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Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition
Release Date(s)1960 (October 19, 2010)
Believe it or not, in the four years I’ve been running the Hell Plaza Oktoberfest, this is the first time I’ve included a Hitchcock film. If this comes as a surprise, it probably shouldn’t. After all, Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense, not a Master of Horror. Of the sixty-plus films he directed, only a few can truly be claimed by the genre, including The Birds, Frenzy (at least I’d argue for it), and the early silent The Lodger. But even if Hitchcock had never made these other films, his place in the horror pantheon would be secure thanks to Psycho, one of the most well-known and best-loved horror movies of all time.
It’s impossible for a modern audience to experience Psycho in quite the same way as folks back in 1960. The story of Norman Bates and his mother is now too familiar. Anthony Perkins’ performance is cemented in our minds. The Bates Motel, the house and the notorious shower scene are all now too iconic. We can understand how shocking it must have been to see a star of Janet Leigh’s stature killed off so early in the picture, but understanding is a far cry from the visceral thrill of being thrown for such a loop. In the hands of any other filmmaker, Psycho probably would have stopped picking up new admirers about thirty years ago.
Of course, there has never been another filmmaker quite like Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho may no longer have the power to scare that it once did but its ability to thoroughly engross an audience is as strong as ever. The first twenty minutes or so are an elaborate bit of misdirection. We all know what’s going to happen to Janet Leigh at this point but Hitchcock stages her impulsive theft of $40,000 so well that we still get wrapped up in the story. It’s almost possible to forget what movie we’re watching until that familiar neon Bates Motel sign appears through her rain-streaked windshield. But once Anthony Perkins appears on screen, there’s no doubt that the movie belongs to him. Perkins could chew the scenery with the best of them but what stands out in Psycho is the remarkable subtlety he brings to the role of Norman. His body language and nervous tics mean different things depending on how much you know about the movie. It’s an amazing performance and while it’s unfortunate that Psycho typecast him for much of his career, Perkins made peace with it and embraced the fact that he’d never escape the shadow of Norman Bates.
Universal has taken some lumps from fans over their treatment of catalog titles on Blu-ray, prompting more than a few to take a wait-and-see approach to their release slate. Fortunately, no one should be disappointed by their handling of Psycho. Video quality is rock solid. Light film grain is evident throughout but overall, the image is rich and detailed, with wonderfully inky shadows and pleasing grays. The sound has been upgraded for the first time to a 5.1 DTS-HD mix that makes Bernard Herrmann’s classic score sound better than ever. The remix is highly respectful of the original version but if you don’t trust it, the original mono track is also included. The disc includes almost everything from Universal’s Legacy Series edition released in 2008. The sole omission is the Lamb to the Slaughter episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Personally, I don’t consider that a deal-breaker. It was a nice bonus but its connection to Psycho is tangential. In its place is a new featurette called Psycho Sound examining the creation of the new 5.1 audio. Other extras include an excellent commentary by author Stephen Rebello, the documentary The Making of Psycho, a featurette of famous fans called In The Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy, audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s legendary interviews with Hitchcock, newsreel footage on the film’s release (it’s actually more of a promotional sizzle reel than a newsreel), Saul Bass’ storyboards for the shower scene, a with-and-without-music comparison of the shower scene, and extensive archives of posters, behind-the-scenes photos, trailers, and lobby cards. All in all, it’s an impressive and fairly comprehensive package.
Fifty years later, Psycho remains an enduring, endlessly fascinating classic. For some, it’s a film to be studied. Not only do Hitchcock’s techniques continue to inspire filmmakers everywhere, but actors would do well to examine Anthony Perkins’ work closely, just as composers pore over every detail of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant music. More importantly, it’s a film that continues to entertain audiences even today. No, we aren’t getting the same thing out of it that 1960 audiences did. But now that the shock value has worn off, we’re able to get something a lot more.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke