The Darkest Heart author Dan Smith tells us the lessons he learned from Hitchcock’s big screen adaptation of Robert Bloch’s seminal thriller Psycho.
Norman Bates. The Bates Motel. The shower scene.
Those few words are enough to conjure the soft black and white tone of the film, the dramatic opening music, and, of course, the screeching violins. So many things about that film are iconic in the truest sense of the word; they are ingrained into our psyche. When Hitchcock bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s novel for just $9,000 and allegedly snapped up all remaining copies to avoid spoilers, he gave the world something new. Cinema changed.
Psycho changed me, too. Until I saw it for the first time, I was a huge fan of Hammer films. Dracula and Frankenstein were my thing, but Norman Bates opened my eyes. Within 46 minutes of watching Psycho, the main character had met her demise in one of the most memorable fictional death scenes ever committed to film, giving this new character the chance to step out from the shadows.
Norman is almost childlike in his shyness and eagerness to please. With his boyish good looks and his hesitant smile, he has a certain charm, and there is an inclination to feel sorry for him, dominated as he is by his mother. Even having watched this film more times than I can remember, I still feel sorry for Norman during those first scenes when he meets Marion Crane – even during the uncomfortable moments in the parlour, overlooked by the looming shadows of stuffed birds . . . ‘we all go a little mad sometimes’.
But beneath that charm, there’s something not quite right. Like a sugar-coated pill, we know that whatever is beneath the veneer is going to leave a bad taste. We see it in the moments when Marion Crane suggests that mother perhaps needs to go ‘. . . someplace’, and Norman’s smile falters. We see it when Norman’s hand hovers over the motel room keys, and when he slips the painting to one side to reveal the peephole.
And, of course, we see it in those final moments in the cellar, naked light bulb swinging erratically, mother’s eye sockets lightening and darkening. Then later when, head hanging, Norman looks up at the camera one last time and smiles . . . ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’
The film Psycho paved the way for other seminal horror films like Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth. In a shift from the book, it gave us the long-standing formula for scores of slasher films: sex equals death.
It also gave us something else. Without it, there might never have been The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Manhunt, Silence of the Lambs or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
For me, Psycho meant something new. Dracula and Frankenstein were out. Norman Bates showed me the normality. He showed me that monsters weren’t the monsters any more.
Norman showed me that people are the monsters.