Saturday, September 04, 2010


Growing up I absolutely loathed horror films. Most of them seemed asinine, poorly crafted cinema whose sole purpose was to offer cheap thrills and perhaps shock and gore. As my interest in cinema grew I thought it was my duty to check out some of the all-time classics of the genre, even though horror still had no appeal to me. So I dutifully sat through William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and – of course – Alfred Hitchcock's legendary Psycho, the film that almost singlehandedly created the modern horror film.

What struck me about all of these films was the immaculate craft and technical expertise that was so apparent on the screen. All of these films are expertly made and immensely powerful... at least with regards to technical filmmaking and emotional potency. Every shot, every camera movement, every edit in all of these films is precisely calibrated to create the maximum effect in the audience. That effect, of course, is primarily one of jolting you out of your seat, scaring you with sharp pangs of horrific violence and madness.

I have grown to love horror films a great deal. I find genre, when it is well done, among the most interesting offerings in both literature and cinema. A good horror film touches on ancient symbols and myths that have been with us for centuries. It reflects deep philosophical questions and makes us see ourselves more clearly through the things we fear. And, as with all good genre films, horror movies are often wonderful fun, filled with repeated themes and tropes that (paradoxically) grow more fresh and interesting the more we are exposed to them. The first time we see a mad scientist in a movie, the camera tracking ominously through a dimly lit laboratory where strangely shaped beakers filled with monstrous poisons cast long shadows on the wall, is a strange and exciting experience indeed. When we see it for the hundredth time it is just as fun and exciting and also filled with added weight and meaning as it reflects all those other films and stories we have seen, read and shared throughout the years. To appreciate genre is to become sensitive to a certain kind of language that can convey a great deal through a single image or line of dialogue.

An interesting development of my growing love for horror is the fact that the more I appreciate the genre the less impressed I am with the three aforementioned classics of horror cinema: Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and – especially – Hitchcock's Psycho. I find all three of these films outrageously overrated not only as works of art but (perhaps especially) as good horror. In order to better understand some reasons for this growing antipathy towards these films I would like to offer a few thoughts on Hitchcok's Psycho

But before we lose the entirety of our readership (all four of you) and I get struck by lightning sent from the movie gods, proclaiming their wrath for my blasphemy against a member of the cinema pantheon, I need to make two things clear: First of all, Psycho is not a bad film. Not by a long shot. By saying that it is overrated I am primarily referring to its status as being generally considered among the greatest films ever made. The film appeared on the AFI's Top 100 American Films of All Times list and generally sits among the highest rated films in reductionist realms such as RottenTomatoes and the IMDB user ratings. Second, Alfred Hitchcock was a great director, an artist whose technical mastery was usually in the service of more primal, intuitive artistic faculties, a lover and master of genre and exciting cinema, someone who could make your heart beat faster, make you forget that you are breathing, while also creating a tapestry of interesting characters, ideas and stories. His films The 39 Steps and North By Northwest remain among my favorites, wonderful thrillers whose sense of adventure, comedy and suspense remain among the greatest accomplishments of genre in either literature or film.

Yet it is Psycho which is often named as Hitchcock's best, perhaps primarily due to the fact that it remains one of the most influential films ever made. And I would certainly not dispute this, the film has had an incredible influence on the cinematic language and on pop-culture in general. It's influence may even extend beyond the realms of entertainment and art into our sociological understanding and awareness of the horrific phenomenon of the serial killer. Yet the fact remains that influence can be either positive or negative or, as is usually the case, a little bit of both. It therefore seems clear that any thoughtful analysis of the film needs to take into account these varied influences and view them in light of the films actual aesthetic qualities (it is important to realize that the two are separate).

First of all, we have the technical element of the filmmaking. Psycho moved the cinematic language forward by light-years, utilizing techniques in editing, camera movement and direction that have become so standard today that it can be difficult to grasp how immensely powerful they must have been when first seen in 1960. The quick edits, jolting score and imaginative (and highly voyeuristic) camera angles and movement all create an astounding sense of unease and fear. Violence seems to always be just around the corner, or through the nearest peephole. Additionally, the fact that Hitchcock famously killed off Janet Leigh (who, up until about the 40 minute mark is ostensibly playing the lead character in the film) made audiences realize that no one was safe.

Second, the film was among the first to tackle the modern phenomenon of the serial killer. Made only three years after the arrest of Wisconsinite Ed Gein, the film played on the growing paranoia and existential alienation that were the direct results of cold war suspicions and the spiritual isolation of modern life. Monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula had become outdated relics of a simpler, more innocent past, replaced by the most horrifying monster of all: Your next door neighbour.

