24 August 2016



Most people are pretty clear about what their own favourite Hitchcock films are. Ask any Alfred Hitchcock fan for their Top Three favourite films and they'll rattle 'em off for you at the drop of a hat. My personal faves would be ROPE, PSYCHO, FRENZY, VERTIGO, THE BIRDS and REAR WINDOW. I sometimes change the order but the films remain the same.

I also love his first film, silent movie THE LODGER, and, to be honest, pretty much everything of his I've ever seen. He was a genius. Wanna argue with me? Yeah, didn't think so, haha.

I've only ever watched PSYCHO a few times in my life, believe it or not. I find it too genuinely frightening to watch too frequently. The first time I saw it, I was a greenhorn school-leaver, crazy about films but afraid of my own shadow. After a tough week of studying for exams, I'd stay up till all hours on Friday nights to watch the late film.

The rest of the family would be in bed and I'd thankfully have the place to myself. One Friday night the late film was PSYCHO, a psychological horror-thriller loosely based on the crimes of Wisconsin murderer and grave-robber Ed Gein. He had a deceased Mumsie who'd dominated him in life, he kept her room intact as a shrine to her and he minced about in her clobber. Sound like anyone else we know...?

PSYCHO changed the way I thought about films forever. It changed my life. Hardly a day's gone by since that first viewing that I haven't thought about it. Weird, huh...? 

Clearly, other people hold the same views on the subject because in 1992 the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry because the US Library of Congress deemed it 'culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.' This is, of course, a huge honour for the film that is considered to have kicked off the 'slasher' genre.

It was simultaneously the best but also the most frightening movie I'd ever seen in my life. When the climax came, by which I mean the grisly scene in the fruit cellar with a certain Mother, I literally ran from the TV room up to my bedroom, where I crawled under the covers and lay awake and shivering for the rest of the night. I was traumatised for weeks afterwards. I was too afraid to stay up for the film's dénoument and the bit where they explain things and wrap everything up. I didn't find out how it all ended for many years.

Years later, I read the superb novel on which the film is based. It filled in any gaps that were remaining, plus it had an advantage over the film in that I could always put it away for a bit if I got scared reading it. I own two copies of the book now. The covers are amazing. One has a bloody hand on it with the fingers splayed out against the glass of a shower stall. The other one features the lovely Janet Leigh in a pointy 'Fifties-style brassiére and an underslip. I think I like that one best.

Although I frequently wanted to, I could never bring myself to watch the film again until recently, but as I said I've probably thought about it every day since. That's one hell of an impact for a film to have. I think the Great Director (the greatest who ever lived, I might add) would be pleased to hear that. Or maybe he'd just accept it as his rightful due, haha.

The film is shot in black-and-white and has a fantastic, instantly recognisable score by Bernard Herrmann and a few much-parodied scenes. In THE SIMPSONS, for example, Baby Maggie hits Homer over the head in a spoof of the famous shower scene, and remember when Sideshow Bob is writing one of his I'm Coming To Kill You letters to Bart Simpson?

His surroundings are modelled on the creepy office adorned with stuffed birds at the Bates Motel. Coincidentally, that brilliant episode in which The Simpsons re-locate to Terror Lake to get away from Sideshow Bob (based on CAPE FEAR) is on SKY ONE as I type this.

And, of course, the relationship between Principal Seymour Skinner and his domineering (s)mother Agnes is hilariously based on that between Norman Bates and his dearest Mumsie.

'But Mother, that sailor suit doesn't fit me anymore...!'

The Bates Motel, which has itself become synonymous with any spooky, evil-looking, dark or
out-of-the-way establishment, is the setting for what many consider to be Hitchcock's cinematic masterpiece. It's run by social misfit Norman Bates, who lives there alone with his bad-tempered and controlling invalid mother. He has no life outside of the two M's (Motel and Mother), and he has one or two rather curious habits, which you'll see for yourself when you watch the movie.

Poor Marion Crane, a pretty blonde secretary from Phoenix, Arizona played by Janet Leigh, finds herself over-nighting at the Bates Motel in Fairvale after she does an ill-advised runner with forty thousand dollars belonging to a wealthy client of her boss's. She does it so that she and her lover, hardware store owner Sam Loomis from Fairvale, can be together at last. It proves to be the worst- and pretty much the last- decision she ever makes.

You see, sometimes people who check into the Bates Motel don't ever leave it, and I'll tell you this for nothing. It's not because of the fluffy towels, the comfy, louse-free pillows, the quality of the mattresses and the five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. Poor tired and confused Marion, all mixed up about what she's done, hasn't a notion of an idea of what she's let herself in for when she gratefully turns off her car engine outside the Bates Motel and steps out into the rain.

Anyway, Marion's disappearance brings a steady stream of unwanted traffic through the doors of Norman's motel. Marion's sister Lila is desperate to find her missing sibling, whether she's guilty of stealing the money or not. She just wants her Big Sis back safe and sound. She involves Marion's boyfriend in Fairvale, the aforementioned local hardware store owner Sam Loomis.

A private investigator called Milton Arbogast (what a brilliant name!), hired by Marion's boss, is also as keen as mustard to track down the missing woman. Who can tell them what happened to poor misguided Marion Crane? Can Norman Bates? Can his housebound elderly mother, whose silhouette we've clearly seen at one of the upstairs windows? You'll see, dear readers, you'll see...

Anthony Perkins is fantastic as messed-up psychopath Norman Bates. There are three excellent sequels in which he's a lot older. The original film is the only one in which he appears as a really young man and he's actually as cute as a button, standing around all lanky and lean and constantly munching casually on candy. From what I've heard, the candy-chewing was Anthony Perkins's own idea. He's so good, so natural and so realistic in the role that it's no wonder he became a little bit typecast afterwards...!

Janet Leigh and her equally famous horror actress daughter Jamie Lee Curtis of HALLOWEEN fame are so alike that I actually shed a few tears watching the lovely Ms. Leigh do a superb job of acting in her biggest ever role. She was a fantastic actress and a beautiful and gracious lady to boot.

Audiences at the time of the film's release were shocked that Hitchcock did something rather wickedly naughty and possibly unprecedented to his leading lady before the film was even half over, but that's Mr. Hitchcock for you. He liked to shock and he normally got the result he was after.

Hitchcock urged the audiences of the day not to spoil the film for other viewers by revealing the film's gruesome secrets to them, that's how big a deal PSYCHO was in its day. I hope I'm not giving away too much by telling you that Janet Leigh eschewed showers forever after acting in the film.

I can't say I blame her. As she said herself, that's probably one of the places where we're at our most vulnerable. Most open to a visit from a knife-wielding maniac, haha. I'd say Ms. Leigh wasn't the only person who decided to take baths instead after watching the movie. Facing the bathroom door, of course, with the shower curtains wide-open, and the poker close at hand for the purposes of self-defence...!

The iconic outline of the Bates Motel against a dark December sky is one that tends to be never forgotten, once you've seen it. The interiors of the Bates home, too, are so starkly effective that I've remembered them my whole life. In addition to the shower scene and any shot with the stairs in it (My word, Mr. Hitchcock gives good stairs!), I have just two more words for you, dear readers. Fruit cellar...


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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