Psycho starts with sex, or as close to sex as a mainstream movie could skirt in 1960. Marion Crane is in a hotel room, in her underwear, with her boyfriend, and their dialogue indicates they aren’t married and it’s lunchtime.
If you have sex in a horror movie, you die. It’s the first rule. And Psycho is raw, pure horror. It cultivates karmic culpability – a pious sense that the main character deserves to be punished, like so many of us, and then cranks it further when she steals $40,000 from her boss. Double sin!
A haunted-as-hell-seeming house looms above Bates Motel’s empty cabins, where the cruel gods of horror see fit to strand our doomed sinner. Norman Bates bounds, childlike, out of that horrible house and into our lives. From here the movie spins unique, his fractured psyche so strong it twists the plot schizophrenic. What other film kills the character we’ve followed since the beginning, halfway through? Then another shocking murder and we jump to our third protagonist. The first time you watch Pyscho there’s no knowing what happens next, because while it embraces genre tropes it doesn’t conform to a formula. (Ab)Norman murders main characters. No one is safe.
And this monster taps real fear. Psycho killers exist; if you get lost, one might stab you. Bates is tame, in fact, compared to his inspiration – the true story of Ed Gein, a necrophiliac grave robber who kept body parts as trophies.
Psycho was the legend Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, and he clearly relishes spinning some of the trademarks he became known for. He liked to put blondes in danger… well, here he stabs one with a huge knife 100 times and displays her corpse. He liked subversive McGuffins (objects driving plot)… well, here a stack of money is not only not the motivation for the titular psycho, he doesn’t even know it exists.
What better genre for a timeless artist to toy with? Taboos like sex and gore have gone vastly further on film since 1960, yet Psycho remains thrilling, a meticulous splatter as cold and damp as the grave.