of King Kong, Kong is far more a monster. And he has teeth, almost like a saber-toothed tiger. Willis got rid of all the monstrous touches, and the whole idea was to make him as human as possible. And so we responded to Kong not as a monster, but as a true character.

 

David J. Skal: The atomic bomb brought World War II to an end, but on one level, it didn’t. It was just the beginning of new anxieties and new fears and the prospect of an even more terrifying war to come. This was where the very new and original fright films of the 1950’s came from. Atomic anxieties.

 

Andre Øverdal: As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, a writer, or whatever it is, you will be fed with emotions of the world you live in at the time. And it will come out somehow credibly. Definitely horror movies in general, and possibly also monsters more specifically, are a product of their world.

 

Dana Gould: [In the blood-test scene in The Thing] They are seeing who’s the monster. And that’s a beautiful analogy of, you know, life, the banality of evil. The monster could be sitting right here. Ted Bundy looked like a normal guy.

 

Barbara Muschietti: That’s what both It movies are: it’s about people living in fear and the horrible things we do as human beings. Pennywise is a representation of fear. That’s why we make movies. We want people to see those movies and try to understand that that’s the worst thing we can do, live in fear.

 

Fright Favorites (Book Review)

In his introductory essay to his latest book, Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, David J. Skal notes the concurrent emergence of both Hollywood and Halloween “as significant cultural fixtures” in the early 20th Century. Skal asserts: “Americans have always believed that a malleable identity is our birthright, that we all have the prerogative and power to become anyone or anything of our individual choice. Like Halloween, Hollywood is about dressing up and acting out all the possibilities of our mercurial national personality.”  From here, Skal sketches a brief cinematic history of Halloween, a terrific account that I only wish had gone on at greater length.

Skal devotes a chapter to each of the 31 films heralded by the book title. Since the book is produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, there is an emphasis on older films, but Skal does show good historical range, starting with Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and concluding with Get Out. Along the way, he covers holiday-centered films such as Halloween and Hocus Pocus. It should be pointed out that much more than a mere plot summary is offered in each chapter. Skal demonstrates his excellence as a film scholar, furnishing fine insight as well as a wealth of behind-the-scenes information. Anyone who has ever read Skal’s amazing study The Monster Show knows of the author’s knack for situating horror in its cultural context, and he does the same for the films considered here. Another fun feature of each chapter is the “If you enjoyed…you might also like…” sidebar sections, presenting quick accounts of related films (so really, readers are treated to the discussion of 62 films overall).

Admittedly, I bought this book mainly because of the byline on the cover, since I am a huge fan of Skal’s work (e.g., Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday, Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula). I fully expected another volume filled with enjoyable prose, but what I was not prepared for is what a gorgeously illustrated book this is. It brims with screen shots, publicity stills, and reproductions of movie posters, the various photos appearing in both black and white and vibrant color. Fright Favorites proves the quintessential coffee-table book for horror lovers, one they will want to proudly display not just in October but all year round.