Psycho is one of the most well-known films of all time, and for good reason. Directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, the film was based on a novel by Robert Bloch that, in turn, was loosely based on the case of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who was charged with the murder of his own mother, and was known as a graverobber and cross-dresser. (Ed Gein would become the inspiration for many other horror films, most notably The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.)
The film starts with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) having a tryst with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). He cannot marry her because of his many outstanding debts, so Marion takes $40,000 from the company she works for and hits the road. On the way, she pulls in to a roadside motel for the night, where she meets a violent end at the hands of an unseen killer. A week later, Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), reaches out to Sam, worried about her sister. The pair’s investigation into Marion’s disappearance leads them to the Bates Motel, the proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and his bizarre relationship with Mother.
Psycho received mixed reviews upon its initial release, with many critics finding the film to be “gimmicky” or too lowbrow for what they’d come to expect from a Hitchcock film. British critic C.A. Lejeune walked out of a screening of Psycho and allegedly left her post as film critic to The Observer over it. However, many critics re-evaluated the film after its commercial success and popularity with the public. The film went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, and Janet Leigh won a Golden Globe for her supporting role. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1993, made countless “best films” lists, and yielded four sequels, a “shot for shot” remake, and a TV series that ran for five seasons.
Hitchcock’s film was so indelible that its influence is still felt today. These are six of the most important gifts Psycho left on the film industry.
Psycho was the first film to enforce screening schedules and not allow in latecomers.
In the early days of film, theaters would play a film on a loop, all day long. A ticket to the show allowed you to enter the theater whenever you wanted and stay as long as you desired. This was not going to work for Hitchcock, who had stocked Psycho with twists and turns. He refused to allow theaters to screen Psycho unless they enforced a start time for each screening and disallowed late entries. Theaters were reticent to comply, fearing they would lose money, but Hitchcock was a big enough theatrical draw to convince theaters to give the new format a try. Instead of a decrease in attendance, theater owners saw lines around the block and, suddenly, they were making a lot more money. A new business model was born that continues to this day — though that model may be shifting again due to the coronavirus' impact.
They killed off the “star” of the film in the first act
Janet Leigh was the “big name” attached to Psycho. So it surprised the audience when she was killed off in the first act. While this device did not become a common one in future films, it was deployed with a few notable examples. Perhaps the best known was Drew Barrymore in Scream. Wes Craven’s love letter to horror films promoted Barrymore in the movie posters and trailers, yet killed her in the opening sequence. Other examples of the big name getting killed off halfway through the movie include Ryan Reynolds in Life and Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea.
An early example of a slasher film
While Black Christmas (1974) is considered the first modern slasher film, and the film that gave birth to classics like Halloween, Psycho is an early example of the subgenre. Norman Bates could be considered the first costumed killer. Though he doesn’t wear a mask like Jason or Michael, he does dress in a full “Mother” costume to commit his murders.
It also encouraged the “splatter” film
The Hays Production Code was set up in the early days of the United States film industry, in 1934, as a way to self-censor, thereby prevent government interference, which would have likely been far more strict. But by 1960, the Production Code had mostly fallen by the wayside (and was completely abandoned in the late 1960s, replaced by the MPAA). Hitchcock, well versed in controversial topics, was not afraid to show things like a woman in a bra, and two lovers sharing a passionate kiss in a bed. Of course, the infamous “shower scene” was considered gory back then. Utilizing chocolate sauce for blood and knives stabbing into melons to replicate the sound of knives penetrating flesh, the shower scene was quite shocking at the time. Psycho was both a financial and critical success. Three years later, Blood Feast, considered the first splatter film, directed by the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, was released. Many critics believed that Psycho paved the bloody way for Blood Feast and others.
Psycho was the first film to show a toilet flushing on screen.
Thanks to the Production Code, flushing toilets were an on-screen no-no. Not only was Marion shown flushing the toilet, the audience saw the contents of the toilet. It was just a torn-up note though (to this day, no one really wants to see anything else in there).
Psycho inspired the first documentary about a single scene in a film
By now, we are used to feature-length documentaries about the making of certain classic films – or what they could have been. Room 237, Jodorowsky's Dune, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, Lost in La Mancha, and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy are just a few recent examples. But 78/52 is the first documentary to concentrate on a single scene in a film. The documentary, directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, focuses on the infamous “shower scene.” The title refers to the number of set-ups in the scene (78) and the number of cuts (52). What other film has a three-minute scene that could hold enough interest to generate a 91-minute documentary?