The 25 best
of all time
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
Friday 22 October 2010 11.54 BST
uthor Robert Bloch, on whose novel Joseph Stefano's screenplay was based, described Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as embodying "the fear of the boy next door". The terror, for Bloch, lay in the fact that the killer "could be the person sitting next to you". Bloch had been inspired to write his potboiler (copies of which Hitchcock reportedly bought up to keep the end a surprise) by news reports about Ed Gein, the seemingly ordinary Wisconsin loner who was revealed to be a murderer and necrophile. Dubbed "the Wisconsin ghoul", Gein made ornaments and clothing from the skin of the dead and inspired a legacy of fictionalised screen shockers, ranging from the trashy Deranged to the epochal Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. But it was Anthony Perkins's maternally obsessed misfit in Psycho who most perfectly distilled the modern fear of the monster who looks just like you. "My name is Norman Bates," sang British synth combo Landscape in 1981, "I'm just a normal guy …" proving that Perkins's creation still had pop cachet two decades after his first appearance.
Dispute still rages as to the provenance and power of Psycho's notorious shower sequence, which has become perhaps the most iconic murder scene in the history of cinema. Designer Saul Bass's preparatory storyboards so closely detail every moment of the sequence that some have suggested he should share directorial credit with Hitchcock. Others argue that it is Bernard Herrmann's stabbing score, with its screeching atonal strings, which packs the real punch.
But it was the maestro's flair for carnivalesque showmanship that made Psycho headline news – from the unforgettably camp trailer in which Hitchcock led audiences around the "scene of the crime" before throwing back the shower curtain to reveal a screaming Vera Miles, to his much-publicised ruling that no one be allowed to enter the theatre once a performance of Psycho had begun. "Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes or ventilating shafts will be met by force," announced a cardboard lobby cut-out of Hitchcock, pointing sternly at his watch. "The entire objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy Psycho more."
Its edgy exploitation aesthetic and taboo-breaking "toilet flush" shot (even more controversial than the shower scene) have meant Psycho forged a template for the money-spinning slasher franchises that still thrive – or fester? – today. It directly inspired Halloween (which starred Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis) and Friday the 13th (in which the murderous mother-son relationship is sneakily reversed), and spawned a string of sequels including a TV movie that brought Bates's legacy into the direct-to-video age.
Groaning artworks followed too, from Gus Van Sant's allegedly post-modern colour-copy remake, to Douglas Gordon's puzzlingly feted installation 24 Hour Psycho, which simply slowed the appropriated film to a snail's pace. Hitchcock would never have been so pompous; he made Psycho fast and cheap (it cost a mere $807,000) to entertain a mainstream audience, using his regular TV crew and shooting in black-and-white to give the production a vérité news-footage feel. Many viewers still insist that the blood running down the plughole after Marion's murder is bright red, but it is the power of their imaginations that makes the brown chocolate syrup seem so. After half a century of terror, Psycho is still ensuring that no one feels safe in the shower.