Third, the film eschewed a traditional narrative structure by switching the primary point of view midway through the film when Leigh's character, Marion Crane, is killed. From then on we primarily follow Vera Miles (playing Marion's sister) and John Gavin, two characters that even the most forgiving viewer must admit are about as dull and lifeless as a documentary on Serbian basket weaving. The great Martin Balsam gives a good turn as Det. Arbogast but his role is a thankless one at best – though his death is among the more spectacular murder scenes in the history of cinema. What is so fascinating about this lack of a central protagonist or “hero” in the second half of the film is the fact that Hitchcock (and screenwriter Joseph Stefano) are draping a thin veil over the fact that the story being told is really Norman Bates'. Even though the Hayes production code had lost much of its power at the time the filmmakers could have never gotten the film released had they explicitly told the story from Bates' point of view, so the lackluster protagonists of the second half serve as a necessary diversion. Poor Marion Crane primary role in the film is to get the viewer to the Bates motel so Hitchcock can begin to lead us on a descent into the depths of depravity.

I think it is worth pointing out a few critiques of these (admittedly powerful) influential elements which in turn reflect on some problems with the filmmaking itself. Before doing so I just want to remind readers that I am in no way trying to lessen anyone's enjoyment of the film or “convince” those who love Psycho that it is not worth watching. This is simply the way in which I have increasingly been reading the film in the past few years. That being said, I do not think that one's reading of a film is an entirely subjective affair or simply a set of opinions. If one can give an account (a logos) of one's opinion than it can illumine other people's viewing of the film in question. I would therefore like to ask anyone who disagrees with this reading to offer their own account of why I may be misunderstanding or misinterpreting some of these aesthetic elements.

Let's start with the technical influence. With regards to the technical brilliance of the film, it simply cannot be denied. Yet it is important to remember that technical virtuosity is only a small part of great art. True artists who train every day and who put blood, sweat and tears into their craft are usually not attempting to achieve only a mastery of the form per se but rather the ability to use it to convey something very deep rooted and beautiful. An obvious parallel in music is the fact that there are probably a great many guitarists who are more technically adapt than someone like Robert Johnson (Steve Vai and The Edge from U2 to name two) but he is nonetheless among the greatest guitarists of all times. What he lacks in virtuosity (which is considerable, don't get me wrong) he makes up for in something much more primal and aesthetically important, namely a kind of transcendent, artistic vision and a burning passion to convey a very dark and tortured view of the world, a view that nonetheless offers something transformative, hopeful and beautiful. To push this analogy further, Miles Davis is a technical master of his instrument, and of music in general, who only really came into his own as an artist once he moved past attempting to become the most technically brilliant bebop player in jazz and instead started developing the language of cool where his subtlety and nuance could really shine. In that setting his mastery of the form could be used as a means, not an end, to convey an artistic vision that is among the most wonderful in 20th century music. Later on, Miles would fall back into focusing too much on pushing the boundaries of his craft, focusing more on the techné of his craft rather than the aletheia (truth as an unveiling).

Hitchcock's Psycho is, in my view, more akin to the latter part of Miles Davis' career, more rightfully renowned for showmanship and technical mastery than an attempt to create an organic, exciting work of art. One indication that this is the case with a particular work of art(be it a film or a piece of music) is that the audience takes a complete back seat while the artist flexes his muscles. The greatest art is always a kind of deep communion between artist and audience where the artist exposes him or herself in a very vulnerable way. The most obvious failure of this communion is when the artist uses his skills and talents to literally manipulate the audience, almost like a puppeteer pulling on the strings. This is most reprehensible and loathsome when a work of art is preachy, overtly didactic, close-minded. Yet it can also happen in more subtle ways, as in the case of Psycho, where the object is not so much to preach but to experiment on the audience, to see how far they can be pushed, how high they can be made to jump out of their chairs, how queasy their stomachs can get. This is, in large part, my main criticism of a great deal of modern filmmakers, people such as David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan, all of whom are incredible technical masters who seem primarily interested in pushing the buttons of their audience members, pulling emotional strings with artistic tricks rather than to convey something truthful and honest. Such filmmaking obscures truth and literally creates a kind of internal strife within us, pushing us towards sentimentalism which in turn leads to a coarse and cruel spirit.

For all its influence and technical innovation Psycho is repeatedly guilty of bashing its viewer over the head with images and music so intense that there is no room for any kind of meeting between filmmaker and audience. The effect of a good genre film should be a kind of shared mystery, a joyful, even gleeful sharing of ideas, stories and experiences. The effect of Psycho is nothing like this, nor is it intended to be. The main purpose of the film seems to be to beat its audience into submission, to make you feel overwhelmed, overpowered and exhausted.

