Saturday, February 13, 2016

Psycho: Mother of Modern Horror

There's no shortage of movie classics hitting the big five-oh this year. Consider The Apartment, Breathless (see post below), Spartacus, and Psycho, that mother of modern horror.

Psycho: Mother of Modern Horror

Janet Leigh in "Psycho"
Janet Leigh in "Psycho"

There's no shortage of movie classics hitting the big five-oh this year. Consider The Apartment, Breathless (see post below),  Spartacus, and Psycho, that mother of modern horror.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film updated Gothic terror for a new generation, substituting a stripped-down motel for the haunted house -- and then throwing in a haunted house for the classicists. (Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that compositionally he liked the vertical block of the Gothic house next to the horizontal block of the motel, a juxtaposition that has the architectural effect of putting  1860 next to 1960.)

The story is simplicity itself: A moral crime (Marion Crane's adultery) is compounded by a felony (a robbery, committed in order to finance her life with her married lover) and as she worries about getting caught by the cops, she gets caught up in someone else's crime. An unsettling aspect of the film is its eerie quiet: Hitchcock described it as a "half-silent" picture, without dialogue for a full two reels.

"Much of its power comes from Bernard Herrmann's music, a score as iconic as the film itself, wrote Rider University professor Jack Sullivan in a splendid piece in last week's Wall Street Journal, where he argues that "The shrieking dissonance of 'The Murder,' surely the most imitated and instantly recognizable film cue, is the cinema's primal scream."

The reshaping of Robert Bloch's novel -- influenced by news reports of serial killer Ed Gein, whose horrific acts likewise influenced the stories of Halloween and Silence of the Lambs -- was left to Joe Stefano, the Philadelphia-born songwriter and screenwriter who would later produce The Outer Limits. "I solved the Marion Crane problem, Stefano told me in 1993. "In the book, she's killed on page 20 and you don't know or care about her. So I created this fundamentally nice girl who steals $40,000." Certainly it didn't hurt that Marion Crane was played by Janet Leigh, reprising her A Touch of Evil part of a lady trapped in a motel room. This demure actress with a centerfold body excited both audience sympathy and the pornographic imagination.

In Sullivan's essay, the late Stefano says that Herrman's music transformed the movie that Hitchcock thought of releasing to television -- into an opera.

Agreed? Your thoughts about other scores that had a similar transformative power on a movie? Alternatively, do you think Hitchcock broke with horror tradition? How?



Film Critic
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Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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