Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is famous for changing the expectations of thriller and horror audiences around the globe. Hitchcock changed the rules for thriller cinematography in several ways when he shot this low-budget film that became a huge success at the box office.
Fans of thriller and horror movies who haven't seen the film need to put this on the top of their must-see lists. Fans and newcomers alike should watch carefully for the following innovations.
Psycho addressed such taboo topics as mentally unstable mother-son relationships, psychosis, the violent murder of innocent people and schizophrenia. The thinly veiled nudity in the shower scene was shocking for the time. The concept of Norman Bates impersonating his mother, and believing he really was his mother as he committed his heinous crimes, was risky for the time, yet it was received with awe and appreciation.
Hitchcock tackled several other on-screen taboos: Sam and Marion are shown in bed together as lovers. We see a toilet flushing when Marion's notes are destroyed. The word "transvestite" is used. Although these seem like trivial things, they were shocking to audiences in 1960.
Critics at the time said the film was too gory. Audiences also found the gore appalling, but they liked what they saw. People lined up to see the film and to be scared out of their wits.
Psycho opened the door for two important movements in American cinema. One was the gore-filled shocker, exemplified by Herschell Gordon Lewis in films such as Blood Feast, and later perfected by George Romero and Wes Craven in films like Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left.
Psycho also gave rise to gritty, realistic motion pictures that didn't shy away from the more controversial or unpleasant aspects of life. This attitude was echoed throughout the late '60s and early '70s in films such as Easy Rider and The French Connection.
Violation of Traditional Wisdom
Filmmakers in the 1960s still used a basic formula to create successful movies: put the protagonist in escalating danger, but make sure the protagonist is safe at the end, or doesn't die until the last shot of the film. Hitchcock shocked audiences and film critics alike by killing off his protagonist less than 30 minutes into the film.
By violating this basic rule, Hitchcock destroyed the safety that could be found in audience expectations. If the main character is dead and the film's just starting, what other unpleasant surprises are in store? Few directors have gone to this extreme since, although William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. is a notable exception.
Brilliant Shot Sequences
Hitchcock chose to film in black and white, even though color film was all the rage, because he believed it would cut down the impact of the gore enough to make the film more emotionally accessible. He used clever cinematography techniques, such as extreme close-ups on the dead protagonist's open eye and tight shots inside the shower, to prolong the suspense and horror of the shower scene. Hitchcock used a 50mm lens on 35mm cameras to make the film appear as it would to the normal human eye.
Low Budget, High Thrills
Hitchcock managed to film Psycho on a budget of less than $850,000. Both of the movie's stars, Janet Leigh and Anthony Hopkins, accepted their roles for far less than normal pay. Hitchcock found many ways to reduce costs, such as using sets from other movies and hiring a previously contracted film production crew, proving a top-rate movie could be produced on a budget.