Take, for example, the murder of Marion Crane, halfway through the film, done with such precision yet such callousness. The fact that Hitchcock takes so long to bring her to the motel, to set up her character, her back story, to make us care about her, is all done so that those few short seconds when she is butchered have the maximum impact. This is one of the main reasons why I have, in later years, started to appreciate John Carpenter's Halloween more than its obvious primary influence since Carpenter seems to actually care about his main female protagonist, played by Jamie Lee Curtis.

Which brings me to the second issue, that of the film's immersion into the mind of a serial killer, one of the first such engagements in the history of film. Even though it is good and interesting that horror films started taking the phenomenon of the serial killer seriously after Psycho, we should not underestimate to what extent the genre had already done so before the film was made. The fact is that the monster films of earlier decades (and those made after Hitchcock's film) are not simply fantasy tales that serve as escapist entertainment. Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman are not just fantastical creatures on the screen that have no bearing on our reality. If they were they wouldn't be scary and we certainly wouldn't be as interested in them as we are. These monsters were, and are, reflections of what is dark and horrifying in our own psyche, they touch on deep rooted myths and subconscious fears that have haunted us through centuries. To think that Psycho all of a sudden made horror films psychologically and spiritually pertinent is simply wrong. I would even venture to say that the old horror and monster films of the 30's, 40's and 50's were actually much more nuanced and deep when it came to exploring the dark recesses of the soul then the slasher films that followed in the wake of Mr. Bates. The primary reason for this is that it does not seem that Hitchcock was even remotely interested in Norman Bates as a character. He is, rather, a kind of a pathetic spectacle utilized only insofar as he can touch cords of taboo and disgust in audience members, representing deep-seated fears of homosexuality, oedipal desires, voyeurism and impotence, yet without any attempt on the filmmakers part to understand or explore these issues and instead using them for intense jolts.

Finally, Psycho represents a paradigm shift in horror for reasons both good (albeit with the above-mentioned caveats) and bad. The bad being primarily the fact that horror films, following in the wake of Psycho, seem to have become increasingly mean-spirited and devoid of any artistic joy. This may be something of a stretch and I fully grant my readers their grain of salt here, but I see a direct line running from Psycho to the pathetic, gratuitous torture-porn of the past few years, along with the exploitative filth masquerading as horror that dominated much of the 70's and 80's (I spit on your grave and Last House on the Left to name a couple). Such films are not only terrible art and a poor attempt at entertainment but they literally appeal to the basest, lowest elements of our nature, much like pornography does.

In no way am I saying that Psycho itself should be mentioned in even the same breath as such film. But the sense of discovery and fun (!) that one associates with good horror seems to be increasingly replaced by meanness and cruelty in the wake of of Hitchcock's film. There has been a lot of great horror since 1960, of course, but sometimes I wonder how much of its quality is thanks to the influence of Psycho on the genre and how much is in spite of it.

If any readers disagree with this reading and can offer a sensitive account of why the film is rightfully heralded as an artistic masterpiece I would greatly appreciate any input. The object of a site like this is, after all, to learn and to deepen our appreciation of art through dialogue.


ross charles said...

A thoughtful assessment, and one that I'd say I have no qualms with. I think you are particularly spot-on in what you say about the artist manipulating the audience. You had me thinking of Inception before you even mentioned Nolan, and I think the accusation is true of Hitchcock in this case. Like you, I enjoyed and appreciate many aspects of Psycho, but seeing it twice was enough (though I've seen it more), whereas I can watch NbNw over and over. I found the same to be true with Rosemary's Baby the 2nd time around: the anticipation was gone, leaving what primarily felt like a viewing exercise.

agust symeon said...

You're actually pointing to a very interesting subject, one which we (or someone) should write about, namely how important "rewatchability" is when it comes to assessing the quality of a film. I think it matters quite a bit. Films that I can watch over and over and that get better each time I see them have some indiscernible element that the films I mentioned in this article do not.

That being said, it's interesting how film and music have this element while other art forms like literature and theater do not (or at least to a lesser extent). I will read my favorite poems repeatedly but I'm not necessarily inclined to be repeatedly rereading my favorite novels.

In any case, something worth thinking about. Thanks for the comment.

Haukur said...

You'll have to excuse Agust. He has poor eyesight and therefore disqualified as a movie critic.

Anonymous said...

At first I do apologize for the intrusion. It was just ... I was wondering about the extraordinary connection between Beck's Sea Change and Life After God by Douglas Coupland.

By some means I thought this connection would be appreciated on this site.

That is all.
And I do apologize for the inconvenience. If you on the other hand will not accept my apologies ... well, so it goes.

agust symeon said...

Hmm... Haven't read Life After God in eons and am not an authority on Sea Change by Beck. But I will say this: That connection is, in fact, extraordinary. Cosmic, even. It may even hold the key to the very logos of the universe, the innermost, creative principle of everything that exists. I encourage everyone to explore this further.